Mental illness is one of those things that people tend to gloss over. They pretend like it's not a real thing, not a serious concern, but that's factually inaccurate and damaging to those who suffer from it. I spent my entire young life thinking that there was something wrong with me, when really there is something wrong with the way people perceive me.
Many people get confused about anxiety and anxiety disorders because there isn't enough information out there that is easy to understand. They might think that it's just like regular phobias or fears, but that's a huge mistake.
Back to the beginning
I started experiencing recurring panic attacks when I was 11-years-old, only I didn't know what they were. Mental health wasn't something that was discussed in school or in my family, so I just felt like I was going crazy. Any time that I had to go out to our barn at night, I would feel my heart race, my mind would start visualizing terrible scenarios, my muscles would seize up, and there was a feeling of dread that was inescapable. I went through this every single night. Never once did I express to my family what I was feeling.
It wasn't until I was 16-years-old when I did a project on anxiety disorders in school that I learned that anxiety was a condition that actually existed. Reading through the symptoms felt like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of her house in Munchkinland and everything was in color. Suddenly everything became clear, at least to me.
The problem was, part of the anxiety that I was experiencing made it impossible for me to tell anyone about what I was going through. The panic only increased over the years. It extended into other aspects of my life. I became terrified of social situations, completely unable speak my mind, unable to do anything without spending minutes carefully analyzing what I was going to say before I said it.
I tried my best to ignore it for as long as possible, but when I was 19-years-old, I was hospitalized. It was then that I realized it was time to face the music and come clean about the inner workings of my mind.
Facing the truth
After suffering from a three-day long panic attack that caused me to feel as though a rhino was sitting on my chest making it completely impossible to breathe, I was dragged (much to my annoyance) to the hospital. I tried to convince everyone that I was fine, but when you arrive to the hospital and say you are having chest pain, they do not mess around.
After countless tests that honestly were almost more terrifying than the chest pains, they told me that it was just an anxiety attack. Just an anxiety attack. I remember them saying it as though it was nothing. Should I have been happy that my brain was causing me immense pain? Was I supposed to be relieved that there was no simple solution to fix me right away? I never felt more annoyed in my life. Sure, I was glad that I didn't have some serious heart condition, but I didn't feel like the diagnosis was really all that comforting.
When you go through what I did, the doctors tell you that you have to go to a therapist to get officially diagnosed. So that's what I did. I booked an appointment and I psyched myself up, but when the time came I spent 45 minutes sitting outside the office in my car before I could even make it to the door.
Therapy is something that I now recommend to everyone, even if they aren't going through any actual issues. It's kind of like brushing your teeth. You don't only do it because your teeth are falling out, you do it because you want to make sure they don't do that in the future. However, going to therapy for the first time was terrifying.
Going in and having to explain what was going on with me was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. It's hard to find the right words to describe what it was like.
How it really felt
I remember trying to explain how anxiety is like getting stabbed and punched in the chest simultaneously while your entire high-school laughs at you, but also you aren't wearing pants. It's like trying to breathe underwater while writing a test you weren't prepared for and also there's a shark biting your toes. It's like thinking that everyone is looking at you, laughing at you, talking about you, but wanting to be invisible. It's like being afraid of every single molecule in the air, but at the same time hating yourself for it because you know there is nothing to be afraid of.
It took her less than ten minutes to diagnose me with a full-on Generalized Anxiety Disorder accompanied by Social Anxiety Disorder. Generalized anxiety explained why at almost 20-years-old, I was still thinking about the monsters in the dark, and social anxiety could describe the moments where I was afraid of letting people know that I was afraid of the monsters in the dark.
The doctor did her best to try and explain that it was normal, that I wasn't crazy. Every time I would try to agree with her, but by the time I made it back to my family and friends, I would once again keep everything inside. No one really understood what I was going through, I didn't let them, but even when I tried to share it seemed like they just didn't get it.
Dealing with others
"Oh, I get anxious too," some people would say. "You're just shy," others tried to convince me. "You should just get over it," I heard over and over. If you met someone who was diagnosed with diabetes would you tell them to get over it? No. Hearing people repeat to me over and over how it was nothing to worry about made me feel even worse for being constantly worried about it.
The medication I was put on wasn't a permanent solution. They were only to be taken at night because they would help sedate me, but that's not what I wanted. I needed to find a way to survive my day-to-day life, I couldn't be unconscious all the time.
Instead of fighting for my health, I let my anxiety win. I just did what I had done for years, and ignored it all. I had become basically a professional at compartmentalizing. I stopped going to therapy and just tried my best to shut down all those anxious feelings, or at least never let anyone else see them. It was almost shocking at how quickly the people who knew about it just completely let it go and forgot.
However, my anxiety never forgot, it came back with a vengeance.
Anxiety Part II: Back With A Vengeance
Years passed, and my symptoms kept getting worst. I would experience unexplained stomach problems, hair loss, night terrors, rashes, weight gain, weight loss, nausea, exhaustion, back pain, the list goes on and on. It wasn't until I finally went to a new doctor for some other issue that I hadn't realized was connected, when they finally said "Hey, you have a problem and we want to help."
This time, I was old enough, strong enough, and ready to take control of my mental health. I wasn't going to let people's opinions of me control the help I got. I was on my own and I didn't need to even tell anyone if I didn't want to, which honestly helped a lot.
The new doctor worked with me to find a medication that would control the daily issues I had, and while it took a while to get used to being on a medication, it has helped a lot. Sure, the adjustment period was hard. There were many forgotten doses, headaches, side effects and of course a financial cost, but if it meant that I would get even a little bit of relief then it was worth it.
It's not always perfect now. I still have to occasionally switch up medications or dosages because life is hard and managing the chemicals in my unconventional brain is sometimes a lot of effort, but honestly it's so much better than it was.
Advice for others going through the same thing
Looking back, I wish that someone who had gone through it would have been open with me, told me what it was really like. Explained that it's scary, explained that it's hard, and explained that it isn't going to get better in an instant. There is no quick-fix with mental health issues, but the first step is to get help.
You aren't ever alone, you just need to know where to look. If your family and friends aren't supporting you, or even if you are like me and are just too afraid to talk to them, sometimes it's actually easier to just talk to a doctor. They see this kind of thing every day and there is no judgement from them. There are a lot of physical symptoms you may be experiencing without even realizing that it's all connected, but your mental state is a lot harder for anyone else to notice.
So make sure you are taking care of yourself, and don't be ashamed if your brain is doing some funky stuff to you. You aren't alone.