The girl behind the mask

By Stephanie Matheson

Let me introduce you to two people. I’ll call them “Sophia” and “Sydney.”

High school meant a whole new world of possibility for Sophia. She was a smart girl, an athlete, and eager to get involved. She became captain of her volleyball and basketball teams, co-founded a non-profit, did volunteer work, held elected office, and more. After graduating with honors, she went on to the University of Oregon, where she continued her successes. Sophia seemed to have it all together; she was the life of the party, always doing something to better herself and those around her.

Sydney’s experience was very different. In high school, she was overwhelmed by the pressure to meet expectations. She felt like she was never good enough. That B should have been an A! That 90 should have been 100! She began to believe that no matter what she did, it would never be enough; that the world might be a better place without her.

When Sydney was 15, she attempted to overdose on pills from her parents’ medicine cabinet. She recovered physically, but still struggled to get out of bed in the morning. In college, she felt like a nobody. Her grades dropped, and she seriously considered dropping out. Walking home from work, she would think about stepping out in front of moving vehicles, and sometimes she would fill the bathtub and completely submerge her body as she would think about drowning.

Sophia and Sydney are actually the same person: me. I have been diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

Each time my depression struck, it came back stronger than ever. Time after time I would beat it, and think to myself, “Maybe this was the last time.” But it never was.

I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want people to know. To others, I was Sophia, but inside of me was Sydney.

I liked what most people saw: it was the person I wanted to be (and the person I still am). But the stigma that comes along with mental illness made me feel like people would think I was crazy and unstable.

I didn’t feel normal, but I didn’t want to take pills or see a therapist. I wanted so badly to be strong enough to beat it on my own. I tried to focus on the positives, but that just contributed to self-blame and guilt. I had a great life, so how could I be this way?

Living with depression is like being stuck in a thick fog. Everything becomes a struggle. I lost interest in the things that once brought me so much joy. Everyday tasks became a challenge. I couldn’t get through the workday without breaking down. I remember looking for jobs and feeling completely unqualified for everything. I felt absolutely helpless and completely hopeless.

I wanted off the roller coaster I’d been on for 10 years. On June 30th, 2015, I made a good bye video. I was over it. Done. Ready to check out.

Thankfully, I had a friend who was willing to call the local behavioral health center and take me to the doctor. It was, by far, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But honestly, I don’t think I could have — or would have — done it on my own.

I’m now on antidepressants and see a therapist every couple weeks. I actually love seeing my therapist, and look forward to my visits with her. I also make it more of a priority to get outdoors and be active, as those seem to help me too. My mind is now clear and I feel like I’m finally 100% myself.

The brain is a powerful organ. It has the power to take a smart, beautiful, accomplished and ambitious person and make them feel absolutely worthless.

Depression isn’t a bad mood or a choice, and it’s not something we can just snap out of. Choosing not to talk about mental illness because it’s “uncomfortable” is selfish. People need to be able to talk about it. They need to feel like they can ask for help.

This isn’t an easy story for me to share, but I hope any readers who see themselves will realize four things:

  • There is hope.
  • They’re not alone.
  • They’re not crazy.
  • Help is available. Just reach out.

Stephanie Matheson is a nonprofit administrator, photographer, public speaker, and member of the Advisory Council of the Mental Health Association of Portland.