This is the one where I talk about mental illness. Specifically, my mental illness. There. I said it. I’m owning it. I live with a mental illness.
I’ve written on divorce, the variety of challenges of being a mom, and my daughter’s gender fluidity. All deeply personal shit, but this subject is by far the most difficult for me to hit “Publish” because of the stigma attached to it. I absolutely loathe the term “mental illness” but calling a spade a spade, that’s indeed what it is: a brain that is sick. I prefer the term “chemically imbalanced” or something equally as soft because, let’s face it, “mentally ill” and “crazy” are synonymous. I often wonder if that stigma will ever diminish or better yet, disappear, but my hopes for that are minute. As a society, we are in the never-ending process of understanding mental disorders and many of us fear what we don’t understand. Labeling someone as “crazy” is so much easier because it’s dismissive and suggests that what that person is suffering from is something that cannot be empathized with. But listen, 40 million Americans living with anxiety, I guarantee a few of you can empathize with me here.
I remember when I was about 8 years old, anxiety set in for me, only then, we had no name for it. I would sit in my 3rd grade class and my mind would start racing and I would begin to wish I could go home to be with my mom. That wish would then turn into a need and that sudden need would turn into panic. I would work myself up to a stomachache and need to go to the nurse. I would hysterically cry and complain of the pain in my tummy until my mom was called. As soon as my mom arrived and I was in the car, all was well. The stomachache would be gone, my mind would clear. I would even ask to stop at Taco Bell on the way home for a Bell Grande since I managed to pack all of this drama in before lunchtime.
I had what we would now call separation anxiety. I liked being home, with my mom, safe from…something. I’m not even sure what I wanted to escape from. I cannot remember a specific fear. I’ve always had an intense fear of vomiting so perhaps that’s what would happen back then but I honestly can’t recall.
To my knowledge, no one ever questioned this in me. My mom didn’t race me off to a doctor’s appointment or set me up with a shrink. It was just there. It didn’t prevent me from being social or getting good grades. It was just… there.
My feelings of anxiety laid dormant until I began to plan for college. After junior college, I moved five hours away from home and I can remember the onset of panic attacks during that planning phase. Again, at the age of 19, I had no idea what was going on when this would happen. It wasn’t until a few years later did I have a label for these episodes of a racing heart rate, nausea, racing thoughts, and this overall need to run. As in, literally run away from whatever situation I was in. They weren’t frequent attacks at all but they would come and go, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes while driving long distances, sometimes at work but always for no good reason at all.
By the time I was about 23, anxiety was becoming a part of my life and it had a name now thanks to my college studies in social work and psychology. I was starting to understand “fight or flight” and what was going on in my body. I really didn’t understand why this was happening to me but I understood that it was almost an evil twin inside my brain that’s soul purpose was to talk me into irrational thinking. It was there to make me afraid of things and situations that shouldn’t have been feared. It was there to ruin plenty of fun events for no good reason. Real, physical symptoms created by the mind. Anxiety is as real as it gets. It’s visceral and tangible.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic when I was about 27 years old. I tried medication but it failed horribly, making the anxiety so much worse. It was then that I truly just accepted that I am wired this way. My brain chemistry is just what it is and it became my mission to learn how to manage it.
After all of these years of living with anxiety, here’s what I can tell you without a doubt: anxiety is a lying bitch. I recently read a study that suggests that those of us that live with anxiety have higher intelligence. That’s fucking great and I’m so grateful for this apparent over abundance of intelligence (why aren’t I a millionaire at this point?) but I would rather be a little dumb and not have to deal with all of this lying that goes on in my head. Anxiety is constantly trying to create situations that aren’t real. It’s telling me to be afraid and my body is just doing what it needs to do to prepare for that danger. Think animalistic instincts. If a predator is on the hunt, the prey truly goes into fight or flight. Their heart races, thoughts go in every direction, their stomach and bladder wants to empty to prepare for fight. This is what is happening when you’re anxious. This bullshit is what your mind is convincing your body of, telling it that this response needs to happen… when there is indeed no danger at all. The only danger is an anxious mind.
Almost 13 years post-diagnosis, I still live with anxiety and I do believe I always will. I do, however, manage it pretty well now. I do yoga almost everyday, even if it’s just for 5 minutes, I meditate, I exercise, but most of all, I just accept it and seek to understand why it’s happening when I have bad days. I know it won’t kill me and I just…live. I don’t let it interrupt my life that much anymore. I’m as social as I want to be, I have a very successful career, and I focus on being a mom. I have learned that talking about it is cathartic because so many people can relate. So many people are me.
So, to all of my friends that are in this secret club of superbly high intelligence with our brains full of so many lies, you are not alone. We are all just one anxious thought away from just living our next moment and realizing that there isn’t anything abnormal about us.