It’s a pleasure to welcome Jess Hernandez to Off the Beaten Track today as part of the Authors for Mental Health blog series.
Jess Hernandez is a not only a writer, but also a librarian, teacher and all-around word girl.
When not being used as a human canvas for baby food art, she writes books for kids. Her debut book, First Day of Unicorn School, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, was published in 2021 with Capstone.
Sometimes Jess writes essays, poems, and short stories for grown-ups, too. Jess lives in a very small, very loud house in Washington with her husband, their three children, a puppy and four chickens.
And now over to Jess.
Outrunning My Kidneys
It was an inconvenient time for a breakdown. I was four years into my marriage, five into my career and adulthood was in full swing. I had a dog, a loving husband, car payments, health insurance, and a 401K [superannuation fund]. Things were going pretty much according to plan.
Except I couldn’t have been more miserable if I’d tried.
An average night found me watching Food Network and binge-eating cupcakes on the couch, feeling exhausted and terrified by the things my mind kept telling me. “You’re useless. You’ll never be happy. There’s something wrong with you.” And most pervasively, “What right do you have to feel sad? Nothing really bad has ever happened to you.” For no reason and for every possible reason, it was the absolute worst time of my life.
Using Dr. Google, I tried to cure myself from the outside in. I filled my apartment with houseplants. I took up crochet and started playing the piano again. I prayed and I exercised. When that didn’t work, I quit my job, changed careers, and went back to school. I even moved to a tropical island. (Yes, really.)
But it only made it worse. My very soul hurt, and I fantasised about ways to make it all stop.
Trying to escape my depression was like trying to outrun my kidneys. My job, my apartment, and the weather didn’t make me like this. My brain did, and until I did something about that, nothing would ever change.
So I got help. I got a diagnosis, a therapist, and a prescription. And while the pills have saved my life many times over, the most helpful thing didn’t come in a bottle or on a therapist’s couch.
The best thing I’ve ever done for my depression is to accept it.
Unlike a lot of people, my depression will never go away. It’s not something I’m going to get over or leave behind like an outgrown sweater. I’m permanently and forever mentally ill. It’s part of me, like my crooked nose and bowlegs. I can treat it. I can ignore it. But I’m never going to get rid of it.
It was a tough truth to swallow. I wanted so desperately to be normal again. Every time I felt something like happiness, I wondered, “Is this it? Have I cracked it?” Tentatively, I’d wean myself off pills and declare myself better.
When the darkness inevitably came back, it knocked the wind out of me, and I would grieve the person I once was all over again. It took years, but eventually I learned to understand that this is who I am now. This person who gets hobbled by sadness and gutted by pointless guilt. This is me. I finally kept taking my pills and stopped trying to convince myself I was better. I know now that my depression isn’t going anywhere
It was a hard realisation. But there was some good news, too: there might not be a way out, but there was a way through.
I don’t always feel so bad. Not every day is an uphill slog through endless suck. Instead, it varies. Some days I have depression. It’s like having a cold – a nagging tickle in my throat that I can power through. But some days – not all, but some – depression has me. It kicks me in the teeth and shoves me down the stairs. It stands on my throat and screams in my face. Those days are bad. But I know now they won’t last forever.
What’s more, I survive them. With practice, I learned to see them coming and take cover. I learned to be kind to myself. I talk back to my brain when it tells me I shouldn’t be feeling this way. And I accept that this is not my fault.
Mental illness is not a moral failing or a lack of faith or will power. It’s a straight up medical condition that requires medication, not self-flagellation or guilt. I try forgive myself for being broken and glue myself back together the best I can.
I learned to do it openly, no longer hiding my struggles from people.
At first, I kept my diagnosis to myself. I was scared people would judge or run. Some did. But most didn’t.
Most love and accept me for me. Most wish I’d spoken sooner so they could help. They make space for my illness and try to understand. But that only happened when I stopped being afraid and talked about it. When I did, I discovered I wasn’t nearly as alone as I thought. Instead, my being brave helped others overcome their fear of telling the truth. So I learned to speak up and speak out. I learned there are people I can help.
I’m not saying this is some sort of blessing in disguise. It’s not. But it’s not a death sentence either. I will survive it. I just have to believe that the good things in my life outweigh the daily pain of living. And they do. The biggest things in my life are the good things. And the longer I live, the more good things I have. Like a family and a home and a job I love.
So I stick around.
I keep breathing, even when it hurts. Because there are beautiful things still on the way and I want to be here when they come.
Image ‘Holding You’ by li.fe fotografie. Flickr.