Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to step in and say something, since I have a very close relationship with mine. **Disclaimer, I’m obviously not a doctor, just an anxious person.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had anxiety. I refused to try new foods in restaurants, I had regular panic attacks over tiny things (asking for help with my homework, getting to sleep on time, thinking my friends hated me), but I buried it and carried on. I managed to perform every weekend in high school as a competitive cheerleader, succeed academically and still have friends. I kept my meltdowns and worries private and assumed they were just a part of life.
When I went away to college, the number of new experiences and things beyond my control overwhelmed me. Being away from home, balancing a heavy course load, a new, long-distance boyfriend, and Division I cheerleading all compounded and became more than my coping mechanisms could handle.
I felt out of control. I was crying at the drop of a hat and crying hard, hyperventilating over small things, like people coming into my room to hang out, or my roommate talking to me while I was reading. There was an ever-present and seemingly inexplicable tension in my neck and shoulders. I became obsessive about things, like needing my dorm to be perfectly clean and organized, needing to constantly make sure my family was safe, needing to obsessively reaffirm that my boyfriend still loved me. I isolated myself, opting to stay in rather than go out whenever possible. I was miserable, and so were the people around me.
Eventually, I unloaded on my mom, another woman who has dealt with anxiety her whole life, and who has had hers under control as long as I could remember. I felt like I had too many feelings, like everything was out of control, and like I just didn’t know what to do.
I credit my mom’s own experience with anxiety and panic attacks, and her acceptance of mental health problems as valid health problems for the success I had in getting mine under control. A lot of people will look at anxiety or depression and say “cheer up” or “let it go.” If only it were that easy. But my mom listened to me, and helped me make an appointment with a therapist.
She accompanied to my first appointment, which I wholeheartedly dreaded. I didn’t want to have to tell a stranger about myself. I didn’t want to cry in front of someone I didn’t know. But the overwhelming feelings I had outweighed my fear of a therapist.
Those three sessions with my therapist were some of the most helpful experiences in my life. Hearing a professional affirm that what I had been experiencing and coping with actually was anxiety filled me with the greatest sense of relief. After that first hour it was like a weight had been lifted. I didn’t have to feel like I was alone or losing it or out of control.
Those sessions helped me pinpoint things that triggered my anxiety, and to discover methods to deal with panic attacks and uncomfortable situations. I had just been forcing myself to deal for so long, it was another relief to have tools to fall back on.
But I’d be lying if I said the most helpful thing for my anxiety wasn’t the medication. Every morning I wake up and take 20mg of Paxil. Since my initial prescription in college, I’ve even increased the dosage. I’m not ashamed. The effect of the medication was almost immediate. It took the edge off of the insurmountable anxiety I felt about day-to-day things. I didn’t obsess anymore, or worry that I’d lose the people I love. Initially, I was concerned that medication would level me out and I’d lose my personality, but in reality it has made the peaks and troughs a lot smoother and more manageable.
I know that I will likely be on Paxil (or something similar) for the rest of my life, but I don’t worry about it. (Ha ha get it?) I also have asthma, and the best way to describe my use of Paxil for anxiety is that, in the same way my lungs don’t work quite right, my brain also doesn’t. It needs help to keep everything running smoothly. No one would ever tell me to give up my inhaler and just take deep breaths, or that it was all in my head, and I don’t feel that way about my anxiety meds either.
Of course I still worry about things and have the occasional panic attack, but my quality of life has vastly improved over the past five years. My only regret is that I didn’t get help sooner. I suffered through it on my own, when I didn’t have to.
I try hard to be open about my experience with anxiety because it’s important to me to open up the conversation. It’s important for people to know that it’s normal and okay to have mental health issues and that they don’t have to rule you.
Mental health shouldn’t be embarrassing and no one should have to suffer in silence. It should be easy to get help. I want anyone else out there who feels like they’re suffering alone to know that they are not. There are so many resources out there, and everyone deserves to live the best life possible. You are never alone.
A few resources can be found here.