How perfectionism and overachieving nearly killed me

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Trigger Warning: This post contains details about suicidal ideation and sexual assault.

In my community and family, mental illness is associated with weakness. For black women especially, we see it as a character flaw to admit we’re overburdened, as if admitting overwhelm would make us less of a ‘real’ woman. To say, "Nah, I'm alright; I'm fine" when it's evident that something is wrong is somewhat expected.

For me, I was a chronic overachiever. I was enrolled in 7 classes at an honors college, along with a class leadership position, dance team, choir, work-study, and a boyfriend. I ought to have felt fulfilled--but I was beyond depressed and refused to tell a soul. I was easily able to deflect with, “Nah, I’m fine,” when someone attempted to inquire about my personal life.

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Hearing someone say, "All the crazy people just need to be locked away somewhere," was enough to keep my mouth shut. I wished they understood the negative connotations behind the word "crazy." A mental illness didn’t make me crazy; it made me in need of support like everyone else. But instead, I learned that saying, "I'm just really busy and tired," was enough for most people to halt questions about my wellbeing.

The embarrassment and fear of being viewed as crazy outweighed my desire to seek help. I carried carrying everyone else's high expectations of me until I was lost in a dark place.

My lowest moment came the spring of sophomore year. While everyone else was embracing freshness & sunlight, I buried myself in quiet rage and subsisted in darkness. I battled suicidal thoughts daily, contemplating ‘happy accidents’ to take me out of it. “I live alone in a corner room on the third floor...if something tragic should happen, no one will mind.” Pills. The unscreened window. Scarf. Box cutter. A cocktail of painkillers and rum nearly won out.

But I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted a desperate shift in my existence, an escape.

And for a while, I found a temporary escape with heavy partying: never sober, numbing layers of pain, not owning my body because some evil stranger had taken that choice from me months prior. I was just, lethal, for an entire month. 

Things didn't begin to change until midterms when a friend came to me and invited me to stay in her dorm for one night. She and a few others gently confronted me about my self-destructive behavior. My courageous friend who told me that I wasn’t myself, yielded her personal space for me to unpack my rage and begin the healing process. The next day, my friends volunteered to walk with me to the campus counselor. I signed up for 16 weeks, three sessions a week with a Christian therapist.

I didn’t know how to put everything into words beyond tears... but I spent several nights in their space, recovering.

With therapy, art, and supportive friends, I began to understand that knowing my limits is a gift. It’s a form of self-care that allows me to set healthy boundaries. Now I can recognize my limits and triggers before I’m mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. Instead of trying to uphold this ideal of "perfection" through my achievements, I can be honest and say, "I'm not doing so well."

I wish more people knew what I’ve learned over the past few years, particularly that we all have mental health. We have to prioritize our mental well being as much as our physical health...

Because hiding behind achievement and busyness doesn't make us whole. It depletes us.


GUEST WRITER: MIA ANIKA

Mia Anika is an artist, story teller, and mental health advocate based in Atlanta, Ga. She tells her personal stories through her art and invites others into the healing process with journaling and art workshops. To connect with Mia, visit her website.