Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: May is Mental Health Month. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for months now, and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. This post focuses on anxiety, but I also mention depression and suicide. Obviously, I am not a mental health professional, and mental illness can manifest in different ways. If you are struggling, schedule an appointment with your doctor ASAP. In a crisis, call your suicide/emergency hotline (US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255).
Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t realize something was wrong until after college. But that was my version of normal: this thing is happening, so you’re going to worry about it. Or, this thing might happen, so you’re going to worry about that, too. Or, more than likely, while you’re already stressed, you might as well worry about this HIGHLY UNLIKELY SCENARIO.
I even remember learning about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in my high school psychology class and thinking, “If I had any mental illness, that would probably be it.” Despite my suspicions, I shrugged it off. Calling my anxiety a ‘disorder,’ however mild, seemed to be a bit of a stretch.
At that time in my life, it probably was. I wasn’t avoiding situations that made me nervous, and I certainly didn’t find it hard to relax. I did, however, overanalyze every aspect of my life, whether it was the complicated world of dating or wondering if I was the friend nobody liked (I know, I liked Dane Cook; don’t judge me too harshly).
Fast-forward to my freshman year of college, where I took another psychology class and had the same thought about GAD. I ignored it. Again. For some reason, I had anxiety about making phone calls, but not about my health.
My little charade could only go on for so long. Throughout college, my anxiety only piled up. Writing short essays became all-nighters where I fought stomachaches and crying fits. Finals week, while stressful for everyone, meant I lost a couple pounds because I didn’t eat much. When I lived off-campus, I always left an hour early because I was so worried about being tardy and, consequently, failing my class.
The tipping point finally came post-graduation and post-mission trip. Never had so much in my life happened so fast. I graduated in December, and left for Spain in February. While I was away, one of my cousins committed suicide. I firmly believe that I was surrounded by amazing people who provided the love I so desperately needed, and God certainly heard my heart breaking–but grief became an entirely different monster upon my return home. Two months later, my then-boyfriend and I broke up. I was job hunting to no avail. My family suffered more losses. And I missed Spain dearly.
Depression wasn’t like my anxiety: it was glaringly obvious. I spent most of my time falling asleep in front of Netflix. I drove around town or wandered around Wal-Mart just so I could say I got out of the house. I ate too much. I was sad, yes, but I also felt empty. Depression convinced me I would feel this way forever; anxiety convinced me that I was a failure. After breaking down into tears in the middle of a Taco Bell, my dad told me that I needed to get help.
I scheduled an appointment with a counselor, whom I started visiting once a week. Therapy has an odd reputation–so many assume it is for other people, people with truly messed-up issues. The truth is that therapy is for everyone. I’ve actually come to think of it as a type of preventive care; even after my depression subsided, I continued to schedule appointments.
Counseling did wonders for my health, and my heart. I was able to talk about anything and everything I needed, and the healing process began. With therapy, I worked hard to love myself again. To tell myself that all would be well.
But life kept coming with its everyday pitfalls and its overwhelming changes. That January, I started having panic attacks.
So that was fun.
It was also what finally prompted me to go see a doctor, since I was having them approximately every other day. Sometimes, there was an obvious stressor. Sometimes, it happened for no reason at all. My doctor prescribed generic Celexa (citalopram), which I tried for about a month before I was prescribed Zoloft (sertraline) and Ativan (lorazepam) for panic attacks.
Like therapy, there is a stigma that comes with antidepressants–even among those who take them. It’s easy to feel like you are broken, or that you will have to endure countless treatments before you can be human again. On the other side of the spectrum, you can start believing that medication will fix all of your problems. Neither of these assumptions are true: antidepressants are no different than any other medication. You would not think less of anyone for taking medication for their cholesterol, and a good doctor would also suggest changes in diet and exercise. For me, anxiety is no different. Healthy coping mechanisms have to supplement medication.
Eventually, I asked my doctor if I could lower my dose of Zoloft. After moving to Atlanta, I started weaning off completely, and I am currently medication-free. I still carry Ativan in my purse for emergencies, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a panic attack out of nowhere.
Free of medication does not mean I am free of anxiety. Sometimes, everyday events feel particularly overwhelming, and I’ve considered going back on Zoloft. Maybe I will; maybe I won’t. Both are perfectly valid choices, as long as I am making my health a priority.
I know I am not alone in this. So many people I love the fight similar demons. If you search ‘anxiety,’ it’s among the most common of mental illnesses. We are fortunate to live in a time where people are talking about metal illness, and the Internet can be a wonderful place for those conversations.
Our brains may be wired to worry; to drown in the what-ifs and forget to live in the now. But that does not mean we are unable to heal. There is hope. Hold on.
An anxiety relief playlist, which I listen to in additon to my personal playlists