7 Pros of Going to Therapy as Someone With Anxiety

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A few weeks ago, I had my last therapy session. It is wild to me that this is where I am. For so long, especially when I first started, I didn’t see myself ever stopping. Therapy is just so awesome. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was helpful in ways I probably haven’t even begun to realize yet.

When I started therapy, I felt so completely bewildered and disconnected from myself. I had the firm, ingrained belief anxiety was a thing I should be able to control. If I couldn’t control it, then something was wrong with me. I walked around carrying the pressure, the tension and the feeling of not knowing myself anymore. It was really hard. Asking for help was hard, too, because in my family you do everything yourself. You’re never not capable and you always keep it together.

In the last few years, we’ve all, my parents, my sister and me, been working really hard to give each other the safe space to not be OK. I’m so proud of us for that. I’m proud of us for encouraging each other, for being open about our struggles and for really digging into our separate issues. It’s made this process a lot easier for me.

Therapy did so much for me it’s hard to put it all into words, but I want to try. I feel so grateful I’ve been able to go through this process with someone who has such a wonderful balance of empathy and questioning. My therapist was consistent about encouraging me in my efforts to manage anxiety. She was really good about asking me questions and giving me challenges in order to help me really get to the roots of why this was happening.

Therapy is, by and large, one of the best things I have ever done. There are multiple reasons for this. I could write about it forever, but instead of boring you guys, I’ll just make a list of all the pros to therapy:

1. Therapy gave me a place to be lost.

It was always unequivocally OK to be lost, overwhelmed and hopeless. Those feelings subsided over time but that was a lot of what I felt the first six months. It was always OK. More than OK, it was welcome.

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2. Therapy let me go at my own pace.

My therapist never rushed me or made me feel like she had an agenda to accomplish. She let me talk about whatever I wanted to talk about in my own time, and for however long I wanted. This doesn’t mean she let me be all over the place. Sometimes I was, but she would gently nudge me back to center with a question or an observation.

3. Therapy held me accountable.

Because of how I am, I would have felt super ashamed of walking into therapy and not doing anything to fix my own problems. My therapist knows this about me (as she should) and she was really great about checking in with me about what strategies I was trying and how they were going. She never made me feel like a failure, and she always encouraged me to keep trying. Just by asking, she helped me stay accountable and get to know my particular brand of anxiety inside and out. I also had to show up. I had to be physically present in order to get the help I needed. Committing to this week after week helped me to follow though in other areas of my life.

4. Therapy challenged me.

If you’re really working at it, therapy is hard. There were so many times when our conversation necessitated me talking about something from my past I didn’t really want to talk about or realizing some things about myself that were tough to admit. Some things, like how stubborn I am, I will be the first person to tell you about. Other things, like the fact that I cry every time I feel almost any strong emotion or am in conflict with someone, made me feel ashamed and were really hard to talk about. Therapy let me work through that. Now, I know I’m not crying because I’m weak or too sensitive. I’m neither of those things. I cry because that’s how my body reacts to stress and that’s OK.

5. Therapy helped me accept my “flaws.”

First of all, Leslie Knope said it best, “One man’s nightmare is every other man’s total package.” Aside from that, therapy helped me realize anxiety is not a flaw. It’s biology. It’s not something that’s wrong with me. When I realized this and started trying to manage it, I learned how to make room for anxiety and accept it as part of my life. I assumed, and still assume, it will always be something that happens to me and so I’ve made space for it. It has a little corner of my heart where it lives. It’s always going to have a home there and that’s a good thing.

6. Therapy made me give zero f*cks.

Seriously, once I got through all of the crazy “WTF is happening to me!” times and realized anxiety isn’t a flaw but just a thing that happens to me, I stopped caring about what people think about it. I just do not care. Again, anxiety is not a personality trait and it is not a flaw. It is biology. It’s genetic.

It is not something you can chose to have. So f*ck anybody who thinks about it like it’s a choice and who looks down on those who are dealing with it. Screw those people who choose to judge you and us on something we can’t control. Anxiety doesn’t negate that I’m a capable, hard-working and a conscientious human being. Anybody who thinks poorly of me simply because I struggle with this, in the same way that someone struggles with other conditions, can get out of my life.

7. Therapy allowed me to find myself again.

OK, so that sounds kind of corny, but it’s true. Anxiety is so isolating sometimes you start to wonder if you were always this “crazy” person and you just didn’t know it. It can be so disorienting and it can make you feel a big disconnect with who you thought you were and this “anxious person” you seem to be now.

In particular, I had a lot of trouble maintaining my sense of self in different environments. In work, I was really outspoken and confident. With my friends I was funny and entertaining, but with my family, I was quiet and barely talked at all. Therapy has helped me rediscover the cornerstone of who I am so that I don’t feel like I’m five different people and scattered in a million directions. It has helped to ground me and to feel like I’m myself even when I’m anxious.

If you’ve started therapy, good for you. I hope it’s going well and you’ve found a therapist who helps you meet your goals and who you have a good connection with. If you haven’t started therapy yet but want to, then that’s awesome. Go you. You can look on Psychology Today as a starting point. If you’re in NYC, you can message me privately as I know a few awesome therapists and would be glad to put you in touch with them.

If you feel like something is wrong but you’re not really sure what it is and you’re not really sure you want to go to therapy, that’s OK too. I encourage you to go. I know without a doubt my relationship would not be as joyful, fulfilling and resilient as it is without the work I’ve done in therapy (and also my boyfriend’s magical, unicorn presence). I wouldn’t be as close with my family, and honestly, I wouldn’t be happy.

I’ve learned to manage and accept all of my emotions, not just the good ones.  I’ve learned not to think poorly of myself when I’m not happy. Please, consider therapy if you are at all feeling like something is off. It make take some time and you may have to meet with more than one person to find the right fit, but it can change your life.

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8 Things That Helped Me Cope With My Anxiety (and 4 That Didn’t)

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As we wound down our work together, my therapist and I talked about the whole process and what it’s been like. She brought up the fact that I’ve been very proactive about it, calling my approach to anxiety “methodical.” I started laughing when she said that because yes, I absolutely was. I had to really break down the whole thing and do as much research as I could, and I needed to make sure I was trying everything that was supposed to help even if I didn’t enjoy it.

But we’re not all like that, and it’s important to recognize we each need to deal with anxiety in our own way. The way I manage it may be completely different than someone else, and that’s OK. Just because something has been proven to work doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or there’s nothing that can help you. It just means that particular thing doesn’t do what you need it to. And that’s OK.

It took me a long time to figure out what works for me. Sometimes, I just needed to tweak something I was already doing, and sometimes, it was a gigantic life change.

Here are eight things I tried that worked for me:

1. Therapy.

Therapy is amazing for me. I got really lucky and clicked with my therapist during our first meeting, but sometimes it takes a few tries. That’s OK. Read here and here for more of my thoughts on therapy.

2. Read anxiety books.

This was important for me because it gave me a sense of ownership and responsibility over my own healing. There were some books I wanted to throw against the wall, but I read a few that were really helpful. They are: “Panic Attacks Workbook” by David Carbonell, “Don’t Panic” by Reid Wilson, “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron, and “Daring Greatly” and “Rising Strong” by Brené Brown.

These five are my canon. I go back to them again and again, especially the Brown books. They are full of techniques, but they also explain what happens in your brain during a panic attack, and Brown especially talks about the emotional aspects of letting go and accepting what’s happening, no matter what that is. These six books normalize anxiety for me and help me feel less alone.

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3. Start a blog.

I’m not going to lie to you guys. I was so scared to start a blog. I really didn’t want to put any of this out on the internet where my parents, my boss or, God forbid, my students could read it. But I got to a certain point where I had been dealing with it for so long and had started to accept its place in my life that I was like, you know what? F*ck it, and published the first entry. And then another one. And then eventually I specifically wrote an entry to my friends explaining what was going on and shared it on Facebook (I hadn’t been sharing the blog before then).

I can’t tell you how liberating it was to talk about my challenges. The only way I could break down the stigma was to talk about what’s going on with me. And I felt better.

4. Depersonalize anxiety.

This one was huge for me and is probably one of the single best things I did. I stopped talking about “my” anxiety and started talking about “the” anxiety. This seems like such a minute change, but its ramifications have been extraordinary. Talking about anxiety this way has helped me see that, while it is a part of my life, it isn’t who I am. I am not an “anxious person.” I am a person who feels heightened anxiety. I am not a “worrier.” I am a person with a tendency to ruminate.

Thinking and talking about anxiety like this has helped me to make space for it in the same way you make space for work or friendships. It’s a thing I have to devote time and energy to, but it’s not taking over my life or my personality. It doesn’t define me. It’s not actually me, it’s my biology. Once I started doing this, it was so much easier to accept it and to not have feelings of shame and guilt around it.

5. Exercise.

I never did sports in high school unless my gym teacher told me I would fail if I didn’t participate. The only exercise I did in college was walking to class and maybe going to a couple of yoga classes with a friend. This has been the biggest and most difficult life change, but it has also been one of the best. It was a real challenge for a long time to a) find a consistent workout schedule and b) find the right type of exercise.

There was a lot of trial and error, but the biggest issue for me wasn’t the exercise itself, it was the accountability.

I use the Strong app to track my weightlifting and cardio, which helps keep me accountable because I can see all of the times I’ve worked out on the calendar. For me, the schedule that works best is a non-negotiable Wednesday/Friday/Sunday routine of weightlifting — my arms are starting to look super awesome — and high intensity interval training on the bike.

I just feel so much better when I exercise, which in itself blows my mind on a regular basis.

6. Keep a panic diary.

Cataloguing my symptoms in a panic diary was really helpful because I started to see patterns emerge, and from there I could begin to identify triggers and underlying causes. This, in turn, helped me to not only make room for anxiety but also to start expecting it in certain situations.

No longer do I travel with the mindset that I’m not going to feel any anxiety. Now, I expect to feel some, and that makes it a lot easier to handle when I inevitably do. There are other situations where I’ve learned to expect it, and that has actually lessened the symptoms because I’m not fighting them. I’m just letting them be.

7. Create an anxiety check list.

I’ve talked about this before, but this has also been really helpful. Through a lot of trial and error, I have a list of go-to, sequential steps to take when I start to feel anxious. I haven’t had to go past grounding myself and breathing for a long time, and that’s awesome. This list also reminds me of all of the work I’ve done and how I made it through.

8. Advocate.

I’ve really started speaking out about mental health issues, both in person and my various social media platforms. I want the people in my life (and all people, really) to understand this is an important issue, and it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and each other about it.

I get it if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your own experience. If that’s the case, maybe there’s a way you can advocate for mental health in general or help raise awareness. The stigma will remain unless we do something.

And here are four things that didn’t work for me (but could work for you):

1. Create an anxiety playlist.

Guys, I really thought this one would be a winner. Seriously. I love music, and I really thought if I had a playlist I associated with calming down that it would help me when I felt panicked. Nope. My thoughts just kept right on going, and I had to stop using it pretty quickly, so I wouldn’t start connecting some of my favorite songs with feelings of anxiety.

That being said, I did fall in love with John Mayer all over again through this process, and you can read about why here.

2. Keep it private from everyone except my boyfriend and my sister.

For a time, this is exactly what I needed. But I kept things quiet long after I should have, and it actually started impeding my work with anxiety. This started to get better in leaps and bounds when I started writing a blog and sharing my experiences with people. It made me feel so much less alone, and it made me feel like I can handle this. And if I can’t, there are a ton of people out there who have my back.

3. Meditate.

I started meditating because I’d read a lot of studies about how helpful it is. And once I found something that suited me (the Headspace app), it was helpful. But only up to a point. I found the anxiety pack on Headspace to be really effective in terms of accepting the anxiety as it comes and not giving it my attention and escalating it. That was great.

But to be honest, I don’t really like meditating, and continuing to do it after I finished the anxiety-specific ones just felt monotonous and obligatory. Maybe if I did it at a different time of day or under different circumstances, I might enjoy it, so I’m going to try again while school’s out this summer. (But yoga kind of serves the meditative purpose for me and sometimes sitting to meditate feels redundant.)

4. Track symptoms.

This one took me a while to figure out, and I think it may have surpassed the point of its usefulness. At first I tried the SAM app, but it just didn’t work for me, although I can see how it would be awesome for others.

After that, I tried Symple, which helped some more in identifying patterns. I’ve written about it before, but I do I think I’ve moved beyond its helpfulness for me personally. I love this app and its concept, but I just don’t really need it anymore.

You might have already figured out what works best for you, or you may feel totally bewildered and don’t know where to start. If that’s where you are in your journey, my suggestion is to start with therapy. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it can be expensive. But I think it’s worth it because a person can guide you through everything else and you won’t have to do it alone. If you’re already in therapy, then I suggest working on depersonalizing anxiety and exercise.

We’re in this together.

Follow this journey on It’s Only Fear.

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Social Anxiety and Being in a Sorority

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Last semester, during a conversation with one of the newest sisters in my sorority, the topic of social anxiety came up. I am not one to shy away from my diagnosis, and I casually mentioned I overcome social anxiety on a daily basis.

Suffering from social anxiety herself, she asked me what seemed to be a very simple question, “How did you make it through rush and the new member process (pledging)?”

Instead of having a simple answer, I stopped short. I’ve been thinking about my answer for the past six months. I think I am finally ready to answer.

Truthfully, the first thing that came out of my mouth was “I got drunk.” I look back on my high school years and the crowded parties I threw and went to and realized the only thing getting me through those evenings was my lack of inhibitions. That was the same experience I had up until my sophomore year of college, when my body started to reject alcohol and any other kinds of substances. It was around this time that I noticed my discomfort and lack of interest at sorority mixers, formals and other large gatherings. My chest would start to hurt, I couldn’t catch my breath and I just knew everyone was staring at me.

I started to again fear being in social settings. I would choose to spend the night in with a friend or my sister rather than venturing to a party. I joked I was an old woman at heart, but deep down, I felt unsafe, even when I knew everyone around me.

Last semester, I was fortunate enough to be voted into a leadership position in my sorority, something I never thought I would do. Although it was something I was truly passionate about, I was now obligated to show up at events that exhausted me, and the subsequent hostility I received due to my reluctance to attend parties was overwhelmingly disheartening. Instead of being understanding, people would make snap judgments and practically guilt trip me into going, when I would have rather been putting my energy into my position and other events. I began to feel resentful and bitter towards a group of women who I call my sisters.

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After stepping back from the organization a bit, I now realize having social anxiety and being in a sorority can be a giant walking oxymoron. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and be, for lack of a better word, social. Trying to find the balance between these two integral parts of my life has been one of the hardest and most frustrating challenges to overcome, but I now realize what I need to do so both parts of me are happy and comfortable.

This means putting me and my well-being first always, even when I feel like I should do otherwise. I never push myself to go to more than one “party” event a weekend because those are my worst triggers. And after these, I usually need at least half of the next day to be alone and “recharge,” which is imperative. If and when I do show up at a mixer, I surround myself with good friends who are aware of my anxiety and can go upstairs or outside with me so I can take myself out of a potentially overwhelming situation. It is so important to find the people within your organization who will love you and support you despite the things that make you different. It is really difficult being a typical sorority girl and college student when social events are your worst enemy, but having those girls who are understanding and nonjudgmental are going to make those scary situations at least a little worth it.

There are always going to be those who don’t understand, but as long as I am happy with my choices, it doesn’t matter if no one else is. Being “selfish” is the best thing I do for myself, and I had to learn that to make other people happy, I need to make myself happy first.

It may seem impossible to have social anxiety and be in an organization where being social is the main requirement, but with the right attitude and support system, you can turn it into something truly inspiring.

The Mighty is asking the following: Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find.  Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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6 Things I Want People to Know About Invisible Disabilities

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I have dealt with anxiety, depression and was diagnosed with a heart condition when I was 19 in college, but none of my friends knew or could tell. You could not tell just by looking at me. But my “InvisAble” disabilities also give me the ability to be great.

From my personal experience dealing with my disabilities, here are 6 things I want to share with loved ones and others I meet.

1. Not all disabilities can be seen. Growing up in a traditional Asian household, mental illness was a taboo topic. It did not exist, and if there was any conversation about it, the only responses I would get are “you aren’t thinking like a normal person” or “you are just stressed.” This only made dealing with anxiety and depression more difficult. My parents were well aware that physical disabilities existed, like the physical issues I have with my heart, but not open to discussing my other disabilities.

2. No two people will react the same to a shared disability. Every person will cope with their disabilities differently. When my anxiety kicks in, it feels like an extreme form of constant stress. I struggle to sleep, I have nightmares and wake up with tightness in my chest, I break down and cry, I get angry and am in a mental state where I feel everything in my life is going in the wrong direction. No one else can read your mind, so it is important to communicate what you are feeling and how you are feeling. Sometimes just having someone close whom you trust and who knows your behavior patterns can help.

3. Don’t tell me my disability is not “normal.” I have shared with close friends about my disabilities, and have even been told how I react is not “normal.” Even in the workplace, I have heard people say the way to deal with stress is to “just get over it.” I do not have a choice in how I react, it is simply the way I am feeling. There is no right or wrong with how I react to my anxiety.

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4. Telling me I need help isn’t helpful. That only states the obvious. If I have learned anything from my disabilities, it is that I have to be willing to help myself before anyone else can help me. With anxiety, I have sought counseling and found activities to provide relief. When I learned of my heart issues, I was afraid to go back to the cardiologist and refused to accept there was anything wrong, but I eventually went back for help. When I first realized I felt different, I just kept telling myself nothing was wrong. I was wrong. It was not easy to want to get help; it took years. But whenever my family and friends learn that I am losing control of my disabilities and push me to seek help, the pressure only makes it worse.

5. Just be there. It is never easy to admit something might be wrong, or that you need help, but when I do, it is because I have found the courage to trust you. I care about how my disability affects my relationship with you. This does not necessarily mean I want you to do anything; it just means I want you to be there for me.

6. Disabilities are abilities. My social anxiety heightens my senses, making me more observational, rather than a participant. This allows me to read into people’s personalities much more deeply because I take more time to process. It has helped my professional career when it comes to interacting with clients. Because of my disabilities, I have found methods of coping with anxiety by writing advice for strangers through blogging. I sketch artwork for friends and family, and I write music for myself.

Whether you have a physical or invisible disability or both, make the most of it. Your disability does not define who you are as a person, but makes you unique as an individual.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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3 Simple Ways to Feel Calmer If You're Struggling This Week

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Many of us are struggling with feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. These feelings are uncomfortable, sad and painful. Some weeks it can feel as though our heads are barely above water trying to keep up with it all. This week, try to do the following three exercises, and if you like them, continue to incorporate them into your day. You may notice that as you start to use them daily, you might start to feel more calm and peaceful even amongst the noise.

1. Notice and allow yourself to feel gratitude every day.

It sounds so simple, but it makes a big difference in improving how you feel. When I first came back from living in a village in West Africa for six months, I was overjoyed with gratitude for such simple things like how green the grass was, how comfortable my bed was and how amazing an ice cold glass of water tastes on a hot day. Renee Jain from Go Zen states, “research suggests memories of certain unpleasant experiences can become progressively magnified in our mind which, in turn, leads to rumination and negative thinking. Fortunately, these studies also demonstrate that expressing gratitude makes us more likely to remember positive memories and can even transform neutral and negative memories into positive ones.”

Every day, spend some time reflecting on what you feel grateful for and write it down in a journal, or even in the notes section of your smart phone. Really allow yourself to feel how truly grateful you are. It can be for warm flannel sheets, the nice lady who served you at the coffee shop or the beauty of the reflection of the sky on a pond. As you start noticing and thinking about what there is to be grateful for, it can start to expand.

2. Practice self-compassion.

Self-compassion can make a tremendous difference in how you feel. So many people I meet are so kind, gentle and loving, but sadly they do not give that back to themselves. They get upset with their appearance, their mistakes, their pain and their perceived flaws. I understand there are many painful emotions, and things happen that really, really hurt us. As part of the human condition, we will continue to experience happiness, joy and pain. Self-compassion can help us to be with the pain.

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Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity or being self-indulgent. Self-compassion means validating the difficult time you are experiencing and responding to yourself with kindness instead of criticism. As Dr. Kristin Neff explains, “First of all, when we relate to ourselves kindly even when we’ve behaved badly, it’s safe to face the truth about ourselves. We don’t need to deny what we’ve done or distort the storyline so that we blame anyone other than ourselves for what happened. Mea culpa. I can own up to it, because even though my behavior might have been bad, that doesn’t mean that I am bad. I can own up to what I’ve done without fear, because admitting responsibility doesn’t require throwing myself off the cliff of harsh self-condemnation.”

This week, whenever you notice yourself saying things to yourself such as “Why did I do something so stupid?” or “I hate the way I look,” just stop for a moment and see how those words make you feel. Then try to practice being encouraging to yourself. For example, you might use self-compassionate talk to say, “OK, I’m not feeling so great because of a mistake I made. I really want to beat myself about it, but that would just made me feel worse. The truth is I’m a human and we all make many mistakes in life. Mistakes are to humans as leaves are to trees, it’s simply a part of who we are. I will not judge myself for making a mistake, any more than I would judge a tree for having leaves. Making mistakes is just a part of all of us, a part of being a human. My self-worth has nothing to do with how many mistakes I make. Making a mistake does not make me a bad person.” Write these statements on cue cards (I call them my self-compassion cards) and carry them with you, so you can read them to yourself when you feel overwhelmed.

3. Do something pleasurable just for you every single day.

We go through life with many things we have to do such as get children ready for school, make lunches, go to our jobs, etc. It is important to balance ourselves by adding some small pleasures into our day. Every single day, write in your agenda — just like a scheduled appointment — something enjoyable you are going to do just for you. These can be small pleasures such a buying yourself a bouquet of flowers, talking a walk in nature, having a cup of your favorite coffee or tea, getting a massage, reading a great book, having lunch with someone special (or maybe even with just yourself) or going to a movie. Just make sure you pick something for every day this week, and that you allow yourself this pleasure. Not only is rest and self-care important (it’s actually essential for those of us with anxiety), but honoring that commitment to yourself gives you the message that you are worth it. And really, you are.

Wishing you all a beautiful week!

Andrea Andrea Addington, MSW, RSW specializes in anxiety counseling in her private practice in Moncton, New Brunswick. For more information about Andrea, visit www.andreaaddington.com.

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I Didn't Choose to Have a Mental Illness

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I didn’t choose my mental illness, it chose me.

It chose me with the hazy cloud that covers my mind with a daily forecast.

It chose me with the 2, 3, and 5 a.m. wake up calls that no sound, light or meaningful explanation could ever bring.

A handful of pills at 16 years of age when they didn’t quite do the trick, yeah, my mental illness chose me.

My depression chooses me every single day. When I go to climb out of bed, an anchor brings me back under the covers. But every time I check, there’s no anchor to be found — there’s just me.

My anxiety chooses me every time I dissect a situation 100 times over 100 days over 100 locations because the solution will never satisfy the makeup of my brain.

Mental illness is a part of who I am, but it isn’t my choice.

My choice lies in the courage and the strength I have to speak out about mental health in the face of stigma, discrimination and pure hate.

My mental illness empowers me every single time I support another person with mental health challenges with empathy, kindness and compassion because I recognize the pain since I have lived the experience.

Next time you think a person is trying too hard or not enough, consider their mental health. There is more that lies beneath the surface the waves could never uncover.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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