On Freaking Out And Building Good Habits: An Interview with Simone DeAngelis

This op-ed and interview has been written by #BBATX committee member Vittoria Criss.

I had my first panic attack while grocery shopping. A routine task suddenly ended with me locked in a bathroom stall wondering if I was about to die. Like many women, I felt my symptoms were ignored and invalidated until I reached a breaking point. After years just surviving, I finally sought medical help, and got a diagnosis and treatment. Every day I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month I spoke with Simone DeAngelis, author of the upcoming book If You're Freaking Out, Read This: A Coping Workbook for Building Good Habits, Behaviors, and Hope for the Future and Community Engagement Specialist at Community First! Village, about our experiences confronting and managing our mental health diagnoses, while also helping others move toward a healthier life.

Pictured: Simone DeAngelis. Photo courtesy of Simone DeAngelis, taken by @alicerabbitshoots

Pictured: Simone DeAngelis. Photo courtesy of Simone DeAngelis, taken by @alicerabbitshoots

Vittoria Criss: When I originally thought of who I wanted to have this conversation with I looked up traditional professionals—psychologists, therapists. The more I thought about it, I decided to shift gears to focus on someone in the community who, like me, has lived experience with mental health, and wants to reach others through their experience. What made you want to write your book?

Simone DeAngelis: I made a little booklet for myself for when I was having freak-outs—for future Sim. It was just 10 coping skills, and I kept it where it was visible to remind myself “Here are some coping skills that work for you in moments when you’re freaking out. You probably forgot right now, but you can go pick it up and do these skills.” A friend sent it to a publisher, and I signed a book deal within a week on 10 pages. They asked me to write 150 more pages, and now it’s a workbook. Each chapter is one of my coping skills. It starts with how to do that coping skill, then there are some essays and worksheets with expanding questions on how you can apply the skills to your life.

Criss: In public health work we talk a lot about access, some people just don’t have access to or awareness of resources that more privileged people do. What makes you so passionate, and why do you think sharing your experience is valuable for helping others?

DeAngelis: I have struggled with mental health for a long, long time. I’ve thought about why I’m more privileged than others and why we exist since I was a child. I’ve been grappling with how I handle the world, and if it’s different than other people do—does everybody ask these questions? I was trying to figure out what the boundaries are between what parts are because of my mental health, and what parts are just because I’m human. I’ve been in therapy for a long time, and in 2012 I spent 6 months in psychiatric care. A big reason why I’m excited about my book, and why I agreed to publish it, is because a lot of people can’t get access to things I learned from professionals. My book is for sale on a sliding scale. I’ve talked to a lot of professionals and gotten incredible care, and now my dream is to take those abstract concepts and make them into stuff that’s cool, and that people can understand.

Criss: I was reading your most recent blog post called “practice change, make progress,” and it resonated with me, but my first thought was “practice is hard.” How do you overcome the difficulties of doing work on yourself to make practice a priority in your life?

DeAngelis: I cannot operate when I’m in a dark spot, and it makes me feel really good to work hard and show up for my friends, and be able to really listen to them. There’s a lot on the line if I don’t do the work—there’s a lot to lose. Now that I’ve come so far in my journey deciding to stay alive, I really don’t want to go back to that dark spot as an option. I’ve gone through a period of depression in the last year. I’ve worked so hard on my mental health—and that’s not because I hope to never struggle with my mental health again. I’m setting up future me for success.

Criss: Along with your blog, you’re fairly active on social media. I think social media has been a great tool to de-stigmatize talking about mental health, but sometimes working on your mental health can be watered down into cool, superficial self care rituals like using a cute bath bomb or drinking a mushroom tea. How have you felt about publicly sharing difficult moments that aren’t in line with that effortless aesthetic?

DeAngelis: The other day it took me three hours to get out of my apartment. And when I finally got out, I was going to post a selfie on Instagram and share my struggles, but I didn’t. It can be tough because I don’t know if I can post a picture with a caption that can really convey to you that this is a dark-ass day. And if I do post a picture, people can say “Well it can’t be that dark, you’re posting on Instagram.” Sometimes I get frustrated with suggestions like “Feeling depressed? Go get your nails done,” because I don’t know if that person gets the full grasp of how I’m feeling at the time.

Criss: None of us have all the answers, but I think people like you who choose to be honest about your struggles is a great place to start. On your Instagram you call yourself a “self-compassion warrior.” What does that mean to you?

DeAngelis: I told my friend “You’re a self-compassion warrior on a mission of goodness.” And she said, “You said that to me because you’re too afraid to tell yourself that.” I’m just trying to be fearless in loving myself, and consistent. I spend a lot of my pie of what I think about on self compassion, because there’s a lot of self-loathing that can go on. When I get stuck in that cycle of self loathing I have a hard time believing in myself enough to write a blog post, or talk to a friend, or go out in public. When I can have the security of “I’m loving and nurturing you,” then it puts me in a much better spot of what I need to work on. I have all these self compassionate phrases that I can tell people because I memorized them because I use them all the time to combat the self-critical talk that’s going on in myself. And now it doesn’t last as long, and it doesn’t take such a strong hold on me, and I want to share that with others.

Criss: I wanted to talk a little about stigma and discrimination against people who have a mental illness, especially for women. What have your experiences been like with stigma since you have talked so openly about your mental health?

DeAngelis: It’s tough, especially in the professional field, when I’m trying to be taken seriously in my career because I’ve been so open about my mental health journey. People will say “I don’t want to put too much on your plate because you might get depressed, or you might have an anxiety attack.” I’m responsible for what’s on my plate, and what I take from the buffet line, and you can’t give less of the buffet line to those with mental illness. I’m going to put on my plate what I need to, and if it’s too much I’m going to have to take responsibility for it.

You can learn more about Simone DeAngelis, along with her blog and book, at thingsgetweird.com.