“I can’t go out tonight. I’ve been feeling super anxious all week. I hope you understand.” I typed these words–words I’ve sent to so many friends before–and pressed send, knowing that I again was allowing myself to surrender to this condition, this horrible monster that won’t get off my back. I had made tentative plans with a good friend of mine, knowing that an anxiety attack was on the verge. Because trying to prevent one of these attacks is just as exhausting as going through one, the feeling had left me very emotional and tired. I always hesitate letting people know this part of me–this illness that has as many stigmas, misconceptions, and mystery as so many others. I trust my good friend though, and when she responded with “Oh girl, of course I do”, I was able to take a deep breath, and let go of that little ounce of anxiety.
I had my first panic attack when I was 5. I remember it very vividly. I was watching the Disney movie “The Fox and the Hound” with my mother, and I realized that the fox and the hound were not allowed to be friends, and they never could be friends. It was completely out of their control, and that made me extremely anxious. My breathing became labored and I started sobbing uncontrollably. I remember telling me my mom “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”. I can’t imagine the fear she felt, watching her own child unable to control their emotions, to control their reaction to something as silly as a children’s movie. The movie was forbidden in my house and I get nervous any time anyone mentions it. We have the book adaption at my school, and all my students know to ask another teacher to read it.
It’s funny that anxiety in adolescents is often perceived as a child that is extremely sensitive. I had a very high fear of being picked last or failing. I would cry at the sight of a “B” on a paper, and someone not sitting next to me on a field trip resulted in difficulty breathing. I was labeled a child that was extremely delicate and sensitive–not one you could give critique to. Most adults didn’t realize that I couldn’t handle it because I was too proud or stuck-up–failure and not having control over situations manifested into anxiety attacks.
When I was 17, I started having difficulties sleeping, eating, and focusing. I had absolutely no appetite and I was consumed with the fear of not getting into college, despite my excellent grades and potential. Not sure what to do, my parents sent me to a doctor who told me I was either pregnant or had a mental illness–an anxiety disorder. Being a virgin, I knew what the answer was. But I didn’t know what it meant.
I went to a new doctor and explained what was going on–I couldn’t eat full meals, any small, imperfect detail could put me in tears, and the idea of sharing any of this with my friends–who saw me as someone who had it all together and was extremely bubbly and optimistic–made me want to throw up. Also, when I felt out of control in any of these situations, I would feel faint and have difficulty breathing. My doctor explained to me that this was anxiety. Most people endure anxiety in points of their lives, but for others, it registers differently. It can create panic and distress, often showing itself in meltdowns and tears. I felt simultaneously relieved and terrified–there was an answer for what was going on, but did it mean that I was crazy? My relief quickly turned into embarrassment, and when the doctor prescribed me medication, I had a panic attack right then and there. I had no control over this illness, and I didn’t want it to get the best of me.
After trial and error through a few different types of medication, I found meditation and breathing exercises, as well as natural herbs and vitamins, better suited my anxiety issues. College had its fair share of anxiety, but I was able to handle it well enough with the skills and tactics many counselors, fellow anxious friends, and personal research have taught me.
I’m not ashamed of my condition, but I’m not proud of it either. I like being an ally to my friends, because I understand what it’s like to feel like you’re suffocating, when there’s nothing but fresh air. I know what it’s like to fall to pieces when something small doesn’t go according to plan. I know what it’s like to feel the whole world will fall apart if you don’t do this ONE THING at this ONE TIME. I know what it’s like to have triggers, to have to break plans because being in public makes you want to throw up, to avoid certain people and places and situations in order to not have a public meltdown. I know what it’s like, and I’ve been through so much of it, but I’m not cured.
I don’t think anyone truly can be.
I think that it will always be apart of me. It doesn’t define who I am, but it is that little annoying voice that won’t leave. My anxiety will always make me be nervous for myself and for others. But I don’t let it anchor me anymore.
That nasty beast rears its ugly head at times, but I’m not afraid. I’m here to tell you not to be afraid either. Surround yourself with positive people and situations–it sounds trivial and idealistic, but it this was a difficult thing for me to do. I had to learn how to remove people from my life–people that left me feeling exhausted after interactions, folks that put me in stressful situations, or “friends” that just didn’t listen or care. I learned how to quit people, places, and jobs that made me feel anything less than positive. My current friends and partner are some of the most positive and genuine people in the world, and although every job has its stresses, my current job has plenty of joy to counter the stress.
I’m writing this because I want you to know you’re not alone, and you shouldn’t hide your unhappiness. Telling people I have an anxiety disorder is never easy (and it’s certainly not fun), but I think it’s important in lifting the stigmas around it and other mental disorders. I am willing to be open if it allows someone else a chance to feel open about it too.
If you have been feeling overwhelmed, I urge you to talk to a counselor, doctor, or someone you trust. You can win over this. You can, and you will.