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He keeps asking me, “what’s wrong”?

April 4, 2017 • SHABNAM AGGARWAL • 31 • Boston

“He keeps asking me what’s wrong. I wish I knew, but I don’t. I don’t know. So I make something up to keep the monsters at bay. I feel so unhappy. I feel empty inside. I feel lifeless. I fear what the future holds for me. I fear the dismay with who I have become. I fear the anger and yelling and hateful words that come out of my mouth when I’m talking to myself.  I fear for my sanity. I fear for my composure. It feels as if I know I am walking into a fire, I know it will burn me, and I know I will come out scarred. Yet, I keep walking back into it, like an addict to her dealer.

I yearn for a place to call home. Why can’t I find one?

I sometimes find myself thinking about how I might hurt myself just to see if anyone would notice.

I feel unsafe, unsupported. I feel like I’m falling. I have no identity.

Who am I, truly, when stripped of all the people around me? I am nothing, nobody.

When was the last time I was happy?”

-Notes from my journal, 2011

At the time I wrote these words in my journal, I was in a loving relationship, I had a job, I was physically healthy, and I had built and run one startup business in education technology in India. I was a success on the outside. I was crumbling on the inside, though. I had fallen into a deep hole of desperation, and while I didn’t know how to identify it at the time, I was severely depressed.

When I look back on those painful months in 2011, I see the girl writing those words in her journal as if she is a child I’ve just met. I walk over to her as she writes, and give her an all-encompassing hug. The kind of hug where two bodies meet, melting into one another, holding the pain and sorrow, giving everything they have. I want to give everything I have to that lost little girl.

Back in 2011, a couple weeks after I wrote those words to myself, by chance, by luck, or by cosmic design, I was asked to speak at a TEDx event about my startup experience and my theory of change. My theory was that our ingrained fear of failure holds us back from trying new things, from tackling big obstacles, and from challenging and changing the world. I believed we needed to teach ourselves, and our children, to embrace our fear of failure in order to overcome it. I believed this was the only way we, as a generation and as humankind could achieve our greatest potential.

Only, I hadn’t considered a different kind of failure in my theory of change. At the time, I was outwardly successful by most Indo-parental metrics, but inside I had completely failed to listen to myself, to understand myself, and to love myself. In the midst of this failure, the fear I felt for the next one was debilitating. I was convinced I had nothing valuable to say, and that I didn’t deserve this honor.

A few days later I called up the organizer, having memorized what I would say. I had to convey to her that I was the wrong choice, that she had made a mistake, and that she should find someone else to give the talk.

As I waited for her to pick up her line, I listened to the first three brring-brring’s as if each one had its own story to tell. After each one’s story, there was a long pause, as if every story needed a moment of doubt, a moment of reflection, a chance for introspection. During the third pause, a weak voice in my head whispered, “Hang up now. You can do this. You are capable.”

I wasn’t sure that the voice was right, I didn’t know if I could do it and I definitely did not feel capable at the time. I knew it was a huge opportunity though; to throw it away would be foolish.

I relented, and I put the phone down. After hanging up, I got a pen and a blank sheet of paper, and I started writing down everything I was good at. The list was short at first, but slowly, it grew to fill the page. I taped the list up on the mirror in my bedroom at the height of my face, making it impossible to look at myself without looking at the page. This list would become my daily affirmation- I was worth something. I was good at something. I had something to say.

Over the next couple of weeks, I prepared my talk. I rehearsed it hundreds of times, recorded it, sent it to friends and family, and requested feedback from anyone who would offer me some. I was still confident I would bomb the talk, either by forgetting everything I had rehearsed, or by fainting on stage. The audience was expected to be 1,000 people, the largest I had ever spoken in front of. But I was going to try.

The night before the talk, I stared at myself in the lengthwise hotel mirror. Something looked off. I could see my face again; my affirmations were gone. Oblong shaped O’s made dark circles around my eyes, as if they were protecting me from something. I tied my thick black hair back in a high bun. I pulled a tiny bottle of concealer from my toiletry bag and poked my face all over with the tip of the brush. Then I coloured inside the lines. Maybe this is how they came up with the name for this stuff, I thought. I finished and surveyed my work. Passable, I thought.

I scanned the room behind me in the mirror. It was the nicest hotel room I had ever stayed in. Everything was the colour white; the throw pillows atop the bed sheets, the writing desk with the writing pen, the lampshades in front of the curtains, the trimming around the mirror. I could hear the faint fading sound of children giggling just beyond the door in the hallway. The plush cream-colored carpet under my feet felt like stepping on teddy bears’ bellies. A eucalyptus scent wafted through the bathroom door, so strong I sneezed.

“Oh no,” I said.

I sneezed again. And again. And again. Allergic tears formed at the inside corners of my eyes, threatening to invade and destroy my house of cards. I took a deep breath in and held it on the way out. My cheeks puffed up, making me look like a geisha sumo wrestler squaring off against herself.

I fell backwards towards the bed and started to laugh hysterically. If someone were watching me from a room across the hotel courtyard, they would have thought I had lost my mind. Maybe, in some sense, I had.

When I got up on stage the next day, I immediately blacked out. Then, as if emerging from a coma, that same voice in my head caught the right pitch and screamed, “COME ON. LET’S DO THIS.”

I came to, and I gave my speech. I made a few mistakes, and a couple of my jokes fell flat on the audience, but all in all it was one of my proudest moments. Not because it was a fancy TEDx event or because my content was groundbreaking, but because it was the hardest thing I have ever had to convince myself to do in my life.

Afterwards, I called my boyfriend, broke up with him, and moved back home. I found a job I loved, in a city I wanted to explore, and I went on to build two more startups and raise two rounds of venture capital totaling half a million dollars over the next six years. Not only that, I actually learned to listen to and love myself again.

If nothing else, I can honestly attest to the fact that depression happens to most of us at some point in our lives.  Depression is the least racist, the least classist, the least picky, and the least avoidable of mental health struggles in the human race. It’s also one of the hardest to identify. I’m reminded of the story of the frog in a pot of boiling water, but it’s a stupid story because who really cares about frogs that much?

Our job in this journey is not to avoid depression. It’s to make sure we have the right sized safety pins, operational navigational tools, and enough pads of paper in our survival kit to ensure we get through the storm in tact, with our heads held high, ready to take on the next one.

TAGS #affirmations #confidence #depression #fear #fightthestigma #mentalhealth #publicspeaking #selflove #selfworth