One in five adults experiences mental illness each year — but we don’t often hear people speak openly about their own struggles. There’s still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding around depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues, making it difficult to speak up about them for fear of judgment, job loss, and more.
Four Eastsiders spoke candidly about their experiences with mental illness and the ways they are learning to cope. By speaking up, they hope to be a part of a conversation that helps to end the stigma.
Even still, sharing these stories is deeply personal, so we are referring to each of them by their first name only, and one person’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.
Interrupting the Cycle
Growing up in a culture in which talking about mental health isn’t prioritized, Lily had a negative stigma against therapy for most of her life. When she started experiencing depression in her first year of college while studying engineering, however, she sought help. Six years later, she’s happy she did.
Depression is different for everyone. For me, I lost interest in doing anything in my day-to-day life. It’s not necessarily that I feel sad. I just don’t have motivation to do anything.
When I first started experiencing depression, I didn’t know what was happening. Everyone goes through something tough in college — you’re away from your family and friends; you’re taking hard classes. But my roommate suggested that I get checked out or talk to a professional about it.
I ended up getting matched up with a counselor off-campus. I’ve had a kind of mixed experience with therapy: The first couple of times you go, you don’t really know what’s expected of you. And you have to find a therapist that you can communicate well with. Sometimes those things don’t all come together with the first therapist you ever see.
I’ve seen six therapists in the last six years. Every therapist has different techniques. I’ve personally had a lot of success with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
From my understanding of CBT, it’s about being able to better watch your thoughts and then interrupt unhealthy thought cycles. A lot of the thoughts that I had that came up in my therapy sessions were that the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. And the subsequent thought would be, “You should feel terrible that you’re not as good as other people.
From there, it would be, “Why don’t you just go work harder at school? Study more?” And sometimes that would produce an effect in terms of my grades. But I would lose my social life. I was just stuck in this self-deprecating academic loop.
It was very easy for me in college to compare myself to other people, especially in engineering, because we’d get a histogram after the test, and you could pinpoint the exact percentile you were in compared to all the other students in your class. And if I wasn’t in the 95th percentile, it wasn’t good enough for me.
The therapist I connected with most was an on-campus therapist at my university. She typically saw only engineering students, and that worked really well for me: She knew the specific kinds of issues that might come up with us. But I was only allowed eight sessions with her — you know, resources are limited.
So, the first six therapy sessions, I didn’t know what she was trying to get me to recognize. It didn’t feel very productive. But in between the sixth and seventh session, I was sitting in an award ceremony thinking, “Look at those top 10 winners. Why can’t you be like that?” And I managed to catch a thought for the first time. I was like, “Hey, that’s not a reasonable thought to have.” And that was really cool, because if I had let that thought continue, the subsequent thoughts would have been even worse.
It’s not a cure-all, but therapy has really helped me manage my depression. I go through cycles where I feel normal. Right now, I feel like I’m in this very slow decline. But I’m very functional. Whenever people look at my life, they would say I’m a successful person, a balanced person. I work in software development for a big tech company. I’m saving money. On Mondays, I go to a ceramic studio and work with clay. I spend a ton of time costuming. I have a good support system.
But it does take a lot of energy every day to have that exterior-facing “normal” person. And it is very hard for me sometimes to ask for help. So, it’s good to have a professional who will always listen, and who knows the best way to respond.
For the last decade, Jen — whose name has been changed to help protect her privacy — has worked with kids with behavioral problems, many of whom have a mental illness diagnosis. But she struggles with her own depression, anxiety, ADHD, and insomnia, and wishes there were accommodations for working adults like there are for school-aged kids.
I got different insurance last year, and that allowed me to afford a therapist for the first time. I hadn’t gone before because the cost was just too high, or I couldn’t get an appointment for six months, with a follow-up six months after that. I’ve been seeing the same therapist since then, and the same psychologist that she encouraged me to see, too. They’ve both been really supportive. I feel very lucky that I have a therapist that I get along with.
When I first started therapy, I couldn’t focus on a topic for more than 30 seconds. I didn’t think I had ADHD, but my therapist said I should get looked at. I was 36 when I was diagnosed with ADHD. It makes sense looking back, and I was in grad school online for applied behavior analysis at the time and was struggling with things that should have been easy.
You know, I remember having a hard time in middle school and high school — some of it was probably normal growing pains. But I never learned to have effective coping mechanisms. I wish I had been able to find therapy that I could afford, and that was effective, and that worked in my schedule a lot earlier in my life. I’m really thankful that I found it now. But it would have been great to start this journey in my 20s.
Before I started therapy, I wasn’t necessarily addressing my thoughts until they would reach a boiling point. I realized that’s not healthy. Therapy’s been really good for that, and it’s helped me learn how not to carry around stress from the job, and that gives me more energy. Medication has helped a lot, too, but it took about a year and a half to figure out the right combination that works together. And if insurance didn’t cover my medication, it would be about $900 a month.
I have a really supportive friend group. They’re all in various parts of their mental health journeys; we’ve all started therapy in the last couple of years. It’s nice to be open about mental health with them, and to not be embarrassed. Even when we can’t manage our own stuff, we can help each other.
I do wish in the work world, though, that it was easier to talk about mental health for adults. Especially because in the work that I do, so many kids have mental health diagnoses. It’s sort of frustrating that there are all these accommodations for the kids having a rough day, but that doesn’t apply to the grownups. I wish I could just say, “Hey, I’m feeling really depressed today,” and people could be like, “Oh, all right.”
I feel like we’re more accommodating with physical ailments — we’re told, “Take your time; get better.” But mental health issues aren’t met with that same compassion.
I wish there wasn’t that stigma for adults. The kids I work with, you know, they’re likely going to grow up to be adults with mental health problems. Those things don’t just go away when you turn 18. I feel like they’ll be in for a bit of a surprise. School is more accommodating than the real world.
Life After Afghanistan
After seeing many people make sacrifices in the years after 9/11, Rudy joined the military in his early 30s in a gesture of patriotism. Three months after graduating from basic training, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he spent a year as an active duty military policeman. Now 40 and a security consultant for Delta Air Lines, he still experiences traumatic PTSD from his time overseas.
I served seven years as an active duty military policeman, and I did one tour overseas in Afghanistan. When I (was deployed), we definitely took a lot of fire. It’s kind of difficult to talk about.
Coming back, I can remember that day clearly. We flew in, and it was a very somber flight home. Everyone expects it to be happy. But it’s not. I remember seeing grass on the base again. I’d forgotten what that was. I’d forgotten that color.
I was in a serious relationship at the time, and she was there to greet me. People expect it will be (this happy reunion); you’ve been gone for a year. But it took me probably a month to even show any affection to my girlfriend at the time. I was having a very hard time assimilating myself back to civilian life. Coming back was very tolling on me and very tolling on that relationship.
I’ve always been one to believe in therapy and talking to people. (But) in the military, if you go to a counselor, you’re seen as less of a man. It still exists, the stigma. Especially in the law enforcement field in the military — you’re supposed to be a badass and kick down doors.
The first 90 days you’re back are basically an assessment to make sure you’re OK. Going through my assessment, they recommended that I continue going to behavioral health — that’s what they call it. I continued going for several months. That’s when they issued me a diagnosis. Traumatic PTSD.
From the outside, if you were to see me, you wouldn’t notice it. It’s not something we wear on our sleeves. I take care of myself pretty well. I’m very alert. That’s part of the PTSD: I’m hypervigilant. Any loud noise triggers it — you know, the Fourth of July has been ruined.
I recently got married. That woman is a saint. She’s seen me through the ugliness of this. I’m lying down, and I’ll just pop up. Something triggered it in my sleep, and I can’t sleep for the next three days. I wake her up to go on walks at 3 in the morning in downtown Bellevue. My legs feel like I ran a marathon — complete jelly. My body heat rises; it feels like I’m on fire. When it kicks in at a high degree, it’s terrible. It’s crippling.
It’s gotten worse, to be honest. I go to the VA and see a mental health specialist. My doctor is amazing. I take medications for my anxiety and for panic attacks.
And I have periods when everything is fine. You know, I work full-time. I just got married. I live a fulfilling, prosperous life. It’s not easy. But just because I’m diagnosed with this doesn’t mean I’m useless, or I can’t live in society. I think that’s the biggest misconception, especially with vets coming back with PTSD — that we’re damaged goods, or a ticking time bomb — and that’s not true.
I honestly think it will always be part of my life. It’s caused a little scar in my mind, my body, my soul, whatever it is. It reminds me: Hey, you’ve been through some stuff, but you can get through it.
But I do hope it goes away.
The Process of Healing
Raised in India, Sumida didn’t have names for her mental illnesses until she came to the U.S. in her early 20s to pursue a degree. Last year, the 34-year-old programmer started therapy and is in the process of finding medications to help.
When I was a kid, I knew something was off with me, because I was really sad and upset a lot. My parents said I was just being moody — that it was just a phase — but it never went away. In India, mental health isn’t really considered to be a thing.
At school when I was a kid, corporal punishment was a big thing. My entire childhood, I saw classmates and friends beaten, hard, just because they didn’t do their homework or something. And I also had other personal life traumas. It all just kept piling one on top of the other.
I came to the U.S. for college, and I got access to the internet. I Googled what I was feeling and read about it and was like, “Wait; that’s exactly what I deal with.” Turns out I have depression and severe anxiety. And PTSD, too, from life trauma. So, it’s the holy trifecta.
I started reading more and more to learn what I could do to function. I liked all the motivational stuff. It helped for a while, but then it didn’t. In grad school, I went to a campus counseling session, but I had a bad experience that put me off therapy for a while.
But people on social media, especially on Reddit and Twitter, say a lot of good things about therapists, so I’ve been seeing one as of (last) year. And I started taking medication to help with the anxiety, too.
Therapy is good, but it’s frustratingly slow because they don’t just tell you, “Here, do this,” and you’re fixed. They make you work through all of it. The PTSD part is especially hard because you have to relive everything to get the puss out, so to speak. After my sessions I’d have nightmares, because I had to relive all those things. But it was really helpful. I don’t feel as traumatized. I still have anxiety, but not the, “Somebody’s going to hurt me” kind.
A lot of what I work on in therapy is talking through stuff and realizing that it wasn’t my fault. Or we look at my intrusive thoughts and pick them apart. In India, when I was growing up, you had to be perfect. You could not make a mistake, and nothing was ever good enough. I was never told that I did a good job. So, I constantly feel like I’m not good enough, or I’m always second-guessing myself. My therapist makes me talk, and then he works through what I say to make me realize I’m not incompetent, or I can’t blame myself.
I mostly talk to my therapist and my husband. There are a few friends, but I feel guilty about burdening them with too much of this. They all have their own stuff to deal with. If I talk about it with other people, they get uncomfortable, or change the topic, or think (I’m) not capable of doing my job or something. So, I just don’t talk to most people about it.
But I want to say something, because there are a lot of people who want to talk about mental health, but they don’t feel like they can, because there is still so much stigma about it. When I see something that needs to be said, I say it out loud. I would rather be the punching bag, take the punches, so to speak, if it means somebody else who was too afraid to speak up gets heard.