I've always considered myself pretty strong. I grew up on a farm, and as a result, got my share of cuts and bruises (not to mention shocks from the electrical fence). I'm 22 years old, but I still vividly remember getting a particularly nasty splinter and laying on the floor with my foot in my father's lap so he could remove it with his pocket knife. I should be thankful I didn't get an infection, because there's no way that bad boy was sterile. But I'm ok with that, because that kind of a childhood makes you strong.
Emotional pain is different. It nags at you like a splinter does, and is almost as painful to pick at, but you can't exactly remove it the same way. In the first week of 2013, both my grandmother and my best friend passed away. While I'd had brushes with death before, it had never reached into my life and plucked out a piece of me.
I was about to finish my freshman year of college, but I was completely unprepared for the effect grief can have. A week after their passing, at my best friend's funeral, I had my first panic attack. It was debilitating; my chest was constricted, it was hard to breathe, and it felt like there was a hand gripping my heart even as it raced. The deaths of such meaningful people was the birth of my anxiety.
At 18, I didn't know how to deal with stress and grief and classes and homework and everything else that comes with being a new college student. I started having nightmares, and was often revisited by the same tightening of my chest that had occurred with my panic attack. I felt anxious and tense all the time, but I told myself I was strong. (I could run barefoot down a gravel driveway, I could totally deal with something in my head) Instead of talking with the college's counselors, I did a lot of googling.
(Google is a dangerous place when you're worried about your mental health. It's like playing Wheel of Fortune but with different psychoses. Depending on the keywords you use, you could go from having anxiety to having schizophrenia and be none the wiser. Are those voices in your heads or just your neighbors?)
As a result, I learned a lot of self care, and as I wrote in journals and went on walks, I told myself I was taking care of the problem. When I had panic attacks or wasted hours overanalyzing inconsequential things, I told myself I was just stressed. (Because stress makes you go through the exact tone and word usage of something someone said)
People don't like talking about mental health. There still exists a huge stigma around it, and when it is talked about, it's typically with a negative connotation and a lot of eye rolling. Maybe it's because it's something we can't see--do we really think they're faking it? (If I was going to fake something, it'd be something cool. Like... I have superpowers, not anxiety)
In 2016, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. A few months later, I accepted a job and moved to a new city where I knew no one. During my college career, I’d learned to deal with my anxiety, but the move brought it back full force. I utilized my self care methods and refused to even think about medication (because “I was strong”). This time, though, it didn’t work.
I didn’t have the same support system of nearby friends I’d had in college, and the stresses of a new job threw me even more off-kilter than I already was. In those first few weeks, I had panic attacks every other day. I constantly felt tense and worried, like I was getting pulled in eight different directions. Even though I was exhausted at the end of each day, I couldn’t sleep because I was unable to shut off my brain. I couldn’t sit still or focus--I was fidgeting or pacing all the time, even during the weekends when I just wanted to lay on the couch and watch Netflix.
A month later, I was at my wit’s end. I was alone and I was stressed, but mostly, I was ready for a change. So I made an appointment to see a doctor. It was a good lesson in Adulting 101--you are responsible for yourself, and if you’re miserable, you’re the only one who can change that.
At my appointment, I was truthful and honest with the doctor (it’s hard to talk about, but it’s super important to be open with medical professionals), and she confirmed what I’d suspected--I have General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I’m not alone, millions of people deal with GAD too.
I’m lucky to an extent, my years of avoidance taught me great self care, I just needed a boost. So my doctor prescribed a very low dosage anxiety medication that, taken daily, works with my brain so that I feel and deal with anxiety like your average Joe.
It’s been a few months, but I felt the difference within the first few weeks. I’m thankful I sought help outside of Google (while it can help with homework, it really can’t help with mental illness). I still deal with my anxiety, but panic attacks are few and far between, and the feelings that come with my anxiety are actually manageable.
Seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s just a different kind of strength. Which is why today, I openly discuss my anxiety. The stigma around mental health does exist, and that can discourage people from getting the help they deserve and need.
It’s so important to have a toolbox of ways to deal with mental illness. While medication helps, I work to not be dependent on it, adding in workouts, journaling, and the occasional hot bath. It’s important, too, to have conversations with friends and loved ones about what’s going on. In relationships, I’m open with my partner about how my anxiety functions. (No, it’s not fake. Yes, it makes me worry about and overanalyze little things sometimes. It isn’t personal. No, I don’t know what I’m anxious about. Yes, you can help.)
Plenty of people don’t believe the grips that anxiety and other mental illnesses can have on an individual. I, and many others, can tell you that it isn’t fun (actually, there’s a lot of other adjectives I’d use, but I’m trying to keep this pretty PG). I’m learning though that it’s all about how you deal with it and who you surround yourself with.
For me, I've learned that good music and good people are key. Music helps me get outside of my head, which is good when you worry a lot. As for people? When my anxiety is particularly bad, I ask for two things:
A hug. Something about someone squeezing the air out of my lungs is super helpful. Bonus points for no judgement when I become a blanket burrito and request a hug (it helps, I swear...).
"Tell me something good." When I'm repeatedly overanalyzing something, this is my best request. To my friends, they know I'm asking for a lame joke or a funny story, I just want them to talk about something that I'm not thinking about. (Plus, it's hard to be super anxious once you're laughing.)
When your friends say they need help, listen. Do they need a hug? Do they need space? Sometimes it just helps to talk--tell them something good: a lame joke or a funny story. If you’re thinking about getting help, please do, and know that you’ll be stronger for it. When the going get’s rough, take a hot bath (#treatyoself with candles and a bath bomb), remember that you are not your illness, and know that you aren’t alone.
Resources for those in doubt:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline | 800.273.8255