Being Fashion-Obsessed Saved Me from Crippling Anxiety and Depression

To all the people who have expressed confusion regarding why I'm always "dressed to the nines," — this is why I do it.
Publish date:
February 18, 2016
mental illness, fashion, anxiety, coping skills

My life-long relationship with anxiety began at a young age. I was four years old when crippling fears began taking over my life. Pre-school drop off was the worst. I would scream and cry, terrified that I would never see my parents again. My fears were erratic, but for the most part, I feared the death of my parents. Therapists were unable to understand why a child living in a stable environment who had never experienced loss displayed so many classic symptoms of childhood mourning and trauma related to death.

Eventually, the fears changed and the compulsions began. Between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, I became fearful of being trapped in subway cars and being poked by hypodermic needles on the beach and in movie theaters. Sharp objects would make my palms sweat. I would compulsively walk circles around counter tops in my kitchen to avoid the Cuisinart knife set. I swore off using scissors.

Through my early adolescence, as the compulsions ebbed and flowed, I began finding myself, learning and leaning into the things I loved and cared for. During my most formative years, I watched my mother successfully juggle a demanding career in the fashion industry while raising a family. Fashion was the reason we had dinner on our table.

I watched her pack luggage full of fabric and carry it from client to client. I watched her struggle to say goodbye as she boarded flights to Europe for fabric expos. Despite her long hours and frequent travel, she was always sure to read to me at night and made certain her closet was immaculate. As a child, I was sensitive to this, and as a teen, when applied to myself, I quickly noticed that there was a direct correlation between how much effort I put into an outfit and how intense my anxiety was on a given day.

I moved through high school more or less peacefully. In fashion, I had finally found respite from my many fears, anxieties and compulsions. The strategy worked, but wasn't foolproof. Still, my heart no longer sank when my parents left the house and if the train I was on lurched momentarily between stops, I remained unfazed. I partied. I dated. I lived the typical life of a New York City teenager. I would mention my struggles with mental illness in passing, but I remained certain to highlight that these issues were behind me, buried deep within my past. I finally began taking hold of, and appreciating the privileges I had as a result of, my mother's career in the fashion and design industry. As a result, I felt invincible.

Fashion Week was no longer an event I teased my mom about. It was now an event I embraced and looked forward to. Trend-spotting and debating fashion politics were things I relished. My taste in clothes and accessories was no longer conditional upon emulating my mother. It was about me, my personal style, and a process I needed to take to hone in on my individuality. I reveled in my ability to put together an outfit. I found some of my closest friends through our mutual obsession with trends, premium denim, and the best leather jackets. While everyone else struggled through feeling their most awkward, I was feeling the most confident I had ever felt. I had Rag and Bone and Ray Ban to thank for that. While my peers sifted through their struggles, I was able to forget years' worth of mental anguish.

Life remained this way until the Fall of 2014.

As a Senior in college, freshly returned from studying abroad in Havana, Cuba, I was immediately thrust into a whirlwind of anxiety, OCD and depression. Fears, that for so long remained dormant, immediately reared their ugly heads. I became terrified to travel and withdrew from a semester long program in Sydney, Australia. I became a prisoner of my bedroom. I was afraid to leave my house.

Rapidly reverting into my 12-year-old self, I was terrified to ride the train and begged taxi drivers to avoid highways and tunnels. Soon, I became convinced I was dying of dozens — and then hundreds — of different diseases. The sight of a bruise on any part of my body would insight immediate fear and panic. I began spending hours in front of mirrors methodically inspecting every inch of my body. My phone flashlight became the only thing capable of soothing my thoughts. I would shine it on every mole, bruise, and perceived dimple. I broke down into tears at the thought of stripping down and facing my naked body in the shower, sure I would find some mark, some indicator of illness, and subsequent death.

The people around me became tools of false reassurance. I would beg my friends and my parents to confirm that I wasn't sick, that the mole on my leg was indeed benign, that the change in color on my areola was not an indicator of cancer and that the rate at which my hair fell out was due to stress and not an auto-immune disease. When the flashlight, the mirrors, and the desperate reassurances of friends and family members failed, I wished I could claw a way out of my skin.

I no longer bothered to get dressed in the morning. My makeup gathered a fine layer of dust and my once-beloved collection of beautiful clothes hung stiff in my closet. When the sun came up, I would shut my alarm off and slide my comforter over my face.

I was desperately searching for comfort. I so desperately felt like I was failing. I spent my days struggling to make it to class and multiple therapy sessions.

One day in late summer, almost a full year after the nightmare began, the sun came up. As always, fears immediately flooded my thoughts. My jaw was stiff and tight from the teeth-grinding that occurred in my sleep. But this time, unlike every other time, when I took a look at my clothing rack I felt a distant-yet-familiar excitement. I got up, walked over, and very carefully began sifting through my dresses, culottes and button downs. I gripped my leather jackets, their smell so familiar and comforting.

I took a shower. This time I used every tool taught to me in therapy to evade the intrusive thoughts. I ran my hand along my body in appreciation, excited to get out, get dressed, and revel in sartorial affinity. That day, I was able to ride the subway without a panic attack. I was present. I lived in the moment. I laughed and was able to engage in conversations unrelated to my health.

At some point within the many moments of that day, I realized that my will to get out of bed was now a choice. If I employed the tools provided by my trusted therapists and looked to the one major constant in my life — my passion for all things sartorial — as a tool for my confidence, I would be able to fight intrusive thoughts. I'd learn again to trust in my ability to control my life. It was possible for me to succeed.

Sartorial obsession is so often overlooked. Trend-following, street style stars, and fashion bloggers are regularly deemed frivolous and shallow. But for me, the obsession with fabrics, the latest trends, and whether to pair a leather vest with a slip dress and high top Nikes, has become a placeholder of sorts, a battle cry, and a replacement for the obsessions that imprison me, convincing me that I am incapable of living a full life.

As someone who has dealt with mental illness for almost twenty years, I have finally come to realize and accept that anxiety, depression, and OCD are only a small extension of who I am. They're just facets of my being. They'll never make up a whole, but they will follow me through life, inform my decisions, and force me to confront them everyday. For so long, too long, I feared this challenge, but I'm proud to say that I'm ready now. I'm armed with the skills necessary to continually prioritize introspection, self-care, and the one thing that fulfills me above all else — fashion.

To all the people who have expressed confusion regarding why I'm always "dressed to the nines," this is why I do it.