The sun setting behind silhouette's of plants and flowers
Mental Health

Why You Shouldn’t Bury Your Past

Country of Origin: United States of America

(Audio recording by Jordan Luz)

One of the biggest lies we are told is that it is possible to live fully in the moment, but the truth is we never can. 

By the time we process any moment, it is already in the past, and that who we are is so wholly defined by our past experiences that any given moment is viewed through the lens of our entire lives. Our pasts can sneak up on us in ways that we never expected. Without taking the time to unpack what led us to certain bad habits or harmful thought patterns, it is too easy to fall right back into them without noticing. 

That happened to me when I decided to become a high school teacher.

If you know anyone who works in schools, you may have heard that teachers tend to act similarly to the students they teach. For example, K-5 teachers tend to be bubblier. They wear their personalities on their sleeves and know how to have fun. 

High school teachers are also like their students. We think we’re right about everything, we believe instructions given by administrators are bullshit that we don’t have to listen to, and we ultimately spend way more time complaining about things than actively trying to change them.

Don’t get me wrong, every teacher I know works tirelessly to do what they think is best for their students, and we don’t get a lot of thanks for it. However, I have yet to work in a school that does not have this toxic underbelly of cynicism at the slightest suggestion of change or progress.

In my junior year of high school, I was hospitalized for depression. Shortly after that, I would learn that the extreme nausea and light-headedness that had become a staple of my daily school experience was actually an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. While some people might be relieved to be able to understand what they were experiencing and be excited about the prospect of working on skills to cope with their specific mental health issues, I was not some people

Drawing of a person with a sad face and a mixture of emotions going on in their head space
(Photo courtesy of iStock)

I was embarrassed. I had been brought up in a home where I was constantly reminded how good I had it compared to my parents at my age. I was told to stop whining or not to “be a baby” at the slightest complaint or show of unhappiness. I knew a lot of people with ADHD who exhibited similar symptoms and behaviors to me, but I was never given an evaluation because my parents didn’t believe it was real. 

My slipping grades were chalked up to my lack of effort or a perceived apathy on my part towards doing well in school. Having mental health issues, for me, was just another proof I was a disappointment, squandering my potential. I convinced myself that everyone around me must be feeling the same things I was, and I was just too weak to deal with it.

This sense that my mental health issues were my fault led me to an inelegant and temporary solution: I ignored them. I simply acted like everything was fine without ever putting in the work to make it that way. 

Depressed male sitting in front of a computer with the lights off and hands covering his face
(Photo courtesy of LARAM via Unsplash)

After my hospitalisation, I lied to my therapist about how much better things were for me. I lied to my parents so that I wouldn’t have to keep going to therapy. Worst of all, I perpetuated the lie to myself that I was to blame for everything, and all I needed to do was change my attitude, or at the very least, bury my true feelings so deep that they wouldn’t affect me. A mere seven months after being hospitalized for depression, I was off my anti-depressants because my friends had started drinking and I wanted to join in. Nobody around me questioned that I was somehow all better, and eventually, neither did I.

Except for a messy relationship that neither I nor my partner were emotionally mature enough to handle well, I managed my depression and anxiety very well throughout college and my first few years working professionally. I spoke in the past tense about my struggles with my mental health, as though they were something dead and buried as opposed to something lurking in the shadows. After working in freelance film and TV production, I wanted to find more consistent work, preferably something that felt more meaningful to me than carrying around a tripod or slowly sliding a camera to the right on occasion. 

Then, one day, believing that I had conquered all my problems from my past, I decided to pivot to a career in education. 

My goal was to help students like me who were struggling and felt they had nobody to help them, without realizing I had never actually learned to help myself through that time in a healthy and effective way.

My first few years subbing and teaching weren’t so bad. I was so concerned with learning all the skills necessary for a new teacher that I couldn’t focus on much else. However, due to never having fully confronted my own problems, I quickly realized I would not be able to help the way I would have liked to. I was able to be understanding and flexible when it came to offering extra help and time on assignments to students who struggled, but I hadn’t gotten into teaching to help improve students’ grades. I began to feel like I had failed since I couldn’t have the impact I had sought to have. Worse still, several of my students were hospitalized for mental health issues, and while a healthier me recognizes that I couldn’t have stopped that from happening, at the time, I blamed myself.

In February of 2022, just four years into my career in education, I found myself pretty much where I was in the fall of 2011: on medical leave from work due to my depression. This time I wasn’t hospitalized, though. This time I could seek help without waiting for my parents to understand how dire my symptoms were.

I took a few months away from my job to participate in an intensive outpatient program five days a week. I was, and still am, lucky enough to be dating someone who has struggled with her own mental health issues. She has been entirely supportive of my needs and urged me to take my recovery seriously this time. No more shoving things down just to get the stamp of approval from my program to go back to work. By using the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills from this program, I finally confronted the issues in my past and understood the types of cognitive distortions that led me to harmful thought and behavior patterns. I was also finally able to start internalizing that I am allowed to feel what I feel and try not to be ashamed or embarrassed about my personal struggles.

Male sitting hunched over on a wall, with his hands rubbing his forehead, looking sad
(Photo courtesy of Cullen Jones vis Unsplash)

Now, I’m not saying that I’m all better, or that getting here was easy. I’ve learned my lesson about thinking I can “cure” my depression in a matter of months. I also recognize I have a long way to go from where I am. Even writing this article took a lot of time, because I kept wondering if it was even worth writing. 

I still have that nagging voice in my head telling me that what I’ve been through doesn’t matter, and I should just stop whining about it. The only thing that got me to go through with it was the hope that you, the reader, might feel the same way. 

You might need to be told, or reminded that you matter regardless of what anyone tells you, and that things will only get better once you begin to take them seriously, instead of ignoring them. 

And if you, like me, have tried to stuff down unresolved issues in the past, I urge you to confront them in a healthy and direct manner, before they come back worse than before.

Thank you to Christina Lee for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Mental Health team.

If you are interested in submitting a piece to the DG Sentinel, please visit our submissions page here.

S. Thomas Drake is a former high school English teacher passionate about mental health, education, and politics. Through his personal experiences, he hopes to help readers become more comfortable examining their own mental health and to help remove some of the stigma around talking about it. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he also aims to explore how public perception of one’s identity can impact how one views themselves and some strategies for working through hard times.

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