When I Accepted My Anxiety Wouldn’t Have a ‘Quick Fix’
For most of high school, nausea was my MO. My days were punctuated by finding silent and creative ways to burp, declining food at friends’ houses, chugging ginger ale before exams and, unfortunately, vomiting on or around anyone who took me on a date.
In college, I resigned to eating frozen meals alone in my room as I developed a conspiracy theory about how the dining halls were trying to poison me. I spent weeks feeling too nauseous to eat anything other than a plain bagel and a banana, and I once met with an on-campus nutritionist who said I looked “fine,” which, as that memory aged, turned into her saying, “You look fiiiiiiiine” and winking a little bit, so I stopped worrying about my diet.
This whole thing climaxed during my senior year, when I went three weeks without eating a full meal. One night, a gust of wind knocked me over and I was so weak that a campus safety officer had to pull me out of a snowbank and give me the rest of his Gatorade in order to wake me up. An EMT then wrapped me in a space blanket and told me I had “frost nip,” which is a scary ailment, but you have to admit it sounds way sexier than you thought it would.
After this incident, I resolved to finally fix my stomach issues, and spent spring break doing every test I could: a celiac disease test, an endoscopy, an esophageal and upwards of 50 individual food allergy tests, but they all came back negative.
In my final consulting session with a gastroenterologist, I read off a new batch of diseases I had found on the Internet, going down the list one by one as I waited to see which one he thought I had. I felt like I was 5 years old and asking Santa for presents, except this was a doctor and instead of a Barbie Dream House, I was gunning for a full colonic, and maybe a biopsy or two if I was extra good.
After a few minutes, my doctor suggested that my stomach issues could simply be a result of anxiety. He added that there’s more serotonin in the belly than in the brain, and asked if I’d consider speaking with a therapist of some kind to see if it made a difference.
The result was a resounding “no” on my end, because anxiety and mental health in general don’t seem to have quick fixes. They don’t illicit the same sympathy, and sometimes aren’t perceived as “legitimate.” When I thought I was gluten-intolerant, I blamed all my issues on a disorder that made people a) feel bad for me and b) believe I was following a doctor’s orders when I ate an entire block of cheese for dinner. Similarly, when I decided I was allergic to hard alcohol, it meant I could excuse myself from parties and crowded rooms and blame it on the beverage selections and not my lack of social skills.
But the truth is I have anxiety every once in a while, which means sometimes I can’t eat. Even if I’m hungry, even if I have no “logical” reason to be anything other than perfectly content. I wish I could say I was allergic to crowded bars or “meet the parent” dinner, or that I had an intolerance to hearing people humble-brag about their careers or a hypersensitivity to writing cover letters, but unfortunately, that’s not how we talk about mental health these days. Instead, we use vague terms and phrases that illicit an unsavory mix of sympathy and confusion from those around us, perpetuating the myth that mental health issues are an obscure type of witchcraft like telekinesis or PMS.
I’ve since begun to confront my anxiety. I pull myself out of social situations I find overwhelming, and despite how much I enjoyed college, graduating has made me so much less anxious than I’ve ever been. For now, I’ll admit I’d much rather have a doctor perform a full inspection on my butthole than ask me about my childhood. Go figure. I’ll go eventually, though the thought of it still makes me nervous. But I’m working on it.
Follow this journey on Not Killin’ It.
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