I always felt bad for those people. You know, “those people.” The ones whose anxiety and depression struggles were publicized. The people who had stories written about them on Facebook, detailing their years of struggle with nobody to turn to. The people who were so mentally unstable that they had to see therapists. The people who were embarrassed or ashamed of their internal psychological struggle. In my life I struggled to relate, never having to resort to exercise or meditation just to maintain stability, never feeling so ashamed of something that I couldn’t voice it to others around me. I counted myself lucky as someone who, despite infrequent bouts of nerves or slight depression, would never be considered to be one of “those people.”
After all, my “infrequent bouts” were few and far between. Sure, I went to the nurse’s office every day for two weeks straight in the second grade because of an upcoming spelling bee. I also spent many tearful nights over a college decision my senior year because I so badly struggled with separation from my family and a girlfriend at the time. And yes, I was known to throw up out of fear before some important cross-country meets during my college years, to the point which I had to start occasionally seeing a counselor. But even in these severe cases, I quickly reestablished my quality of life and returned to normal form.
Then recently, something happened. I’m not exactly sure what. I started having these panic attacks – so minor that no one needed to know. I would throw up in a bathroom stall at the airport before a flight, or hit a spell of uncontrollable breathing before a big presentation. Again, these were minor episodes – hardly anything that would liken me to “those people.” These were minor hiccups in an otherwise normal routine.
Obviously, I internalized all of this. Thing is, nobody would quite understand what was going on. I had established a reputation for being the extroverted jokester of the office or social gathering, and I was not one to let on to any signs of concern or self-doubt. It was better that I was not speaking to anybody about the feelings, so I would not tarnish this reputation. I knew how people would react if I shared my struggle – they would certainly not believe me, and quite possibly berate me for it. It’s not that I was embarrassed or ashamed. I just didn’t need anyone’s help and I certainly didn’t need anyone’s sympathy.
So it got worse. The panic “attacks” began to wage all-out war. Tension burned in my body for days, as I awaited insurmountable tasks. Thing is, these tasks were not insurmountable to the naked eye. Sure, my anxiety flared up when I had an upcoming presentation at work or an exam in my class. But these outliers gave way to minor everyday tasks. I found that I had to mentally prepare myself just to take out the trash, read a chapter of a book, or do the dishes. Most nights I wasn’t even up to the challenge that these chores presented. It was an inexplicable, painless torture that gripped me from all angles internally while forcing me to look externally unblemished. People at work saw my clean-shaven face, my gelled hair, and my color-coordinated clothing, but had no idea how much blood, sweat and tears had gone into these efforts. I had a girl whom I was trying to impress which kept me stable, but as she moved on, my struggles rooted deeper. I was on my own in a city far away from home. To say I had no one was entirely untrue, but I felt painstakingly alone.
Then one Friday I hit a low point. This was odd, because it started out on a particularly high note. I ate breakfast with some co-workers, and spent it laughing and joking around though hardly touching my food. As I walked through the office later, I greeted each passing co-worker with a friendly hello as my heart began pounding faster and faster. I cracked up at a story my boss told as I began to feel silently and uncontrollably nauseated. My world began to fade. Colors blurred together, voices blurred together, my thoughts raced. I feared eating lunch. I feared the weekend. I feared for the rest of my life. I sprinted home over lunch and called my mother, breaking into pieces as she answered the phone. Through muffled sobs, I expressed to her a realization just coming over me in that very moment. I am not okay. I am one of those people.
I am one of those people.
The Facebook articles, the mental health magazines, the relaxation techniques, the therapists, they are all reaching out to people of my condition. They are reaching out to me. There was a moment in my suffering, and in my desperation call, in which I accepted for the first time that I suffer from a mental illness. An illness. All my life I’ve convinced myself and those around me that I am perfectly normal. And I am normal in many regards. I am a college graduate, I live in an apartment in a beautiful Central Pennsylvanian town, and I have a great job. I also suffer from anxiety and depression. And with the number of Americans affected by mental illnesses, even this distinction is not so abnormal.
The most important realization that I made was not that I have a true mental illness. That was a big step, sure, but it was not the most important one. The most important realization that I made was that having a mental illness is OK. That it’s not my fault. I had spent a long time silently condemning myself for being weak and helpless. Truth is, I was embarrassed about it. I still am embarrassed about it.
But I’m not weak and I’m not helpless. For so long, I was stubborn about receiving help because I thought that seeking help affirmed the stigma that anxiety and depression are for weak people who can’t handle stress on their own. This is so far from the truth. I’m now seeking help, and I visit a therapist on an almost weekly basis. I sometimes break down and have to call my parents or my close friends just to get some burdens off my chest. I’m reading books about anxiety. I’m exercising regularly (or trying to). My hope is that those reading can learn from my story. For those who do not struggle with mental illnesses, I hope this helps you to better understand the secret battle we have to fight, and realize that I can be at my worst when I appear to be at my best. I don’t want to be treated any differently, I just want to be understood when I have to cancel on plans or step outside of the room before giving a speech. For those who are battling some type of mental illness, any type of illness, I implore you to join me in the recovery process. First, know that you are not alone. It can happen to anyone (which I neglected to believe until it happened to me). Talk to someone about it. Tell me your story – I’d love to listen. Seek a counselor and see them regularly. Read up on healthy habits and tips for alleviating some of the difficulty. Pray about it. And most importantly, open yourself up to taking the first step of admittance and acceptance. Because some day you might look up and realize that you’re one of those people too. And that is perfectly OK.