On Depression and Healing After Emotional Abuse

Hello, blog. Long time no see.

This post is going to be very different from the content that I envision coming in the next few months, but it’s something that I need to get off my chest. In the process, I’m hoping that these thoughts and reflections will help someone else, or enlighten them about my struggle with mental health. I’ve never talked about some of these things beyond a select group of people before, so this is really scary – but something that I want and need to do.

I’ve had a pretty tough day with a relapse into depression (my moods have been very up and down lately), and I felt incredibly guilty all day because I couldn’t get myself to do any schoolwork. I read somewhere once that you can tell that you’ve internalized capitalism when you start to measure your self-worth by “productivity” and feel guilty for taking time for yourself (ping ping! That’s exactly what I’ve done). As the day draws to a close, and I still feel just as shitty, I realized that I was productive in a completely different way.

You see, I spent the day in bed, on my couch, watching a movie, eating comfort food, and napping. When I was awake, my brain was going at fifty miles per minute (thanks, anxiety!) and I got thinking about how my experience with mental health has changed since I was first diagnosed with GAD and chronic depression in grade 10. It’s been almost exactly eight years since that diagnosis, and my life has changed in so many ways. I graduated high school, completed one university degree, and am halfway through a second degree. I’ve gotten older, learned healthier coping skills, realized that therapy is nothing to be ashamed of (neither is needing to take medication), and have gained some perspective on the way that I used to deal with dips in my depression and anxiety.

In high school, I had the habit of acting the therapist, and that, combined with my own issues, had an effect on me that I’ve only just started to realize. I would spend hours alone, dwelling on what I was feeling and doing nothing to help myself out of it because I didn’t know how. There were times when I felt suicidal. I struggled with self-harm, and dipped in and out of what I am sure was an undiagnosed eating disorder which caused both my weight and self-confidence to fluctuate. In university, I coped with mental health struggles by being a busybody and loading my schedule with as many distractions as I could to avoid dealing with my feelings. I drank heavily during the first few months of my first year as a way of coping with my depression and “fitting in”, even though the effect of alcohol is not one that I tend to enjoy. I got a bit better at coping during the later part of my degree, but still struggled with balance.

Neither of these approaches were healthy.

In the last year or two, my perspective and experience of my mental health has changed. When I go into a dip (like now), no matter how bad it gets I always know that it’s going to get better. That’s something that I wish my high school self would have known, because it would have saved me a lot of pain. This realization that there is light and happiness after the sadness and numbness of depression is one that would have been a blessing to my teenage self.

I’ve also realized that the people you surround yourself with can have an incredible effect on your mental health (either good or bad). I used to surround myself with some very toxic people, and those people are no longer an important part in my life. I made a huge effort to cut them out, and I don’t regret it. (NOTE: If you know me and are still on my social media accounts, you are not one of those people. Don’t worry). I’ve realized that being selective about the people you give time and energy to isn’t selfish – it’s brave. I’m the type of person who gives everything I have to those who I care about, and I’m also the type who cares deeply very quickly. This has gotten me into some trouble (see the later paragraphs about my ex-boyfriends), but it has also led to some beautiful experiences. I wouldn’t change this part of myself for anything, but time has taught me that I can channel this energy in a way that results in much more beautiful and self-affirming things when I am selective about who I let into my life. I’ve tried to implement these strategies over the last year and a half or so, and I’m so blessed to be in a place where all of my close relationships build me up rather than bring me down. Despite the dip that I’m currently experiencing (a curse on my fucking brain!), I’m incredibly grateful to have a small but wonderful group of friends and family in my life.

Notice that I said friends and family. Two of the people who had the worst effect on my mental health were my ex-boyfriends. This is something that I’ve come to terms with over the last few months, but both serious relationships that I’ve been in were not healthy for me in any way. My first boyfriend tended to be manipulative, and what started out as a wonderful relationship went south very quickly once I moved to Scotland. I was made to feel guilty for being on the adventure of a lifetime, was ignored for days at a time, and put all the effort into maintaining a relationship that was (to anyone looking at it from the outside) doomed and destined to fail. Because it was my first relationship, I did everything I could to make it work. I was putting 150% of my energy into it, and received maybe 25% in return. Despite this effort, I was told that he “didn’t even feel like he had a girlfriend anymore” because I was so far away. It got to a point when my body was 5000 kilometres away but my mind and heart were at home.

We broke up at the end of October. The cruellest part about this relationship was that I was led to believe that we would “try again” when I got home, so I put my feelings on hold and channeled all of my energy into enjoying myself in what I think is the most beautiful country on earth. These efforts were stunted by his manipulation; he kept messaging me when he saw me enjoying myself on social media, which served as a nearly daily reminder of the pain that I was trying to ignore. When I got home, I waited through a week of silence before messaging him to see if he wanted to get together for coffee to talk. I got a response a day later, telling me that he didn’t want to see me yet. “Let’s try again in a couple of months.” March came, with nearly weekly messages from him that I now realize were just another form of manipulation. He agreed to go out for coffee with me, and despite still having feelings for him, my instincts told me to get the closure that I needed and get the hell out of there. And I did.

I now look back on that relationship with a mix of fondness and sadness. Fondness because during the first few months, when I was home and it was summer and I could prioritize him, everything was great. He was kind, considerate, and loving. He treated me mostly with respect, and we made some happy memories that I still remember with a smile. I look on it with sadness for the way that I held on to something that was a sunken ship the moment I hopped on the plane to Scotland out of a fear that I would never find anyone else who would care about me in that way – a fear that was born out of low self-worth and an overthinking mind caused by anxiety.

Flash forward to a year and a half later. It was November 2017, and I was aware that I would be moving to the middle of the country in a matter of months and had no business getting into a romantic relationship. I formed a friendship with a tall, confident (*cough* arrogant and cocky) guy in one of my classes. We bonded over our shared love of academia and all things history and literature. We had conversations that I enjoyed. He started flirting with me, and I was receptive to it so we went out on a date. Then another one, and another one. Before I knew it, I was invested in a pretty intense relationship and it was kind of scary. I wanted to have an open and honest dialogue about my mental health to give him an out if he wanted it before either of us got too attached. I was well aware that not everyone can handle the sort of baggage that comes along with my diagnoses, and didn’t want to be a burden. We had that conversation about a month in, and despite my candour I was assured that he could handle it. Three months later I found myself being broken up with “because” of my mental health. I had leaned on him during a particularly hard month, he seemed willing to provide that support, and I mistakenly believed in that willingness and entrusted my vulnerability to his care. It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life. He took the one thing that was capable of destroying me, lit it up, threw it at me and watched it detonate. It’s also worth mentioning that this was February 13th.

Yep. The day before Valentine’s Day. What a classy guy.

I look back on this relationship with mostly regret for how I let myself be treated. On the night that he broke up with me, he told me that he didn’t want to be “just another asshole boyfriend” to me down the road. In a moment of weakness, I assured him that he wouldn’t be. Looking back, I am furious with myself for giving him that assurance. It was a response to a type of emotional manipulation that typified the way he treated me over the course of our four-month relationship – a sort of manipulation that I now recognize (at the behest of my friends and counsellor) as emotional abuse. Coming to the terms to the fact that I was abused – even if it was just emotional (which I know is a ridiculous thing to say), is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It hurts. It hurts even more knowing that I ignored the warnings of my friends who knew him better than I did. If those friends are reading this – I’m sorry. And thank you for caring enough about me to be real with me about the type of person that he is, even though I didn’t listen. Thanks even more for holding me together when he tore me apart.

Now, he isn’t “just another asshole boyfriend” – he is the asshole boyfriend. The one that thinking about prompts a blog post like this.

I don’t want to go too much into a dialogue about the specifics of those relationships, because it’s not the specifics of them that matter. It was the emotional trauma created by the after-effects of my second relationship that led to the intense but fruitful journey of reflection and self-care that I’ve been on for the last year and a half. After that relationship, I very easily could have retreated into myself and kept everything hidden deep down like I did in high school. I could have reverted into unhealthy coping mechanisms. Luckily for me, I had an incredible group of friends around me who held me up when I couldn’t do it for myself and the guidance of some wise and caring adults. They kept me going, and their love and care made me realize that if I was capable of receiving love and care from them, then why wasn’t I capable of giving it to myself?

Since then, I have made a concerted effort to be brave enough to love myself. I’m still working through the scars of the emotional trauma of those romantic relationships and, on top of that, am currently dealing with anxiety and fear as a result of several encounters with sexual harassment and, on a couple of occasions, sexual assault over the last few of years (another blog post about that to come soon). It’s not easy, and some days I think that it would be easier to withdraw, let the chips fall where they may and let the universe deal with me how it wants to. But I’m always reminded of the good days, when I love myself and remind myself of everything that I’m grateful for in the wonderful life that I lead. This gratitude is what keeps me going.

When I entered into my first two relationships, I was in a really bad place with my mental health. I thought that having someone to love and care for me would help to heal me, and that it would remove the incredible pain that I was feeling. Lesson learned: the true way for me to feel better and deal adequately with my mental health is not by relying on people who can exploit that vulnerability, but by making an active effort to love myself. Once I’m able to do that, then I’ll be able to enter into a relationship based entirely on love, and not on a hope for reduced emptiness.

In April of 2018, I got my fourth tattoo to celebrate the successful completion of my undergraduate thesis. It’s on my left forearm, and it reads “the most happy” in a whimsical cursive script that I found on the internet. You see, this phrase was the motto of Anne Boleyn, the historical personage whose representations in literature formed the core of my research project. It seemed a fitting physical reminder of my four years at an incredible university, the group of friends I made while doing my thesis (all four of us got “thesis tattoos” that day), and a woman who I have read obsessively about and drawn strength from for years. Since then, I’ve realized that it carries another meaning. It covers the bulk of my self-harm scars, and is a constant reminder that I have the power within myself to be “the most happy” – as long as I’m brave enough to reach for it.

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If you’re reading this and you managed to get through this incoherent jumble of thoughts, thank you so much for reading. If you gleaned something useful from it, I’m glad. Writing this post has been a cathartic experience, and even though I’m still in a dark place, I do feel a bit better. If you’re struggling with mental health or any other sort of battle right now, do one thing for me: do your best to be brave enough to strive for healing. It’s the greatest gift that you can ever give to yourself.

Until next time,

Kaitlyn

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