A Backpack of Rocks: My Mental Health Journey - Truveta

A Backpack of Rocks: My Mental Health Journey

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and for the ~25% of Americans who deal with mental health struggles, it’s an important time to recognize that while anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can make us feel profoundly isolated, we are not alone.

My struggles with anxiety began in my teenage years. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I did well in school, and had lots of friends and a loving family. But I went through periods where it felt as though I was carrying a backpack full of rocks, weighing me down, threatening to crush me. During these cycles of extreme sadness and anxiousness, the happy façade I donned in high school hallways and on the field hockey pitch sapped my energy and left me intensely overwhelmed.

I didn’t have a name for what I was suffering from. I didn’t talk about it. And to everyone on the outside, I was a happy, normal kid. Inside, I was panicking, feeling like I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t enough.

I covertly saw a psychiatrist in college, who prescribed antidepressants to help with what she diagnosed as clinical depression, along with anxiety and panic disorder. But the drugs didn’t help. We experimented with different doses, different medications. Nothing. Eventually, disappointed, I stopped seeing her. I graduated and decided to move to Seattle. “Fresh start,” I told myself.

Running from my mind

But by the time I hit my late 20s, I was having frequent panic attacks and felt constantly overwhelmed. “My job is too stressful,” I told myself. “I just need a change.”  I quit and decided to move back east.

Driving away from Seattle that sunny May morning was the first time I remember feeling such strong anxiety that it manifested into actual words in my head: This is the wrong decision, it said. My mom had flown out to Seattle to make the cross-country drive with me. “Do you think I’m making the right decision?” I asked her.

“I don’t think I can answer that,” she said. “But whether it is or isn’t, it doesn’t have to be forever.” I didn’t believe her. I felt stuck in my decision. I cried silently under my sunglasses.

Now in Manhattan, my backpack of rocks had become an unbearable, constant burden, and I couldn’t hide my panic or anxiousness from my parents. They found me a psychiatrist who told me I had textbook depression and anxiety, and promptly wrote me a script for more antidepressants. I didn’t even bother filling the prescription.

Finally, a diagnosis

I confided in a friend that I was “depressed,” and she gave me her therapist’s name. I was skeptical. How could talking help when drugs couldn’t? But after a few sessions, I started realizing how desperately I needed to have the space to share my feelings with an objective person.  A few months into seeing her, she recommended I see a psychiatrist.

“I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think you’re depressed,” the psychiatrist told me after our first session. “You have ADHD.”

Me? ADHD? Isn’t that what little boys who can’t sit still in class have? I’ve always been a high performer, surely I don’t have ADHD.

She explained how ADHD is often mistaken for depression in girls and women. Those feelings of despair, she explained, are the fallout from untreated ADHD, not clinical depression. She prescribed an ADHD medication, which helped some of my most acute “depression” symptoms almost immediately. I read everything I could find about ADHD in women; common symptoms include time blindness, perpetually feeling overwhelmed and chaotic, impulsiveness, poor prioritization, hyperfocus… It’s me! I started to understand the way I was wired. I started accepting that I was neurodivergent, trying to navigate a neurotypical world. Of course it’s been draining. Of course I’ve felt misunderstood. That diagnosis – a diagram of my brain to help me understand me – was a gift.

For the first time I saw that better was possible. The backpack, once filled to capacity with my anxiety disorder and the symptoms of depression from my untreated ADHD, was suddenly more manageable for me to carry. And as much as I once wanted it all gone, therapy taught me that anxiety – those last few rocks in the backpack – does not have to be a burden: anxiety can actually be a very good judge of right and wrong. When I drove away from Seattle that day, my anxiety was screaming, “You love it here! Leaving here isn’t the solution to your problems!” Now, I know how to listen to those clever little rocks. Through therapy, I also learned how to put the backpack down for a bit, and how to let someone else carry it for me for a few miles. I’m always aware of the rocks, but I feel their heaviness more at certain times than others, the way the old Achilles tendonitis of my field hockey-playing days sometimes aches more when it rains. The rocks are part of me. Anxiety is part of what makes me, me. The therapy that helped me come to peace with that was another beautiful gift. (I moved back to Seattle, btw.)

Reason to hope

The reason I wanted to come to Truveta is because I know my story is not unique. My road to relief was long, and there were times when it felt hopeless. I was unbelievably fortunate to have resources and support along my mental health journey, and I’m grateful for that every day. But many people haven’t been as fortunate on their journeys. With Truveta, research into conditions like clinical depression and panic disorder, and neurodivergent conditions like ADHD and autism, could be expedited. There is so much potential to reach accurate diagnoses and effective treatments faster. Truveta’s vision is saving lives with data, and I believe some of those lives could belong to people like me.

I’m 36. When I was in school, the stigma around mental health issues was enormous, so we didn’t talk about it. Silence can make mental health issues feel even more isolating and ominous. And through a combination of societal factors, including the pandemic, more people are suffering from mental health issues now than ever before. But the stigma is less now than it was 20 years ago. Not gone, of course, hence the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month. But in addition to the greater societal awareness and acceptance, as well as the promise that Truveta brings to this space, there are already a ton of other tech-based resources available to help folks, regardless of their condition: apps to teach meditation and mindfulness, video- and text-based therapy options, and even condition-specific apps to help people manage things like PTSD and bipolar disorder. Mental health resources are more available and accessible now than ever before. That gives me a lot of hope.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m sending strength and support to those who are still seeking answers and relief, and gratitude to those who are helping people in need, including those who have helped me. We are not alone.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.