Feeling small in size and like an outcast, she was labeled by a school psychologist in Kindergarten as “smart and shy.” She recalled more clearly feeling “depressed and anxious,” but that wasn’t addressed. Christina remembers spending an entire recess in the bathroom, negotiating with herself to leave and be social. The bathroom won out.
Her parents tried homeschooling as a solution, but that proved to be overly isolating, so they enrolled her in a private school in 6th grade. Suddenly Christina was the cool public school girl, with valuable – albeit made up – gossip about boys. When she was placed into advanced classes, instead of feeling smart, she just felt different. She wanted to feel normal. But more importantly, she wanted to feel something.
“Mom, nothing feels exciting anymore.” Her mother responded, “Well, maybe that’s just how being an adult feels.”
I thought, if this is what it feels like to be an adult, I would rather be dead. And that’s as early as I remember having suicidal thoughts.
The thoughts oscillated between wanting to sleep herself into death to self-harming with burns and needles. To feel something was better than feeling nothing.
Being cute doesn’t mean I can’t be depressed
Christina looked like the girl who should be peppy and fun. In reality, she felt numb. With the pressure to live up to the expectations people had based on her looks, and not being able to, she felt a deep sense of shame and guilt. Worrying about herself so much made her feel overly selfish and self-focused. Instead of feeling connected to people around her, she felt different, and ached to fix the difference and fit in as normal. Christina believes that human connection is what drives us forward, and that it’s life-affirming and life-enhancing. So in the absence of that connection, in the total void, the isolation numbed her.
Sensing she needed more help than she could give herself, she walked into the school counselor’s office to get it.
I distinctly remember it was shockingly disappointing. I was so proud of myself for being willing to go in and say “I’m having suicidal thoughts. I’m terribly depressed. I’m super unhappy.” And when this pretty blonde school counselor looked at me, I smiled. I often smile and laugh when I’m uncomfortable, but she said “Look at your pretty smile. You’re so pretty. You’re not depressed, you’re fine.” And that was the most depressing thing someone ever said to me. I felt so unseen, so misunderstood, so disappointed at the lack of validation.
Being perceived as happy and cute was infuriating. She couldn’t understand how she could prove to anyone she was unhappy when she was constantly validated for her looks. So she had to continue to put on the happy face at school and act like everything was fine. In private she continued to scratch and cut and burn – anything to keep the numbness at bay.
Layers of depression
It was hard for Christina to trust in the mental health care system, too. Her mother had been involved in getting her abused cousins help, and believed the therapist’s guidance actually further damaged them. Despite being a nurse, her mother was also against using medication to treat depression.
At 30, Christina found out she was pregnant. She had not planned for the child, and later found out there were birth defects that would lead to expensive and exhausting hospitalizations. Her relationship with her baby’s father quickly became emotionally abusive.
She developed PTSD after a traumatic birthing experience. And soon after, postpartum depression. These layers of depression and anxiety felt insurmountable. With pressures increasing, Christina knew now to look out for early warning signs of these layers of depression, but wasn’t prepared for the intensity of this time. She describes feeling extreme sadness and overwhelming anxiety, instead of the apathetic depression she felt as a teenager.
Christina had surrounded herself with people that validated her emotions and made her feel supported. Still, the stress of her situation became too much.
I ran out of breast milk and got my period in the same weekend, which was very disappointing and upsetting. I was hosting my first guest, but sat naked in the bathtub for 45 minutes crying at the top of my lungs. I was not able to keep myself composed. I wanted everyone out of my house. I wanted privacy.
She intuitively knew there was a chemical imbalance at play that was exacerbating her response to her situation. Her sister suggested Paxil, an antidepressant, and after a month of taking it she felt a new lightness, and less limited by her emotions. That laid the foundation for her to be able to choose a holistic lifestyle to further her recovery and resilience. Fresh air every day, walking the dog, staying off her phone, journaling, self-help and philosophy books. Patience, mindfulness, and in-the-moment presence have helped her more than anything.
It’s not all easy though. Recently, her therapist asked her to research premenstrual psychosis. She experiences completely losing it for up to 7 hours, and then suddenly snaps out of it, left to pick up the pieces of collateral damage. She’s still feeling like she needs to call in sick once a month in order to deal with stressors in her life. She still is learning about the hormonal changes that trigger episodes. She credits remaining introspective, authentic, and accountable to the people in her life, for being able to show up and navigate through it all.
Connecting to community
Talking openly to her community about her struggles with depression and anxiety has been a meaningful feedback loop in Christina’s life.
I connect with friends and family and community that support my growth and are able to have important, meaningful conversations with me about how we’re feeling and the process and the work that we’re doing too. Being open helps other people feel comforted knowing that they aren’t alone, even if they might look happy on the outside.
Christina thinks talking through her experiences helps other people feel comforted and safer to be vulnerable and express their truth, too. She is able to let them know that she relates to them, that they’re not alone.
Christina now sees the power in being non-judgemental toward herself and others.
Instead of endless preoccupation with what she should be doing or feeling, she invites gentle questions to seek out what she may need right now, in this moment. In caring for her daughter, she practices forgiving herself, vulnerability, and normalizing imperfection.
I tell my daughter “My job is to teach you to take the best care of yourself that you can, and so that’s why mommy is not going to do this thing for you right now. You need to practice it, but I’m here to help you learn and show you how it works for me, and support you in figuring your own way.” It seems like the best thing I can teach her is to speak her truth and be authentic.
By holding space for her daughter’s imperfection, allowing her daughter to feel really heard and understood, Christina is creating connection between them that she finds invaluable. She actively avoids placing value on physical beauty, and instead remarks on intelligence, creativity, and communication.
Objects in mirror are more than they appear
Christina applies this approach in daily encounters, and within her career – embracing vulnerability and imperfection to develop authentic connection. Women sit in Christina’s hair salon all day, looking in the mirror and sharing stories about their lives. But what she notices is that there is often a distorted reflection with these women. The Pinterest-perfect mom could be the most depressed person in the room. The calm businesswoman may be having an internal anxiety-fueled meltdown.
The people that seem the most collected might sometimes be the most anxious or depressed because they’re not really processing or expressing those feelings, they’re internalizing them and letting them accumulate.
She thinks we all need to be careful of feeling like we “should” be all of these things that we’re not.
Don’t should on yourself or you’ll end up under a big pile of should.
Christina’s hope is that people will judge each other less, and instead soften to the possibilities that someone who looks one way on the outside, could be living an entirely opposite experience in their personal reality. This includes trying hard not to judge ourselves, seeing ourselves as imperfect and beautiful at the same time.
In working towards altering what she sees in her own reflection, she knows she is shifting what others see in her mirror, too.