Mental Health Series – Part 1
My first memory of anxiety was walking into Kindergarten. I clutched my dads hand for dear life while I held onto my Tweety Bird lunchbox in the other hand. I hung up my Pooh Bear backpack and lunchbox on the outside of the classroom and walked in. Kids and parents were milling about and I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to go back home.
I switched schools in the 2nd grade and my anxiety followed along like a needy puppy. It didn’t just come along for the first day of school, no it followed me to school every morning. Every morning of school I was too anxious to eat, riding along with my mom dreading the moment that she would drive up to school and drop me off. But once I was dropped off, in my seat, with my friends, I could breathe.
Some people may not understand why my anxiety was present at such a young age and to be honest I don’t either. I was well liked, I did well in my classes, I had friends, I wasn’t bullied, but yet every morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach.
My anxiety progressed to new levels in middle school. Now everyone knows that middle school just plain sucks. Your body is starting to change, you’re starting to notice that boys exist, it’s the prime time for braces — really I should’ve just had yellow caution on my body at all times and a sign that said “Work In Progress”.
I changed schools again and this time I was very aware that my anxiety was starting to become a real problem. Again, I had friends, my teachers liked me, but my classes were much harder and I felt behind. Every morning like clockwork as my mom turned the corner to drop me off I started to panic. It got to an unbearable point in the 7th grade when right after my mom would drop me off and I would see her slowly pull away I would pretend I had forgotten something, and I would chase the car. Still to this day it is a painful memory. This didn’t happen once but several times.
One morning in particular sticks out in my mind. I said goodbye to my mom in tears, got out of the car, closed the door, and as she pulled away I went into full blown panic mode. Without thinking, I chased her down and caught her at the end of the block. I banged on the window and begged her to let me in, I couldn’t breathe. She drove me a few blocks away where she parked and she called my dad. In tears she told him what was happening and that she didn’t know what to do with me, if she should let me go home or go to school. I was sitting in the fetal position in the floorboard of the passenger seat in a full blown panic attack. I couldn’t catch my breath. My vision seemed blurry and I felt sick. I opened up the car door and sat on the side, letting my feet land on the pavement. I put my head down and tried to do the impossible — breathe. I sobbed. I cried because I was scared and confused. I didn’t know why I felt like this. I didn’t know why I couldn’t control these feelings. When my parents asked me what was wrong, why I didn’t want to go to school so badly, I cried tears of guilt of confusion because I couldn’t answer them — because I myself didn’t know. Through tears, my mom drove me back to school and dropped me off. I don’t remember much else about that day or that year but that was the last time I chased the car.
For high school, I changed schools once again. With each school it seemed that once I felt settled, my anxiety would settle as well. But with each change, my anxiety like a bear in hibernation would awake with an intense hunger. High school brought me more challenges than middle school. Bigger classes, more students, harder classes, boys that I liked, sports, clubs, etc. For the first year I felt like a ball of anxiety. I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to perform, to be liked, to be popular, to be PERFECT. I hungered for praise that I was the smartest, the prettiest, the one the boys liked, the funniest, etc.
The high level of anxiety that I felt in middle school subsided and instead I was left with a dull roar of anxiety every morning. I became used to it. I truly believed that everyone else was feeling this so I just needed to learn how to be ok with it.
When I graduated high school and stepped onto the SMU campus, my anxiety returned with a vengeance. We pulled up to my dorm to unload the car and I could barely move my legs to get out of the car. I was petrified. I remember my dad saying “Aren’t you excited? You should be excited.” I wasn’t excited at all. College was now real. It wasn’t this dream I had had for months, but it was all happening and I felt physically ill.
From a young age I would pray to God. I would ask him to take away my nerves, to calm my fears, to help me tame this beast that had taken over me. But with each prayer, my anxiety remained. I would cry to my parents and ask them why I was like this, what was wrong with me?! I truly didn’t understand why every single day I was anxious. I didn’t understand why I overthought every part of my life, why it was so easy for me to think of a worst case scenario for EVERY THING. I really believed that life was just that hard and I had to just deal with it.
I looked at my anxiety as evidence that I was just busy, that I was just working too hard, that I just had a crazy life, that I was trying too hard to be perfect. I felt like anxiety was something I just had to beat in order to move on with my life.
It wasn’t until I started counseling in 2013 that I realized what I had been dealing with my whole life wasn’t what everyone else dealt with. I was taught that no, not every human being felt my level of anxiety daily. Not everyone was consumed with intense fear, doubt, nervousness. I also learned that my anxiety could be managed and treated.
True life altering anxiety is a mental health disorder. It isn’t something that I can “get over” or beat. And guess what else? My anxiety doesn’t make me crazy, weak. My time spent in counseling doesn’t make me crazy or weak. My anxiety medication that I take daily doesn’t make me crazy or weak. Want to know what it does make me? It all makes me stronger. Mental illness doesn’t care if you “have your life together” if you have faith, if you’re extremely blessed. What I have learned and what I know now is that addressing my mental illness head on, acknowledging that I need help, that makes me strong. The strongest people are the ones who recognize they need help, and they go out and get it. I don’t wear my anxiety like a badge of honor. I wear my strength and courage to share my story as a badge of honor.