Getting a diagnosis was life-changing when hiding inner pain under a successful surface stopped working.
By Denise Mann, MS
Denton, Texas is one of those small Southern towns where everyone drives everywhere.
But when Ashley Womble was a student at the University of North Texas campus there, she barely got into her car for months on end. She walked or took the bus because she was fixated on the possibility she might have a fatal traffic accident.
That irrational fear should have been a red flag for Womble and those around her, but it wasn’t.
On the face of it, Womble seemed to be thriving. She was an A student, an award-winning reporter for the college’s newspaper, had lots of friends. Beneath the surface, the young woman was struggling with sadness, hopelessness, obsessive thoughts, suicidal ideation, and other symptoms that wouldn’t be diagnosed as depression and anxiety for another decade.
When her father died suddenly of a heart attack during her junior year, grief masked her underlying struggles. Womble saw a counselor at the school, but her sessions didn’t cover the full story.
For example, she felt paralyzed by even minor decisions, overwhelmed by the smallest tasks.
“I had six or seven shampoos piling up in my bathroom and I couldn’t throw them out. I just couldn’t cope with anything,” recalls Womble, who is now 37.
With her emotional reserves tapped out, Womble was destroyed when her boyfriend broke up with her the following year, even though she’d been unhappy in the relationship.
“I was beyond devastated,” she says. “I wish that someone would have said I was depressed and didn’t have to feel that way.”
No one did.
The dichotomy of outward success/inner despair continued after graduation. Womble landed the type of job that most people only dream about: an editor position at Cosmopolitan magazine in New York City. But her early 20s—a time when many young adults revel in the pleasures and privileges that come with their first paycheck—were spent largely on the couch. To quiet her distress, she did a lot of drinking.
“My life looked perfect, but I was still deeply unhappy and walked around with a physical pain in my chest…. It should have been a Technicolor time in my life, but instead it was black-and-white,” Womble says.
When Womble moved back home to Austin after four years, her stress levels went up rather than down. Her half-brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, so she began to juggle her paid job as a web editor for Cosmo with her responsibilities as a caregiver for the 19-year-old. The young man’s refusal to follow his treatment plan—and the disruptions in his life because of that—made the whole thing that much harder on Womble.
In 2008, the magazine gave her a choice: Return to New York City or lose her job. Womble headed back to the Big Apple with mixed feelings about leaving her brother. When he fell off the grid a few months later, she fell into another severe depressive episode.
Still, she was good at keeping up appearances—maybe too good.
“I went to work every day and thought I was OK, but I couldn’t look people in the eye and I wanted to be invisible,” she recalls of this dark time.
Eventually the cracks began to show. The turning point came when Womble made a mistake on the job—“an insignificant typo, but I didn’t care,” she says. This was so unlike the crackerjack editor her boss had first hired that he asked Womble what was going on.
Worried that she might get fired, Womble took the next day off and went to see a new psychiatrist. And at age 29, she finally heard the life-changing
truth: “He diagnosed me with depression and anxiety.”
It was a lightbulb moment for sure.
“I just thought I always had a reason to be sad, but there is no reason to be that sad.”
In retrospect, there were signs Womble was at risk for mental health conditions, but no one put it together.
“I was a very worried child … always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” recalls Womble, who also had frequent headaches and other somatic (physical) symptoms.
Her grandmother experienced depression, which she self-medicated to the point that she wound up in a drug rehab program. Her mother, who lives with multiple sclerosis, also was depressed at times because of her illness.
With a diagnosis in hand, Womble could start acquiring tools for recovery. When her psychiatrist suggested she start on antidepressants, though, she was reluctant at first.
“I was afraid because I was a writer and I thought it would affect my creativity,” she says.
Then she thought about what happened when her brother fought taking his medication. She decided to fill her prescription and within a month began to notice positive effects on her mood.
The combination of meds, psychotherapy, and self-care made such a difference that when Womble’s brother died a year later, she didn’t spiral into another depressive episode as she feared she would.
“I thought ‘Here I go again,’” she recalls. Instead, “I was sad, but it didn’t derail me the way that events like that had previously…. Grief and depression are not the same thing.”
As her inner landscape transformed, Womble started recalibrating her outward life as well. First, she decided she wanted to use her talents and skills to support others like herself.
“A lot of people are hurting and no one is talking about it,” she says. “You don’t have to feel this pain that you are feeling. It’s not who you are, it is how you are feeling.”
Womble took a position as communications director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She found it rewarding to be part of an organization dedicated to helping people get help.
“It was such a gratifying experience,” says Womble. “And, because street cred isn’t everything, I went back to school to get a master’s in public health.ˮ
Womble also started dating again. On her first date with her now-husband, she mentioned that she worked at Life-line. He told her that he volunteered for the crisis hotline as well.
“I knew he was someone who understood, or would be willing to listen and not judge,” says Womble, who is now communications director for the nonprofit Phoenix House, a multi-state drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization.
Turns out, her instincts on that date were correct. The two have been together for six years, married for one, and are looking forward to starting a family.
“Things are finally good,” she says.
Ashley Womble: What Works For Me
Moving meditation: “I try to run every couple of days. It is meditative for me, as there is no problem I can’t figure out in five miles. Running makes me feel powerful and that I can overcome whatever obstacles are in my way.”
Power of the pen: “I write. A lot. I have a blog, and I am also working on a book about how we can live an awesome life while dealing with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. I’m calling it Real Talk About Mental Health. I [write] to change the way people think about mental health …”
Best friends forever: “Three of my BFFs and I have a running group text that is our own lifeline. Just having girlfriends who I trust means everything.”
Printed as “Everyday Heroes: Moment of Truth”, Winter 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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