Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
I don’t remember the first time I felt nervous for a casual social event. Or the first time I couldn’t sleep at a sleepover. Or the first time I felt so on edge that the quietest call out of my name made me jump. But I do remember my life before anxiety defined it, and sometimes I just can’t believe it.
We are surrounded by memory prompts; it’s a very normal part of life. When an old memory passes through my mind, I try to let the story play. When I think of that time my friends and I pitched a tent in my backyard and had a campout, I can’t believe there was a time in my life when I didn’t think twice about how I was going to sleep that night. When I think about how I used to flirt with boys at school dances, I can’t believe there was a time in my life where I wasn’t so entirely aware of my social interactions that it could make me sick. When I think back to old friendships and relationships, I can’t believe lost connections didn’t cause me to spiral into depressive episodes. It’s all mind boggling to me, and sometimes it brings me down to see how different life becomes with anxiety. But the silver lining is, these memories made me realize how anxiety began to define me. They made me realize that something was wrong, so that I can make things right again.
Mental illness runs in my family. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you whether it was genetics, puberty, or trauma that brought this all on. When I was 12, my family went through a brutal divorce and separation. Emotional abuse, money hungry lawyers, judges with no regard for children’s feelings, the whole nine yards. Having no understanding of stress management, or self-care, I had no idea how to move forward with my own emotional trauma. Seeing how my family was so embarrassed about the divorce, and all the newly revealed secrets that came with it -we were a white picket fence, nuclear family prior - they moved forward by essentially pretending nothing happened. This was surprisingly easy… I had a very good life otherwise; lots of friends, lots of extra curricular activities, big personality. It was easy to just immerse myself back into everything else that I was doing, everything else that I was used to, and keep my head up high.
Side note: In retrospect, I have NO idea how we did this. It took years before people found out my parents were divorced. The divorce process went on for 7 years, and by the end of the 7 years, only a handful of people outside of my family actually knew how traumatic it all was. Everyone else thought my life was perfect.
So at 12 my dad left and chaos ensued. At 12 was when my family made the decision to keep being perfect. And at 12 is when I went numb to deal with it all. Numbness to me meant I could go through emotions appropriately, but the feelings behind the actions were empty. Everyday felt the same, from day of the week, to first day of summer, to New Years Day (the Russian Christmas). It was extremely frustrating to not feel like I used to, but it helped me maintain perfection quite easily.
Timeline update: Age 12-15. Numbness, but survival. Then numbness, but some feelings. Then feelings and some symptoms of mental illness. Then mental illness. Or as I liked to call it, feelings and actions that were only shown at home and covered up with every excuse in the book. I didn’t understand mental illness… I only understood stigma. My life was too good to be ‘crazy’. I was too lucky and grateful to ask for help for something that was ‘in my head’. For feelings that I claimed were remorse from missing my dad… but my dad left years ago and it was too late to cry about it (was what I told myself). My life was defined by stereotypes, but it wasn’t a bad life at all. For years I didn’t feel, and then the feelings hit too fast and furious to handle. The fact that I could fit a stereotype so well gave me good guidelines for how I should be generally living my life. But my stereotyped perfection, and self-stigma resulted in a silent struggle. Eventually my symptoms began to seep through the cracks. I’d exhausted every excuse out there for why I was quiet at events with my friends that I used to be loudest at, for why, at sleepovers, I HAD to sleep in the bed alone, for why I wasn’t getting homework done or going to dance classes.
Coming to terms with my mental illness and asking for help was a process; a journey that I am still very much on. Through involvement with a super cool mental health organization (Jack.org), therapy, family support, and a lot of work, I am now at a place where I can make things right again. For a while, my problem was assuming that making things right again meant never experiencing anxiety ever again. Today, making things right means…
Realizing that my anxiety is just like any other illness, and regarding it as such. My symptoms should be treated like a stomach ache would be treated for the stomach flu, or a stuffed nose should be treated for a cold. Simply recognizing that it’s there, and then working to get through it in the best way for me. Think about physical illness – if I had a stomach flu, I wouldn’t just pretend it’s not there. I would take time to rest, drink lots of water, and think back to what foods caused my symptoms. Through therapy, trial and error, and experience I’ve learned that I can usually overcome an anxious episode with some journaling, watching comedy, and talking about it. A lot of my anxiety comes from wondering how people will react when I become anxious in a situation that shouldn’t evoke that type of nervousness. By talking about it with them, and letting them know how I feel (even though its awkward and sometimes embarrassing) a lot of the anxiety goes away. For me, I don’t like meditation, but exercise and dancing works well for me. Through therapy, I’ve been able to work through many of my own triggers, and slowly reduce the amount of regular anxiousness I feel.
This is my journey. A journey I am still VERY much on. I’m feeling healthier than ever, happier then ever, and more equipped to handle life’s ups and downs then ever before. But I still occasionally feel anxious for days at a time, get panic attacks, get nervous for things that I know logically make no sense, and sometimes lay in bed for days. Though being open about my mental health has been instrumental in my ‘recovery’, I was perfect for too many years to be able to break that stereotype so publicly so quickly. Many see me functioning normally (even when inside I feel like crap) and can’t believe that I have a mental illness - trying to change their minds, and show them the misunderstandings that stigma causes, is sometimes, just too much work.
On those days that I fall for stigma, that I feel stupid for suffering, like I have no reason to get help because my life is just too good, I tell myself something I learned from Jack.org… all of us have mental health. Just like we all have physical health. A physical illness can’t define me, a stomach flu doesn’t make me lesser of a person, a migraine doesn’t make my ‘perfect’ traits go away. Health is health. Mental health is no different.
I wish I could end off with an inspiring message. Something so creative that stays on your mind for an annoying amount of days until you just have to act on it, and change your life. Something you’d want tattooed. But I’ve learned that inspirational messages can’t fix a broken arm, a UTI, or a mental illness. Fact.
This is my story, this is my journey, and I truly hope that it can help you in some way or another!
PS: I’m not against inspirational messages at all. But I used to read them and think “Wow, this is so true! Now I won’t feel anxious anymore” and then feel super disappointed when I still felt like crap. When I learned to apply them to my attitude around the situation, rather than trying to use them to fix the situation, the inspirational messages became a lot easier to apply and learn from. Favourite inspirational message: “She needed a hero, so that’s what she became”. Close second: “Drink some coffee, turn on gangster rap, and handle it”.
Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.