I have a vivid memory from fourth grade: It’s Show and Tell, and I’m seated at my desk. We’re sharing things that are going on at home and I tell the room that my mom is in the hospital. My teacher asks if I knew more—I didn’t—I just knew my mom was sick.
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When I was old enough to understand, my parents explained that my mom had depression. She no longer needed to be hospitalized, but she took medication, attended therapy and found coping tools that worked. My mom was getting better and despite how open my family has always been about mental illness, part of me was hesitant to admit that I needed help, too.
I ran from my anxiety, until I couldn’t anymore.
People have always called me a worrier and I often joked about my own worrying tendencies. During grade school, I would feel nauseous when I was nervous, worried a tornado or fire would destroy my home and family and often cried to stay home. In high school, I felt that same nervousness, missing much of freshman year with a mysterious stomach illness. I worried about grades, college, friends. I worried straight into college until the fear overtook me.
My senior year of college was the darkest year of my life. It was the moment I realized that my worrying wasn’t something to joke about and that something was wrong. I couldn’t sleep all year. I stayed awake worrying about everything including graduating, finding a job and why my boyfriend seemed so distant. For nearly a month, I learned to survive on two to three hours of sleep. The rings under my eyes, the constant headaches and nausea hardly made the surviving easier and I kept passing it off as insomnia, stress, even my dorm room bed.
Those nights, I would call home, crying to my mother and she would listen, offering her wisdom or just a faraway shoulder to cry on. She urged me to come home and see a doctor and I did. After my first appointment, I left with a pamphlet on tips for treating insomnia. For awhile things seemed better, until they got worse.
In a span of a month, serious changes happened; I graduated college without a plan for my next steps, the distant boyfriend dumped me, my parents moved out of my childhood home, and I moved in with them in their new house. My insomnia returned and this time I found myself constantly crying.
I don’t remember much of that summer, but I do remember the morning I woke up and wished that I hadn’t. That’s when I knew this wasn’t me.
Mental illness wears you down and as strong as I thought I was, I couldn’t fight off this monster that swallowed me whole. I was tired of crying, worrying, not sleeping. I wanted to be the person I was before, but I was so afraid to admit defeat. I was embarrassed I couldn’t control my thoughts until my doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and walked me through the ways to treat it. It was empowering to take the first steps toward getting better and to know that mental illness is an illness just like anything else.
Over the next few months and years, I experimented with medications and treatments like journaling, pilates and yoga and starting new projects that kept my mind busy until I found what worked for me. I ditched the things that made me anxious, including the friends that treated me poorly and the copious amounts of coffee that sent my heart into a frenzy. I felt better, more like the person I was as the years passed on, but I still worried. The worries gradually came to occupy less space in my brain and I felt like I was making my way back, then last year, I had a panic attack for the first time.
Curled up in a ball on my bed, shaking feverishly, feeling like I was going to die, sweat gathering on my brow, I felt defeated. I wanted so badly to feel like I could beat anxiety and become the independent person I was before. When you’re unable to get out of bed that dream seems so far out of reach. Back I went to my doctor, vowing this time I would get better.
The return visit brought a change in medication and suggestions to slow down and practice self care. It’s been a year since that visit and what I’ve only recently realized is I’ll never be the person I was before anxiety. I don’t need to get better, I just need to be me. Anxiety is part of my life, at least for now and I’m finding ways to deal with it every day. Some days are bad and I stay in bed watching Sailor Moon until I feel better and some days I feel ready to conquer the world and face my fears head on.