May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
When I was a blossoming teenager growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I watched my family collapse right in front of me. In high school, my older sister — who was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then OCD, and later autism — moved far away for college; my dad, who traveled a lot for his job and suffered from depression, left to start a new life with a different family in another state.
The truth is, though, that we were all collectively falling apart long before these things happened. We lived a relatively privileged life, but we were the pinnacle of dysfunction. Our home had always been colored by conflict; problems and secrets were swept under the rug instead of addressed out in the open.
Subsequently, I coped by bottling up my feelings and pretending I had everything together, trying so hard not to cause any more problems for anyone.
Yet, in the absence of my sister and father, I grew more and more attached to my loving yet overworked mother.
I was lonely and disconnected, so feeling incredibly close to her made me feel loved and safe. Back then, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as being too close with someone, and I didn’t know how that could harmfully impact other areas of my life.
As I entered adulthood, my inner turmoil manifested as a wounded self-image, unhealthy habits, and a lack of boundaries that infiltrated my professional life and my relationships with friends and romantic partners.
I relied too heavily on my mom, my bosses, my boyfriends, and everyone else in my life to make me feel happy — but never looked to myself for happiness.
I also attempted to control everything around me, holding myself to the highest standard of perfection. My satisfaction was so closely linked to these unhealthy expectations I’d set for myself. I was my harshest critic. I doubted myself every time I achieved some level of distinction in my career while I simultaneously sought constant validation from others.
During this time, I spent much of my energy chasing emotionally unavailable men across Manhattan, laughing my way through sex that I did not want to have, and finding myself incapable of voicing my feelings and needs in and out of the bedroom. I let myself be a puppet for men, bending myself into a pretzel at their every whim and seeing my beauty only through their eyes. I lusted after guys who I thought I knew, who I thought I wanted, and projected the image of a perfect partner onto them. Then I lashed out upon realizing they were not the person I had hoped or imagined. I craved companionship for all the wrong reasons — seeing it as a means to solve all my problems and render me a worthy, successful adult. But ultimately, I was left burnt out, resentful, and full of self-critical thoughts that guided my every move.
It wasn’t until the summer after I turned 28 that I could no longer ignore that I’d crumbled into a deep depression. My gynecologist had found and removed a benign tumor engulfing my right ovary while I also experienced a break up, a death in my family, and a dog attack — all while living with a toxic roommate. I felt like a victim of my own life — overwhelmed by immense physical and emotional discomfort. It was if all my hidden neuroses had come out and swallowed me whole. That summer, I finally had to surrender to my crippling anxiety and immense fear, and seek out a psychotherapist.
Additionally, when kids are raised by caretakers who are not emotionally or physically present, they can grow up feeling as though they lack a sense of safety in relationships. It is often households like mine, where parents are workaholics or have depression, that can form codependency in the children.
With the help of my shrink, I began to slowly unravel the tightly wound rubber band ball that was my bruised identity. I began learning how mental illness and codependency had shaped me into the person I had subconsciously become, the person I’d resented for so long.
Lauren Appio, a New York-based psychologist, sees codependency as a behavior that keeps us focused on solving other people’s problems instead of addressing our own uncomfortable feelings and needs:
Through therapy, I realized that I’d become so preoccupied with pleasing everyone and trying to live up to their expectations that I had forgotten to take care of the person who mattered most — myself. My therapist helped me devise a self-care routine that would allow me to navigate repressed emotions and grow stronger, both physically and emotionally. I started a daily yoga practice, secured a recurring appointment with an acupuncturist, and committed to reading about different challenges I’d experienced. I also gave up drinking, marijuana, caffeine, and dating — cold turkey.
Slowly, I started to wake up to the ways I had danced around my pain and avoided self-love for so many years.
Spending time with myself, sober and solo, gave me the space I needed to heal from my childhood pain. I also learned how meditation and mindfulness could help me break bad habits and resist challenging thought patterns. Finally sitting with my full range of feelings — detached from difficult relationships and toxic situations — I became more introspective. I gained the ability to find perspective, problem solve, and establish stronger boundaries by putting my needs first. I came to understand how burying my feelings had resulted in a laundry list of mental health issues: A distress intolerance, a generalized anxiety disorder, and a lack of self-compassion. And codependency was the culprit.
Lyons says those who are codependent can have trouble developing their own identities because they are so preoccupied with being who someone needs or tells them to be.
I can now see that feeling responsible for my family’s well-being while growing up caused me to feel unseen, lonely, anxious, and depressed — and speaking my needs and setting boundaries once felt like a difficult, consuming, and selfish pursuit.
Though I know that the process of reshaping myself will be a lifelong journey full of highs and lows, I am now living more intentionally. I am staying aware of my emotions and promising to be kind and patient with myself. I now see that my breakdown was a breakthrough – a chance to live a more honest, fulfilling, and independent life. That by ripping myself open, I was allowing myself to find abundant forgiveness and joy.
What’s more, treating myself with more compassion lets me feel greater empathy for my loved ones. I know now that they are just trying their best. I no longer resent them or blame our collective dysfunction for my personal problems. Instead, I have learned that I must take responsibility for myself; the only person’s acceptance I need is my own.
Today I choose to accept myself wholeheartedly, flaws and all.