“I was the kind of kid who, when picked on in class, mumbled the answer. The teachers always had to say, ‘Speak up! I can’t hear you!’ There’s always that kid. I only spoke when I had to. When kids tried to speak to me, I just stared at them with no response, feeling panic and anxiety. Oftentimes, if my sister were around, she would respond for me. What I later learned in therapy was I had something called selective mutism. Selective mutism is described as an ‘anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to speak in some settings and to some people.’ A child with SM may talk normally at home, for instance, or when alone with her parents, but cannot speak at all, or speak above a whisper, in other social settings—at school, in public, or at extended family gatherings’ (according to childmind.org).
Going through life unable to speak made me feel very unrelatable and alone. I felt such anxiety in all social situations, meeting new people, eating, and moving. I was overly aware of myself and my body movements. This was a depressing time in my life. I constantly felt like a burden to everyone. I didn’t like myself very much because I believed I was weird and I wished I were more ‘normal’ and like everyone else. Life moved, and I watched from the sidelines as people laughed and had fun, while I felt miserable and lonely. Social anxiety and depression made me very dependent on those people who were my safety blankets (like my sister and family). When I finally (miraculously) got a boyfriend in high school, I relied heavily on him for safety and comfort. My self-worth had always been nonexistent, and finally having a boyfriend made me feel loved and worthy. Suddenly, I wasn’t always so alone.
Eventually, what was my security blanket slowly became my enemy and I was constantly disappointing him. It’s as if somewhere along the line he had been replaced with a colder, meaner, and more hurtful guy. He always spoke down to me and called me terrible names. Nothing I did was enough, and I felt even more worthless than I did before my relationship. My boyfriend became very jealous and controlling, and I was an easy target for him to control and manipulate. I changed things he didn’t like in order to make him happy. I avoided things that would make him irrationally mad, but somehow he always found other things to be upset about. When I tried to leave I would chicken out, telling myself I either didn’t deserve better or stay with him out of fear of being alone. He manipulated me into staying when he told me, ‘Go ahead, break up with me. Who’s going to want to be with you?’ My toxic relationship lasted six long years. I didn’t know I deserved more. I didn’t know I could leave. I didn’t know I could stand up for myself.
It’s ironic, though, that my boyfriend was so controlling and monitored my texts, because I was the one who found something in his phone. I was never one to touch people’s phones or invade their privacy—I believed in trust. But one night, his phone kept beeping so I went to turn the notifications, and what I found hurt. He had texts with a girl we both knew. He told her nice things he never said to me. He showed emotion with her. The texts indicated he cheated on me with her, and I felt a rush of sadness, anger and one more emotion: relief. This was finally my way out. This was the reason for me to leave. There was enough anger in me to say no, I won’t accept this. This was the first time I ever stood up for myself. I told him I was done and I let him go to Europe for three months, sitting next to an empty seat on the plane which was supposed to be mine.
My boyfriend ended up getting deported. He came here from Spain at one year old, and though he was here for 21 years, he was considered an illegal immigrant. I knew what he did to me was wrong, but it still hurt. We started to talk again at this point and I thought he could change. I thought he was sorry, but it hurt to know I could never see him again. Everything felt painful: seeing the places we had been to, replaying memories in my head, and, most of all, being unsure if I could stand on my own. What I didn’t know then was this was the best thing to ever happen to me. I got severely sick at this point. From headaches to stomach issues to chest pains—and these were just the physical symptoms. I went to my doctor and told her, and her response was, ‘It’s anxiety.’ Anxiety? I thought to myself, ‘No. There is something seriously wrong with me, why can’t you see?’ I was so obsessed over the physical symptoms I caused myself to be sick from worry. What was happening was that I was panicking, and the panicking caused my breathing to feel difficult and my chest pains to start.
I thought I was dying every time I had a panic attack, which was quite often. Since they occurred regularly, I started avoiding spots where I had previously had panic attacks, but soon no place was safe. I stayed home and hid under my blankets, but the panic never ended. I was so emotionally drained from crying all the time. I was sad my boyfriend never loved me enough, and that I never loved myself enough. All the emotions I’ve ever had surfaced, and suddenly all I could feel was sadness and panic. ‘Who am I?’ I thought to myself. ‘How could I let this happen to me? How could I think so little of myself?’ The thoughts flooded, causing me to panic, and the vomit came spewing out. It was mostly water because I was not eating much then, from lack of appetite. I kept vomiting as my family surrounded me, staring. They looked so hurt that I was in pain. So scared.
I had an out-of-body experience and felt like I was watching myself lying there, sprawled out on the floor with my head on the toilet seat (I later learned it’s called ‘disassociation’). My mother, holding back tears, and my father, who is one of the bravest people I know, both looked terrified. My sister was giving her usual uncomfortable look in situations she does not know how to react to. This image wouldn’t escape my mind. It kept replaying. I was hurting everyone around me and everyone I love. My thoughts were eating me alive. How could this be living? The bile rushed up again but this time I was only gagging. There was nothing left inside of me. My parents assisted me up and I washed my face. When I looked at the mirror in front of me, water droplets were hanging from my nose.
Who is this person? I don’t know her. She’s a stranger. It’s as if someone has taken over my body. I’m so frail, sick, and skinny. How did this happen to me? This girl is not me. I don’t know her. How did she take over my body? What have I done to myself? Why am I thinking these thoughts? How could I have done this to myself? This girl is not me. I don’t know her. After months of feeling like this, my father finally took me to a psychiatrist. Staring out of the passenger seat’s window, I watched the highway numbers getting larger. We were looking for Exit 30. My dad may have been talking to me, but I probably didn’t say much. I was too involved with my buzzing thoughts. I knew we were running out of ideas for me. The more I stayed in this weird panic-state, the further away I felt from sanity and reality and the closer I felt to the edge, where after I fell off, there was no coming back.
We entered the room and I looked around, wondering who would be on the other side of the door. I was afraid and slightly paranoid. Paranoid to put my life choices into the hands of other people. I was giving in, and I told my dad to make decisions for me, including if they suggested medication. I told him I didn’t feel well enough or clear-headed enough to make decisions for myself. Whatever the doctor told him, I would give a try, with the approval of my dad. I told him I was tired of fighting medications and I just wanted to feel relieved. The door finally opened, six minutes after our appointment time, and there stood a very old man. He wore glasses and had a slightly hunched back from aging. His ears were rather large, something else I had read grew as you aged. He wore a button-up shirt, proper pants, and a tie. He smiled warmly at us and said, ‘Hello, you must be Irene. I’m Dr. Solomon.’
When he asked what was wrong, I said, ‘I feel so incredibly sad. I have felt sad often in my life, but never like this. Never to the point of feeling like nothing matters, not myself or this life. I usually have joy in the small things. I usually am so pleasant. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ He eventually told me, ‘You’re a very warm and sweet person, even during this very uncomfortable time. That has not gone away. Sweetie, you are sick. This isn’t your fault. You’re sick.’ He said something I didn’t understand at the time. He had said I was currently ‘manic.’ He told me I was manic-depressive, which is the older term for ‘bipolar.’ This explained why I felt so sad and anxious at the same time. That’s why I felt ‘too much,’ and yet nothing at all. It was two polar opposites happening at the same time, pulling me in different directions. And my mind could not follow along with either.
Hearing I had such a BIG illness hit me really hard. In my eyes, I basically was a crazy person with no hope of getting better. This illness would be my life sentence. I asked him if I would ever get better, and he said to me, ‘You will get better. You will feel good again.’ That did give me some relief, though at the time I couldn’t imagine when that day would come. Dr. Solomon gave me a few medications, and after a while of them being in my system, and both he and my therapist guiding me and believing in me, I started getting better. The pain subsided and I felt more in control of my anxiety. Both he and my therapist encouraged me and told me how sweet I was, and that I deserved to be happy and appreciated—and for once, I believe it, too.
This was a really difficult time in my life. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and the ironic part is that it was all internal. No one else could feel it or see it, but internally, I was both suffering and self-destructive. But I can’t say this happened for no reason. I know exactly why it happened. Between treating myself so horribly all of these years and having such little confidence in myself, this whole breakdown was bound to happen eventually. When you go through something big in your life like a break up, a death, etc., your whole life changes and turns upside down. This forced me to believe in myself and to be resilient, and looking back now, I see I was strong (AF). Because every day, I kept waking up. Every day, I held on to even a sliver of hope.
In therapy, I learned this deportation was the best thing that happened to me, ironically. After every breakdown is a breakthrough. It’s a push to make changes. It’s a harsh push, but the push is needed. And for that, I am grateful. I rebuilt myself, and this time it was into a much more confident, happy person who had self-worth. This isn’t a perfect ending. This isn’t the end where the hard times are over, because life doesn’t work that way, as we all know. There are ups and downs. There are struggles we must get through and joys we will experience. My story isn’t over, but it is filled with just that—both joys and struggles, and it is a JOURNEY.
For anyone in the beginning of their mental health journey, my advice to you is to accept help, find joy in the small things, celebrate waking up, and keep doing it every day until one day you wake up feeling better, and give yourself some compassion. Meditation has helped in the past, and be open to the idea of medications and dropping the stigma about them. For those with friends or family going through a hard time, know that simply listening, being around, being patient, showing empathy, and encouraging the person makes a whole difference in those times. Sometimes, all we need is for someone to care.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Irini Sarlis of Queens, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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