Joey's Mental Health Journey
Eight years ago, when I graduated from high school, I never -- not in my WILDEST of dreams -- could have guessed where I would end up today, as I write this personal and intimate blog post for Anxiety Canada. It's funny how life works sometimes, isn't it? One day you can be so confident about your life path, and then the next moment, you realize just how little you know about yourself and where you want to go next.
That's what today's blog post is about -- that extremely jarring period in my life when I dealt with the realization that, put simply, my life just wasn't working. And I hope that by sharing this, I can encourage others to come forward with their own narratives and help people feel just a bit less alone. It is my sincere intent to inject a little more honesty and reality into this world of curated social media feeds and start a conversation about the struggles and trials required to achieve what the world typically deems as "successful."
I was a very different person eight years ago; I was obsessed with achievement and looking like I had my life together. In an effort to distract others from the fact that I was desperately scared of forming genuine friendships with people and showing my own weaknesses, I tried my very hardest to show a side of myself that was put together and accomplished. As long as I had A's on my report card and had future job prospects in a respectable major, it didn't matter that I didn't know how to cook, drive, take care of myself, be independent, work, pay bills, do chores, make friends, figure small things out on my own, exercise, or take even the most minute amount of risk.
"To put it bluntly, all I could feel -- on what should have been a happy occasion -- was an overwhelming emptiness."
As an example, most people might have labeled my high school graduation ceremony day as a triumphant and victorious feel-good, inspirational-movie-like day where I could pat myself on the back and praise myself for a job well done for graduating as valedictorian, winning awards, and showing off the fruits of my talents. Little did people know that on that day, I could not feel people's praise. I could not feel how proud my parents were of me. I could not feel or hear music playing as we exited the ceremony. To put it bluntly, all I could feel -- on what should have been a happy occasion -- was an overwhelming emptiness. All I could see were the important problems that I was trying to avoid, and how these awards seemed more harmful than beneficial in the long term. It was the acknowledgement of this emptiness eight years ago, in my opinion, that really sparked my roller coaster of a mental health journey.
As I entered university, this emptiness that I sensed in my mind and in my heart grew and grew -- no matter how much I tried to suppress it. I would try to do more and more in a desperate attempt to fill that void, but nothing would satiate that niggling itch that I was ignoring some truly important issues in my life for the sake of continuing to look like I had it together. So, at this point, what did I do? Well, I numbed myself. I went through the motions. I did what I was told. I jumped through the hoops of courses and requirements and refused to ask questions about where I was headed. Literally, the only thing on my mind was getting through the degree, getting a job and calling it a day, JUST to fulfill expectations and maintain a successful image (whatever that means…). In retrospect, I feel like I acted more like a zombie than a true human being.
After third year, as I began my final co-op term, it all fell apart. I broke down. I had had enough and my mind and body were simply unwilling to allow me to progress any further. I would break down into tears, have panic attacks, not sleep, wake up with nightmares, hyper-ventilate at my desk, and was unable to do my job. And so, after just two weeks in January of 2014, I quit my job and spent the next four years trying to pick up the pieces and finally face the music. Whether I liked it or not, it was time to deal with those problems that I had been pushing back for so long and addressing the emptiness that had plagued me constantly.
"I realized that I had been so focused on achieving and being busy that I literally enjoyed nothing anymore."
I remember distinctly the experience of going to a therapist for the for the first time. She asked me, "So, Joey… what do you enjoy?" and… my mind was utterly blank. It was a ground-breaking moment for me; I realized that I had been so focused on achieving and being busy that I literally enjoyed nothing anymore. Everything was just a superficial task to be completed for the sake of achievement and recognition. I had become addicted to the idea of appearing perfect, all the while deteriorating on the inside. Life had become an unending and absurd staircase climb of achievement that was devoid of any sense of joy, meaning, or purpose.
And so began the years of my life where I put my life on reset. I made it my goal to take care of myself and to try and find a purpose, goal, or career for my life that was more aligned with who I wanted to be, as opposed to who I was expected to be. I went to different therapists and psychologists. I started taking medication. I started an a cappella group with my friends and sang and performed a lot more. I wrote music. I joined a musical. I started dating for the first time. I met my first boyfriend with whom I shared some of the happiest moments of my life. I journaled more. I blogged and I wrote. I started reading history and philosophy again. I travelled more. I started teaching music. I watched random YouTube videos about the universe and game design and philosophy and music and art history and superhero lore for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. I started working with underprivileged kids because it meant a lot to me. I volunteered. I shared my stories. People shared their stories with me. I played more video games (maybe more than I should have :-) ). I started making my own video games as a hobby. Then I started teaching kids how to make them too.
As I started to do more and more activities for the simple joy inherent in doing them in the present moment, the colour in my life slowly started to come back. Instead of seeing things in black and white and feeling numb, skeptical, and pessimistic about what the world had to offer, I started to experience genuine joy and love and hope. The longtime emptiness that had been present in my life for so long gradually started to be filled with all these cool experiences and dreams and feelings that I had never had before. And although there is still a lot to work on and a lot of struggle still ahead of me, at the very least, I'm now filled with a hope that things will continue to get better.
Joey Laguio is a passionate and multidisciplinary music and technology educator who now volunteers at Anxiety Canada. He teaches a variety of subjects at various schools across the Lower Mainland including: UME Academy, where he teaches game design to youth, The Arts Connection, where he teaches voice, and the Pacific Community Resources Society, where he tutors math and science to underprivileged and underserved youth. In addition, he has also co-founded an a cappella organization, Wings Vocal Collective, which has had several sold-out shows, has performed at various gigs throughout Greater Vancouver, and has competed in international a cappella competitions.