Your Invisible Illness Is Valid
Sam Escobar

A linear story about non-linear illnesses

I remember the moment the school counsellor said to me, “There’s nothing wrong with you; it’s just Year 12”. Those nine words made me feel so small. Well-meaning friends said, “I don’t think you’re depressed”. I couldn’t blame them. Those around me saw a high-functioning, grade-A student, ready to embark on her dream double degree. They weren’t privy to the girl who cried nearly every day, couldn’t find any joy doing things she once loved, and isolated herself from friends and family. I began seeing a therapist, initially to help manage my crippling anxiety, which was taking quite a toll on my education. Too frequently I spent a day with my head in the toilet, cursing my mediocre immune system for picking up yet another bug. Now I know that my sickness was a physical manifestation of an anxiety disorder that went undiagnosed. I, like my Mum, was under the impression that I would get better in a number of sessions. I thought of therapy as a linear process, instead of a roller-coaster that I would continue to ride.

The final few months of high school passed more quickly than I thought possible. I tried to suppress my anxiety by focusing all of my thoughts and energy on my schoolwork. I felt sad and empty, but I couldn’t understand why. Nothing had happened; there was no cause and effect. I spent hours creating a magazine, composing music for a short film, rehearsing, and preparing for recitals and auditions. I wrote more practice essays than any other student in my English class. Although I made it out the other side of high school, I wasn’t accepted into my chosen degree. The countless hours I had spent trying desperately to perfect every part of my academic life felt wasted. My mental health plummeted, and I didn’t believe I would get through the next year.

At the beginning of 2016 I performed in a musical with someone who also experiences anxiety and depression, and over the course of a few months we became good friends. Being friends with someone who can really empathise with me had a significant impact on me. Suddenly I had someone to talk to, who, despite not being my therapist, completely understands my feelings. Halfway through last year something changed in me. I felt ready. I removed the “I’m fine” façade that I had become reliant upon, and did the opposite of what one instinctually does when using social media; I created a post celebrating my one year ‘therapy-aversary’. Upon clicking ‘post’ my anxiety reduced me to a shaky, sweaty mess. I had never felt so vulnerable, so the sense of relief I felt afterwards was incredibly surprising, but also comforting. I received a plethora of overwhelmingly kind messages, but I was not expecting to be congratulated for being honest about mental illness. I couldn’t, and still can’t understand why I should get a pat on the back for telling others that I am unwell? I think that the distinction between the way that physical and mental illnesses are portrayed underlies every congratulatory message posted on my post. It frustrates me that people feel they should praise others for talking about mental illness, because this only perpetuates the idea that it’s something to be ashamed of and something to hide. Trust me when I say that we mentally unwell people already spent a heck of a lot of time trying to not feel guilty for feeling the way we do. I understand that these comments come from a well-meaning place, but at a time when many are working so hard to normalise mental illness, congratulating sufferers does the opposite of that.

Over the past two years, I believe I’ve become much more self-aware. I’ve gotten to know myself better, thanks to hours of therapy, reflection and journaling. This will probably sound sad, but I feel like I’ve become a shadow of my former self. I admit that’s a strange thing to say when you’re only a teenager. I’m like a sadder, less well-put together copy of someone I once knew. But every now and then I get a glimpse of my old self, and although I miss her, I wouldn’t want to switch places with her. The new Amber is a fighter.

I’m a hugely cynical person and I refuse to believe in happy endings, but to finish this story on a more positive note, I should let you know that I am soon to commence the aforementioned degree and I have achieved things I never believed I could, such as passing my driving test. And yes, I’m still riding the therapy roller-coaster, and medication is being considered as a further source of support. Most importantly, I’m proud to be becoming increasingly willing to talk about my anxiety and depression, whether that is on social media or in person, and I’ve learnt the importance of remembering that just because you can’t see something, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.