Take Mental Health Awareness Week Seriously
You know that feeling when you nearly avoid hitting another car? When your stomach is in your throat, your heart is about to burst out of your chest, and it feels like your veins are full of Red Bull? This is how every day feels when you have an anxiety disorder.
For most people, anxiety is something they feel when they are nervous for something: a test, public speaking, or maybe a first date. But for some people, anxiety is a constant state of being. Some are more prone to it than others, and for some people like me, it’s a chronic condition.
For three years of my life my anxiety was debilitating. There were some days where I would lay in my bed screaming out in pain, tears running down my face, while my parents looked on horrified, not knowing what to do or how to help. Even my good days were filled with fatigue, and I would go to bed as early as possible and sleep in as late as I was allowed, because sleeping was the only time the pain would stop. I missed over 50 days of my senior year of high school.
After I graduated I moved to New York to start culinary school, but gradually my symptoms became worse and I had to drop out. Eventually I was unable to go up stairs or even stand for long periods of time without becoming out of breath and experiencing extreme dizziness and nausea. At this time my anxiety was still undiagnosed, and I saw more doctors than I can count, all of them focusing on the physical ailments I was experiencing rather than any possible mental distress. A few of them said that some people just experience pain for no reason and basically told me to suck it up, while others were convinced I was lying in order to get attention. Several drug prescriptions, scary side effects, exploratory surgeries, and an ER trip later, a nurse finally suggested in passing that I might have a problem with anxiety.
Once I had a tentative label for my problem it because easier to confront head on. I began seeing therapists and taking anti-anxiety medication, and slowly but surely, I was able to function more like I used to. I was told I had GAD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a chronic disorder in which people worry about everything and anything, and get through each day with significant distress. People suffering from GAD are generally convinced that things will always go poorly, and this overwhelming worry interferes with the completion of every day tasks. My days are filled with what ifs: What if I forgot to lock my door? What if my alarm doesn’t go off? What if I miss my bus? What if I don’t wash my hair tonight but then don’t have time to do it tomorrow? What if I don’t bring my umbrella and then it rains? What if I forgot to put my name on that exam? Each part of my day is filled with a new uncontrollable worry, no matter how small.
Many of the symptoms I had been experiencing were actually physical manifestations of my anxiety. I learned that panic attacks don’t have to be triggered by something stressful, in fact, many times I’ve gotten them while reading and drinking tea in bed.
I’m sharing my story so that other people know that there is a difference between every day anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Telling someone with GAD to “not worry” and “get over it” is like telling someone with depression to simply “cheer up”. There’s good intention behind it, but most likely your friend is aware they have a problem and is already trying their best. Honestly I could think of a lot of other ways I would rather spend my day than obsessing over whether my ANGEL assignment actually submitted or not. The most important thing you can do for someone with any mental health issue is to simply be there for them. You don’t need to actively try and fix their problem for them – just being there and listening with a supportive ear is more helpful than you could ever imagine.
I’ve lost a lot of friends due to my anxiety and the misunderstandings surrounding it, which is ironic because the time in my life many of my friends stopped talking to me was the time I needed them the most. I hope that my story will show just how important it is to start talking about mental health, not just among the medical community and our peers, but among our family as well. Many mental health problems (including GAD) run in families, and opening the lines of communication makes developing issues down the line less likely, and can ease the coping of those already suffering. Once I had been diagnosed with GAD and started talking about it with my extended family, I found out that several other cousins and grandparents also suffered from similar anxiety problems. Had mental health been something we openly discussed as a family, I might have caught my problem earlier than I did.
One in four college students have a diagnosable mental health problem, and for an issue so common it’s something not a lot of people talk about. Mental health isn’t something you can ignore, it’s something you need to work on and maintain every day of your life. Sometimes I still double check that my apartment door is locked and set two alarms in case one of them doesn’t go off, but I’m getting a little better each and every day with the support of my family and friends. I hope that someday soon the stigma surrounding mental health will vanish, and I might actually be able to tell people that the reason I’m missing out on a meeting or coffee date is that I’m going to my therapist instead of the dentist. This week I urge people to be more open about their mental health and to be bold in confronting any problems or stigma they might face in doing so.
Mental Health Awareness week should not be taken lightly, and hopefully my story makes this weeks goal hit a little closer to home. Mental health should no longer be the elephant in the room.