I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem all my life. I don’t remember much of my childhood, but the memories I do have are mostly negative. I remember walking home from elementary school, my stomach in knots. There was a much older girl* who would wait for me to pass by, then she would taunt me as I did. I have no idea why she got off on picking on me, but I dreaded the three blocks I had to walk home from school. She wasn’t there every day or even most days, but in some ways, that made it worse. I never knew when I’d see her, which meant every walk home was a chore for the first block. I don’t know how long this went on until one day, I just burst into tears as she yelled whatever it was she chose to yell my way. She immediately stopped making fun of me and wiped away my tears, saying I had pretty hair. She didn’t bother me after that, and to this day, I have no idea why my crying affected her so much. Thinking back, my guess would be that she had an unhappy life herself and took it out on me. My crying reminded her that I was a human being and not a punching bag. Alternately, she might have thought she was teasing me good-naturedly, that we were buddies of some sort, and was mortified when I started crying.
I didn’t have many friends in elementary school. I was always the weird kid who’d rather read than play. In addition, I grew up in the suburbs in Minnesota in the eighties, so I was one of only a few nonwhite faces at my school. I don’t remember many instances of outright racism except the occasion chant of ‘Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these’ with the accompanying pulling of the eyelids, but nor do I remember many overt expressions of friendship, either. I was a lonely kid, fat, awkward, highly intelligent, and hiding a dysfunctional home life. I felt like an outsider for so many reasons, and I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with me. I wouldn’t want to be friends with me if I weren’t me, so why should anyone else? I spent as much time in my own head as I possibly could because I hated the world around me. I was seven when I realized I would die one day. It simultaneously terrified and relieved me. I couldn’t imagine being alive, and, yet, I couldn’t imagine living for very much longer.
Anyone who’s suffered from low self-esteem knows what I’m talking about. That feeling that nobody likes you, that if anyone talked to you, it’s because they felt sorry for you. You can be in a crowd of people and still feel alone. If there’s a group of people and they’re looking at you, you’re sure they’re talking about you. Every interaction is agony because all you can think about is all the ways you can fuck up the interaction. Even going to the grocery store can be fraught with peril. “Am I taking too much time at the deli? Getting too many things?” “Make sure you don’t block the aisle with your fat ass or people can’t get by.” “All I’m buying is junk food. The cashier is going to give me the stank eye.” “Why does that cashier always glare at me when I go to his checkout station? What did I do to upset him?” This is in a fucking ten minute shopping trip. During my darkest depressions, I couldn’t even make it to the store, in part because of these worries racing through my brain coupled with the debilitating lassitude that I often experienced.
I knew I had depression by the time I was in my early twenties. Crippling, chronic, deep depression. Some days, I considered it an accomplishment if I managed to brush my teeth, let alone leave the house. I was involved with Theater Mu during that time, and it amazes me now that I actually managed to make it to rehearsals, let alone to the performances. The thing is, I was sometimes a functioning depressive–meaning I could pretend like I was a normal person. That never lasted long, however, and I would revert to curling up on my couch for hours on end, not doing anything other than barely existing. You’d never know it to look at me because I’m really good at hiding anything negative from other people, but I walked to the edge of the precipice more times than I can count. The only reason I didn’t kill myself was because I was convinced that what was on the other side was worse than this life. Also, I was too much of a chicken to do it. As much as I hated life, as much as I wanted to die, I just couldn’t do it.
It took me until I was in my thirties to realize that I also had anxiety issues. I’ve had panic attacks and not known what they were. Ironically, since I’ve learned more about them, I rarely have them. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier that always being nervous and on edge was something other than depression, but once I realized it, I was mad because it was one more thing I had to deal with. Depression on its own was bad enough, why did I have to add anxiety to it? Of course, it made sense that because I had experienced a lot of trauma in my childhood, I’d have to grapple with the ramifications long afterwards, but it didn’t seem fair to me. I’d look at the (seemingly) happy people around me with envy and something nearing hatred. Why did they get to enjoy their lives while I had to struggle every day? One of the reasons I stopped believing in God** was because I couldn’t reconcile a loving god with what I’d endured in my life. I couldn’t believe there was an entity who actually gave a shit about me, and I thought if there was a god and he did show personal interest in individual human beings, he must really hate me to allow such horrible things to happen to me. Hey, if god gets credit for all the good things that happen, then he has to take the blame for all the shitty things, too–that is if he’s really omnipotent.
Suffering from depression and anxiety has led me to have really low self-esteem. For many years, I thought I had to earn the right to live. I believed that my very presence on earth was toxic and that I was harming the universe every day just by existing. So, if I didn’t do enough good deeds (and that changed every day) per day, I would just fall further into negative numbers. I hated myself, thinking I was ugly, disgusting, grotesque, and inherently unlovable. I believed I was the worst person on earth. Literally. The only positives about myself I could think of were my intelligence, my writing ability, and my hair. Other than that, I hated everything about myself so fucking much. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Not just because I loathed the way I look, but also because I could see the ugliness inside of me oozing out of my pores.
This was my life every day for decades. I had little time for anything else other than dealing with my depression and anxiety. That meant that I spent most of my time focusing on me. It’s something I don’t like to admit out loud, but depression and anxiety are very selfish illnesses. That’s a little harsh, but it’s true. They can take up so much of your time and mind, there’s little room for anything else. Like I said earlier, there were days when I couldn’t move from my couch because I was so deep in my depression. And, all those worries I mentioned I had in going to the grocery store are all based on what other people might think of me. “Should I ask a follow up question if the cashier tells me she’s had a bad day? I don’t want her to think I don’t care!” When I first started Twitter (and still to this day to some extent), I would answer everyone who tweeted at me, whether I wanted to or not. Part of it is because I tend to attract the freaks and the lonely people who don’t have many other people in their lives, and I don’t want to add to their misery. I have a soft spot for underdogs, which I’m sure I must transmit somehow. The other part is that I think, “What if I ruin someone’s day by not tweeting back?” which is pretty grandiose thinking on my part. That’s the thing about low self-esteem that isn’t discussed–it’s coupled with an inflated sense of self. I know, it sounds weird that both of these can be simultaneously true, but hear me out. When I obsess over a minor interaction with a stranger, it’s always about how I said something that might have offended the other person. I’ll never see the other person again, so my not saying hi cheerily enough isn’t going to scar him for life. In my mind, however, I could drive someone to permanent despair if I snubbed her, even unintentionally.
I’ve noticed this with other people who have anxiety and or depression–a high level of self-consciousness. Most of us hate parties, and the thinking goes something like this. “I’m going to walk into a group of people, not knowing anyone. They’re all going to look at me like I have two heads.” Or conversely, “I’m going to talk to people, and everyone is going to ignore me or think I’m stupid.” Chances are, neither of these things are going to happen because other people aren’t thinking of you that much if at all. That’s the thing I try to tell myself when I’m hyper-conscious about myself–everyone else is preoccupied with their own shit. No one is thinking of me as much as I am. I need to learn to think more of myself and less about myself at the same time. Easier said than done, and I’m not sure which one is the chicken and which one is the egg. If I thought more of myself, would I think less about myself? I think so. However, if I thought less about myself, would I think more of myself? I’m not as sure about that.
I will say that I’m better in all respects today than I was five years ago. I can attribute that to therapy, taiji, and good friends. All three have helped me get out of my own head to some extent and have given me the ability to have some perspective, and I’m grateful to them for that. One small thing that helps is when I’m driving on the freeway and I notice how many other cars are whizzing around me in both directions. Every single one of those cars contains a person/people who have distinct, separate lives of their own. All those people have problems, insecurities, and fragilties, too. I hate America’s obsession with exceptionalism. Yes, every person is special, and, yet, every person is also insignificant. This has been a theme of my posts lately–realizing that I’m just not that important. I know that sounds depressing, but it really isn’t. It’s actually freeing–I don’t have to work so hard at impressing/not hurting other people; I can just be me.
*I want to say she was sixteen or seventeen and I was eight or nine.
**I was raised fundamentalist, but I never really believed. Not deep down.