This is a guest post from the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Shanetta Nielsen.
In my teen years I struggled with severe anxiety surrounding my identity and role in the public school system, with my family and friends, and society as a whole.
My sister and I were the first generation from both our mother’s and father’s families to have been raised here in the United States. What I didn’t know then that I have come to realize now, was that this would dramatically impact much of my ability to identify who I was and who I wanted to be. It would also, down the road, subsequently impact the decisions I made in my life, good and bad.
Our family arrived in New Jersey as our first stop and we packed up the old Buick and headed across country, stopping through around 30 states. We ended up in Seattle and this is where we stayed. Being a first gen American is not a unique story. It is in fact quite common. However, this didn’t make the experience any less profound as the individual experiencing it personally. Identity and a sense of place are deeply intertwined. How can we know where we are headed if we have little connection to the place we come from and are unsure about the place we are currently in?
Growing up, even when surrounded by others, I would feel a sense of loneliness. Mainstream American culture didn’t resonate with me yet I tried so desperately to fit in, to connect with others, to please the people around me. I spent a large part of my adolescence, to a certain extent, neglecting the authenticity of my own personality and quirkiness and focusing more on adapting the habits and characteristics of the people around me, even if I saw them as somewhat toxic. It felt easier to be accepted by my peers and follow the status quo than it was to speak out and go against the grain, which ironically in my adult years resulted in being my greatest strength. Turns out, the superficial social acceptance left me feeling depressed and even more disconnected from who I was than I had ever been. I felt lost. When I reflect on that time now, I can see clearly how my insecurities dictated my behavior in relationships and how my hunger for connection, love, encouragement, and support played out in destructive ways. I was so hungry for it that I neglected my own needs and priorities for many years, too consumed with the desire to be accepted and blend in.
My 31 year old self looks at my 15 year old self and laughs but also sighs. If you had told me at 15 that all of the anxiety or depression that I felt would down the road be used as my most powerful tool and that it would be the fuel behind the passion and energy I now have in my adult years, I wouldn’t have believed it. I remember by the time I was 20 I had decided to make significant changes in the way I was conducting my life. I told myself that I would work on healing and reconciling with past traumatic experiences. I would do what I needed to do in order to honor my own values and beliefs and stand up for what I believed was right. I had to actively make the decision to work on channeling my anxious energy into becoming a better version of myself. I made a commitment to develop and nurture the wild nature of my spirit and tune into my emotions. These were things I had never given myself full permission to do in adolescence.
With that said the past decade has been a work in progress. From the deepest darkest holes of loneliness came some of the most beautiful and life altering lessons.
We have to continuously celebrate the mini victories. The greatest of those victories being: the connection to the light inside myself that I have finally given myself the permission to acknowledge and the recognition and connection to that light inside of other people. Life has progressively become more and more rich each year because I try to give myself the space I need to grow and the patience and love required to encourage other people to do the same.
Healthy Minds is a monthly column coordinated by Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as a way to share positive stories from people living with mental illness, offer information from local mental health professionals about maintaining mental health in your life, and provide details on tangible activities or actions you can take to strengthen your mental wellness. If you would like to contribute to the column, please contact Romanda Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org