The intersection of money and mental health

While this is ostensibly a personal finance/financial independence blog, I don’t want it to be strictly about money. I tell a lot of stories about my life to illustrate points, that yes, are related to personal finance, but I want to continue talking about travel, food, privilege, mindsets, habits, and my ridiculous collection of brightly-colored flats. This blog is about my journey, which involves way more than the cold, hard numbers of grocery price comparisons.

Here’s a big thing I haven’t talked about yet: I deal with depression and anxiety.

That fact of my life doesn’t just end there, with that sentence that’s monumentally difficult to write. I’ve had brushes with disordered eating. I’m recovering daily from perfectionism. I’ve slept HORRIBLY for years and figured that was just how things went for me (the fun thing about mood and sleep and energy is that things get all tangled up in an inextricable knot and affect each other). Seasonal affective disorder is not a made-up, hokey-sounding condition with an apt acronym: I’m only half joking when I say I’m a solar-powered human. I hate the cold[*] but I especially hate the dark. Winter is always a harder time of year for me.

There have been times in my life where all of that has affected me more than at other times. Sometimes anxiety and depression have taken the leading role in my life.

Seventh grade was easily the worst year of my life, but most of it is a giant, gaping black hole in my memory. I only remember that I did/could not give one single fuck about anything, so for the life of me I cannot explain how I managed to pull out all As that year. People-pleasing tendencies and the expectation (perceived or otherwise) I got from my parents that I had to get perfect grades to the rescue, I suppose.

But sometimes I’m able to ignore all of my mental health things and live my life “normally,” whatever that actually means.

I’m a solar-powered human, a daughter, sister, friend, hiker/outdoors enthusiast, avid reader, lover of stopping whenever I find a playground with swings, INFJ or INTJ depending on the day, singer, dancer, feminist, baker and eager devourer of the results especially if there’s chocolate involved, mother to a small army of houseplants, non-profit employee by day, art history nerd, international relations nerd, nerd in general, and now a blogger (and money nerd). I also have depression and anxiety, and for too long I ignored that part of my life whenever possible.

Getting help

On my last day at home over Christmas last year, I had an odd, extended, low-level panic attack that lasted for about 24 hours, including my drive back up to DC. The few panic attacks I’d had before were immediate but short-lived and I could usually point to something generally that triggered them. I still don’t know exactly what was going on with that one, and it sufficiently weirded me out enough to think that it was potentially time to start talking to someone.

So I started going to therapy earlier this year,[**] and it’s been enlightening. And painful and difficult and frustrating and exhausting and good. One of the most life-changing things therapy has helped me realize is that my brain lies. It may sound obvious but it was genuinely something I had never known: the mean voice in my head that tells me horrible things is not the final arbiter of the truth. I am not those thoughts and I don’t have to listen to them because they’re not true.

Taking the next step

I went into therapy thinking it was all I needed, and it alone would help me manage well enough, especially since I go to a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (retraining thought patterns is a bitch, y’all). I was pretty adamant starting out that I didn’t want to go on medication.

After all, my depression was never too bad to manage on my own—I made it through seventh grade and the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. Other than those and a few other times, my depression is generally mild to moderate, so why did I think I should go on medication? I’ve never spent days in bed, unable to get up or leave the apartment. I didn’t need medication. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want it to change me or numb me out. Couldn’t I just think my way out of it, like so many people suggest when it comes to matters of mental health?[***]

But about four months in, as I sat in yet another therapy session in which I’d ended up crying (much to my embarrassment. I’m better about not shaming myself about that these days) and frustrated with myself yet again, I finally acquiesced and decided to give it a try.

I was tired of life being so damn hard.[****] I was sick of always jumping to the worst conclusion about everything and being unable to stop the inevitable downward spirals of anxiety. I haven’t truly had a depressive episode for a few years, just days or sometimes a few weeks here or there, but those days are hard enough. Dragging myself out of bed because I have to is no way to live.

My therapist also said something to me that day—as I was angrily wiping away tears that I thought broadcast my weakness—that fundamentally rocked my world: “an inability to give yourself grace for your human faults and love yourself for who you are is one of the signs of depression.”

Oh.

Doing the work

I picked up a prescription a few weeks later that I had decidedly mixed feelings about. I thought I’d accepted that I was going to give myself the gift of trying something new to make my life a bit easier even if I wasn’t sure that that was a route I wanted to take, but it surprised me that I was fighting back tears as I walked home from the pharmacy. The stigma of taking medication being a sign of weakness is a hard one to shake. But I was ready to try something that would help me fight the impossibly uphill self-worth battle.

I’ve got a depressingly (heh) long way to go on building my self-worth and kicking the people-pleasing, conflict-avoidance, and perfectionist habits. I’m not magically cured by taking a pill and talking and/or crying to someone a few times a month. I have to do the actual work of changing habits and letting go of long-held beliefs and thought patterns that have never served me. It’s painful work: as much as I hate, say, my tendency to people-please, the fact is that it’s been part of my identity for a very long time, and letting go of that isn’t easy.

For the most part, the effects of my medication have been subtle. Taking it hasn’t numbed out all my feelings or changed me, or any of the other things I was afraid of. What I have noticed is that it’s pushed the ever-present downward anxiety spiral from the forefront to the back of my head, where it’s easier to ignore or not to take as seriously as I used to. That lightening of the mental fog has been helpful, especially as I’m now aware of just how much that fog of anxiety has weighed on me.

I’m going into my first winter on medication and I’m warily watching to see how things go. I’ve had hard days and it’s incredibly frustrating to notice lately how closely my mood in the morning is tied to the weather. But I’m able to observe these things more from a distance, now that I’m not (at least currently) stuck in the middle of a day-to-day struggle of existence.

Money anxiety

Name anything and my brain and my anxiety could take it to “OMG YOU’RE GOING TO DIE HORRIBLY AND ALONE” in a very impressive few steps. It’s like the six degrees of separation game but way less fun.

Money is no different. I’ve said before that my personal finance journey started last year when I began feeling like I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and wanted to stop that in its tracks. That doesn’t actually describe the deep fear I had of never paying off my student loans, always having to throw every last available dollar towards debt, never being able to save and get ahead, and always waiting for payday with baited breath (and a low bank account balance). That kind of fear weighs on you, in a way that affects everything even if you might not be consciously aware of it.

No, I’m not accelerating paying off my student loans (I mentioned a few reasons why not in this post)—they’ll be done by the end of next year at my current pace with what I’m already paying over the minimum amount. But I hate that I still have those loans and I hate seeing my auto payment come out of my account every month, even if I’ve made the decision not to up that payment amount even higher.

I hate even more that I have a few thousand in credit card debt; it’s 100% my fault for accruing it in the first place, and it makes me feel even worse than my student loans do. There’s a sick feeling deep in my stomach every time I log on to Personal Capital and see that number. I hate that feeling and I’m committed to making it disappear. Every single cent I make at my weekend job is going straight over to my consumer debt until it’s paid off. I’m working a shift tonight as well as one both Saturday and Sunday because I want that extra money. I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of my weekend because I know I won’t be working much around the holidays and want to make as much as I possibly can right now.

Because I’m tired of being afraid. I’ve learned a lot about managing my money in the last year or so, but even though I’m investing and saving every month in addition to paying down debt, having that debt at all in the first place still scares me. So I’m making it a priority to get that balance down to zero.

Mental health and money

This isn’t a post solely about my experience because the fact remains that mental health and money are very closely linked, even for people who don’t have the money anxiety that I do. For one, prioritizing your mental health isn’t cheap: I’m currently going to therapy every few weeks, and let me tell you, that shit is expensive. I’m incredibly grateful that my employer-sponsored health insurance includes coverage for therapy and my medication.

And because it is covered, I’m able to take these steps to get myself into a better place mentally. Even though I sometimes feel like I’ve gotten nowhere in the months I’ve been in therapy, rationally I know that it’s an extremely beneficial part of my life right now and that I am making progress. But I can’t afford it on my own and wouldn’t be able to get that help if I were the one paying for it.

I’m also well aware that so far I’ve been fortunate in my experience with depression and that having a bad depressive episode could have a serious effect on my finances. I didn’t have to take a semester (or more) off from college; I haven’t missed multiple days at work because getting out of bed every day was too much to handle. I’m incredibly thankful for that fact, which has allowed me to reach where I am today on my financial independence journey.

I could take FMLA if I needed to, but I cannot afford to not go to work. Any serious depressive episode would be compounded by the anxiety the loss of my paycheck would cause me, which would make coming out of that episode to the other side even more difficult. Your salary and your net worth aren’t your self-worth, but that becomes a lot harder to keep in mind when you’re having a hard time both getting through the day and paying rent.

This is yet another reason I’m working towards FI. Now that I know what’s possible, my dependence on my paycheck makes me even more uncomfortable and anxious than it used to. Becoming truly financially independent will free me from the worry about money that’s characterized my life in the past.

Serious mental health struggles could very easily set me back on my already-lengthy financial independence timeline. I don’t like thinking about that, but it’s something I do have to face. And that’s why I’m working as hard as I can to get ahead now, which also includes addressing the mental health side of the equation for the first time in my life.

Being brave

This is a big, scary thing that I’ve been incredibly reluctant to talk about, even as I’ve been finding ways to improve my life on a day-to-day basis. But parts of this post have been rattling around half-written in my head for months, so I knew that some day I’d actually write it. I guess I’m ready to tell this story now.

Because I’m a solar-powered human, a daughter, sister, friend, hiker/outdoors enthusiast, avid reader, lover of stopping whenever I find a playground with swings, INFJ or INTJ depending on the day, singer, dancer, feminist, baker and eager devourer of the results especially if there’s chocolate involved, mother to a small army of houseplants, non-profit employee by day, art history nerd, international relations nerd, nerd in general, and personal finance blogger/money nerd who also has depression and anxiety. It sure as hell doesn’t define me, but it’s part of who I am, and I’m not ignoring that in my life anymore. I’m not ignoring that on this blog anymore.

A daily reminder to myself

[*]Unless it’s snowing. Snow is abso-fucking-lutely delightful. But I’m of the opinion that if it’s going to be cold, there should be snow, so we can do maybe a month of winter/snow every year and then it can go back to being spring and warm again. And this time of year can cut this getting dark at 5pm business right the fuck out.

[**]That makes it sound like it was easy to just start. No, it took weeks of looking up names of therapists, finding someone on my insurance, and then finding someone who had appointments available for a time that worked for my schedule. Just starting therapy is a lot of work and I knew it was going to be. Which is part of the reason I’d never gone to therapy before this year.

[***]I didn’t actually believe that deep down, but it still felt like I’d failed because I hadn’t thought my way out of it. Also, hi, mental illness is like any other illness so FOR FUCK’S SAKE STOP SAYING PEOPLE SHOULD THINK HAPPIER THOUGHTS AND THEN THEY’LL BE HAPPIER. You’d never suggest that someone with diabetes shouldn’t take their insulin. You don’t walk into a store and pick up chicken pox or a broken bone or cancer from an aisle, and you don’t do that with depression either. Let’s not act like taking medication for mental illness is any different from medication for a physical illness or that taking it makes someone weak.

[****]And that’s with mild-moderate depression/anxiety. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for people with serious depression.

9 Replies to “The intersection of money and mental health”

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing your powerful story, Erin. I have never heard depression termed as your therapist did (“an inability to give yourself grace for your human faults and love yourself for who you are is one of the signs of depression”) and it is quite eye-opening to me.

    Honestly, I think you are incredibly wise and brave to be tackling areas of your life like mental health and money as soon as possible. I hope progress is on the horizon for you on both fronts!

    And I’m with you on the snow… it is abso-fucking-lutely delightful!! 🙂

    1. Yeah, I had no idea that brain wiring/chemical imbalances were making my life just that much harder. Brains are so weird! And I wish I’d tackled all of this years ago but at least I’m finally doing it.

      Thank you for reading and for your kind comment, Mrs. AR!

  2. <3. Love that you have prioritized taking care of yourself! It's something I think a lot of us forget to do, and your personal experience can help remind us to take notice and take initiative in our own lives.

    1. Hi, my dear friend. It sometimes feels selfish to do, but it’s so necessary. And yes, I hope anyone reading this who needs a reminder that it’s okay will take it to heart and prioritize taking care of themselves.

      Thank you for letting me use you as a sounding board last night! <3

  3. I’m proud of you for admitting this, taking all the right steps to work through it, and then being brave enough to share it with us! You have a great community in real life and blog life, and we’re here for you. Reach out any time.

    I’ve had a few anxiety attacks and depressive episodes in my life, and been on meds (Lexapro) for a few months through a particularly intense period. It is in no way shameful to need help and seek it, especially if it helps you function again! Keep on keeping on.

    (And I hear you on that dark at 5pm bullshit! Like, 2% of the world is farmers now, can we stop this daylight savings time crap and bring the sun back into my life??)

    1. Thank you for your kind comment and for sharing your experience as well! I’m glad you got the help you needed for your particularly hard times!

      Headed out to work an evening shift at my part-time job, and oh hey, it’s dark out already… 🙄

  4. Hi Erin, never forget that you are not alone in this! When I came out of the depression/anxiety closet I realised that loads of people I know have also something going on on their minds.

    Living with depression/money anxiety is not easy. It can erode the relationship with your loved ones, and isolate you from your friends. I’m happy to hear that you decided to grab the bull by the horns (as we would say in Spanish).

    In my case one thing that has helped a lot (besides doctors, pills and group therapy) is blogging about it. Being able to be myself in a semi-anonimous blog where I can say how shite things have been without having to worry about stigma.

    Take care and stay awesome!

    Jorge @ Thefrugalist.uk

    1. Hi, Jorge. Thanks for reading and for your kind comment and sharing your story! I’m glad to hear blogging and being able to be yourself there has helped you manage your depression and anxiety!

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