Mental Health, Fitness and Me.

Photo: Christina Grande

This week’s Community Engagement class was chock full of information that, unfortunately, I can’t share on Medium. So due to this little snafu, I started thinking. Why did I choose my community? Why is it so close to my heart? It finally hit me, I’ve never told my story in-depth, on paper or in person. Let’s do that now.

My name is Maria and I’m a 24-year-old graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I’m an avid social media user and fitness enthusiast, both personally and professionally. I have a loving family, supportive friends, a lot of strange hobbies, and I suffer from High-Functioning Depression and High-Functioning Anxiety.

You wouldn’t realize that I suffer from mental illness unless I shared it with you. I’m a social butterfly, consistently in a good mood, I never miss a day in the gym and I excel in academics. But, that’s all a facade, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. Being with friends is sometimes draining, I could break down and cry at any second, I usually force myself to get out of bed and go to the gym, and I stress myself out so much about school that I get physically ill.

My anxiety started when I was nine years old and my parents separated. Being the oldest child, I had responsibilities put on me by my parents, but what really exacerbated my anxiety were the responsibilities I put on myself. I remember sitting in my dad’s girlfriend’s house at 10 PM on a Sunday night with a stomach ache because I knew I had school the next day and was supposed to be home at 7 PM.

I didn’t realize that my anxiety started that early until about two years ago when I was discussing anxiety with my friend. I had experienced panic attacks before, but I never realized that getting physically ill was a symptom of anxiety.

My depression, on the other hand, didn’t start until I was in high school. At the young age of 14 years old, I was in an all-girls Catholic high school with girls who I hated…and hated me in return. I had no friends. When my Freshman year concluded, I asked my mom if I could transfer schools. Her reply, “It will get better, stick it out another year.”

I don’t blame her in the slightest, I would have said the same thing if I were her. It was my first time in a Catholic school, my first time in an all-girls school, and my first time not playing sports in 10 years. She didn’t know that I was in such a bad place mentally, hell, neither did I.

For the first time in my academic career, I was failing multiple classes, I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t speaking to my dad. Everyone chalked it up to teen angst…my nickname was Moody Maria. Given to me by my grandparents, picked up by my aunts and uncles…the nickname still hurts to this day. Sidenote: Hey jerks, mental illness isn’t something to mock.

I didn’t realize how serious it was until I was writing a suicide note at 15 years old. I was arguing with a “friend” online. I had known him for years, and am still sort of friendly with him now, but when he told me to go kill myself…I listened.

How would I do it? Slit my wrists? Hang myself? Who would find me? I don’t want my little brother to find me like that. What about my mom? I don’t want her to see her baby like that.

I didn’t tell my mom, or dad, or brother. I told one acquaintance and I owe her my life. She reached out to the greatest guidance counselor at our high school who called my mom. I was in and out of meetings with that guidance counselor and then, in and out of sessions with a therapist. After all of my requests to transfer schools, finally, everyone agreed.

I started my junior year at St. Edmund Prep that fall. All at once, things started falling into place. I was on the volleyball team and before school even started, I had a handful of amazing friends. Fast forward through junior year, in addition to volleyball, I played basketball and softball, my grades were amazing and I made honor roll. Life was good.

Leaving Edmunds, I got into so many colleges with substantial scholarships and I was ready to move on. You’re probably thinking “Wow! This is an amazing story of overcoming mental illness and never struggling with it ever again!” False. So extremely false.

It has been 16 years since I started experiencing the pangs of mental illness. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t anxious or depressed. It boggles my mind that some people walk around without over thinking their every move. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t double take a razor in the shower or cringe when someone used the saying “Kill yourself.” I don’t know what life is like without my mental illnesses.

When I was in therapy, my therapist said something very unsettling to me. “Maria, people like you scare me. People with the diagnosis of high-functioning anxiety and depression are the most frightening patients to work with. You will be all smiles and happy on the outside, but the next minute, you could be taking your life.” This stuck with me because it’s true.

My therapist taught me a lot of coping mechanisms to deal with my triggers. Writing in a journal, drawing on myself when I have thoughts of self-harm, doing the five senses routine when I am having a panic attack. But, until last year, I didn’t see the correlation between mental health and fitness.

This realization didn’t hit me until my long-term boyfriend and I decided to call it quits. I was devastated, destroyed, decimated — really any word that can describe not knowing if you’re going to be able to survive something. My world was ripped out from under me, my heart was shattered, my mental state was in shambles.

If I had been as naive and unstable as I was when I was 15, I would have taken my own life. There is no doubt of that in my mind. If I had let my depression win this time, I would have dug my dark hole deeper, isolated myself, binge ate and stayed in my bed for weeks.

Why didn’t I do that? Powerlifting. Powerlifting saved my life. I found solace in the gym. For two hours everyday, I didn’t have to worry about my problems outside. I decided to lose the 40 pounds I gained since college. Before you ask, I didn’t do this to get my crappy ex back. I did it for me, and to improve my non-existent self-esteem.

By eating right and exercising every day, I felt better in my skin and more importantly, I felt better mentally. I was making new friends and I noticed that so many more people liked to be around me…now that I wasn’t miserable. During this time of hardship, I figured out who really had my back.

My relationships with friends who mattered strengthened and toxic friendships diminished. I made new friends in the gym, some of which I can now call my best friends. My rapport with my mom and brother improved tremendously. My dad and I rekindled our relationship and I realized that my Step-mom, as well as my step-siblings and extended family actually cared about me. But most importantly, I fell back in love with myself.

I owe my current successes in life to exercise. Now that I’m in graduate school, I am under consistent stress. When I feel anxious or depressed, I seek the comfort of the gym. I step foot in Harbor Fitness and I’m home. For two hours, my mind is clear, my lifts are strong and my spirits are high.

Why did I choose to service those who have mental illness and use the gym as an outlet? Because I am part of that community and I see how important it is to cope with mental illness. There is a certain stigma surrounding mental health that I want to destroy. By being open and vulnerable about my mental illness, I have connected with so many others who suffer in silence like I used to.

In the gym alone, I have met people who struggle with eating disorders, bipolar disorder, OCD, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia…the list goes on. Now let me ask you: when you read a fitness magazine, how many articles do you see relating to mental health? Ding ding ding, the answer is few.

In a country where mental illness affects 18.2 percent of the total adult population, why are there a minuscule amount of resources regarding using fitness as an outlet? Yes, yoga and running count as exercise, but what about angry lifting, pole dancing, rock climbing, cycling, etc? Where are the resources for these people?

Hopefully by the time I graduate from the Social Journalism program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I’ll have compiled enough research and have created such a vast network of mental health and fitness professionals, I can help one person find an outlet. If I can reach one person and persuade them to try one Crossfit class, maybe they will be able to overcome their social anxiety for that day.

These are my goals, this is my life. Everyday is a struggle, but fitness has been my saving grace. Thank you for reading my story, I’m excited to take you on this ride with me.

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