I remember the first time we met. The house was dark, and everyone else was asleep. I was restless. My big toe sticking out of the hole in my favorite footy pajamas.
You sat on my chest. My small ribs could barely hold your weight. You began whispering terrifying ideas into my ear. That was the first night I ever got up to check and make sure all of my family was breathing. To make sure I wasn’t left alone.
That was the first time of many times. You have followed me around for many years now. Unexpectedly crawling up my spine and whispering thoughts into my ears.
You need to go home now. What if something has happened? What if your mother stops breathing and you’re not there to save her?
Try explaining to your friend’s mom why you must go home at midnight. Each day is a battle. Some days, I can shake you off without much thought. While other days, you have me wanting to crawl under the blankets and hide from the world, paralyzed with fear. Some days, I try to blame it on too much coffee or not enough sleep.
Recently, my first mental health piece was published. Although I was eager to share my story, the prospect of “outing” myself as a person who has struggled with anxiety felt daunting. I worried about the reactions I might receive. I pondered whether or not I would be regarded differently or treated with disrespect for disclosing my mental health. I questioned whether or not I would face criticism for my decision to write about mental health issues, and if so, how I would handle it.
In a twist of fate, that question answered itself.
Overall, the reaction to my decision to write about my anxiety was incredibly positive. Sharing my experience with anxiety resonated with others, bridging seemingly different lives. For the first time, I realized remaining open and vulnerable about the challenges of living with mental illness had the power to unite me with the wider world, to allow me to forge deeper connections with others, to show others they’re not alone. I felt uplifted by the reaction my piece on anxiety received, a reaction beyond my wildest dreams.
In an instant, however, the dream became a nightmare.
“You just need to write about something that actually matters.”
Never before had a gray text message looked so ominous. It loomed in my mind, clouding my motivation like the onset of a storm, threatening my sense of security in my decision to share my anxiety story. My breath caught in my chest and tears began to form at the corners of my eyes. My thoughts raced.
Why did I choose to share about my anxiety? Am I really making a difference? Maybe I should stop writing about my mental health. Apparently, mental health doesn’t matter.
The truth is, mental health does matter, and mental illness is exceedingly common in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five American adults live with a diagnosable mental illness, while 18 percent live with an anxiety disorder. However, despite the prevalence of mental illness in American society, up to 75 percent of Americans and Europeans do not seek treatment for their mental illnesses and only 25 percent of those who live with mental illness feel that others are caring and compassionate toward people with mental illness. The heavy stigma surrounding mental illness is effectively preventing those who have it from seeking necessary treatment, disclosing their conditions to others and sharing their stories.
For several days, I remained dejected about the criticism I received for writing about my anxiety, but the experience of facing backlash illuminated my motivation for choosing to write about my anxiety and encouraged me to persevere. I shared my story because although 40 million American adults live with an anxiety disorder, living with anxiety is so rarely discussed that it can feel lonely and isolating. I shared my story because the high proportion of people who do not seek treatment for their mental health is indicative of the fear surrounding mental illness in our society, a fear perpetuated by silence. I shared my story because I want others to know that even if they feel those surrounding them are unsupportive or simply do not understand their conditions, the people who can empathize are never far away.
I realized I shared my story for others rather than for myself, to spread empathy and hope to those who need it most. If I chose to allow one negative comment to stop me from sharing my story, then I would be furthering the powerful mental health stigma I sought to reduce and perpetuating the sense of isolation many people feel due to their mental health issues. I knew then I could not allow the sole negative comment I received to drown out the sense of connection and community others felt as a result of my decision to share my experiences with anxiety.
I have decided to continue sharing my mental health story to reduce the current stigma and break the silence surrounding mental illness. I will keep sharing about my anxiety in the hope that it will encourage those with mental illness to open up to others about their health and to seek the treatment they need. Most importantly, I hope that sharing my experiences will teach others to treat people with mental illness with kindness, compassion, empathy and respect. Being criticized for writing about my mental health has not only strengthened my resolve to educate others about mental health issues, but it has taught me an incredibly valuable lesson. Regardless of the criticism I may face for sharing my experiences, my mental health story matters.
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Anxiety. Seven complex letters that come equipped with nausea, overthinking, difficulty sleeping, palpations, nervousness. Not to mention depression can be attached or sold separately.
As I’m waking up to begin the day, I can already tell if it’s going to be a walk in the park, or a battlefield. Very rarely is it ever an “in between,” or “OK” day. As I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, the negative thoughts engulf me of what awful aspects could enfold during the day. My brain becomes clouded by darkness as various questions drift into my consciousness:
Why can’t I seem to be happy?
Why can’t I justpull it together?
Why am I even existing as a physical entity?
What is my purpose and will I ever find it?
Yet I force myself out of my refugee (the bed) to pick out an outfit. Not just any outfit, I’m talking about putting on my “happy” or “neutral” face to hide my true self from the world. Walking down the street I see a few familiar faces, as I force a smile back. At the job and in the classroom the common greeting of “Hi. How are you,” has become a robotic smile and an answer of “I’m fine. Thanks. What about you?” Yet I really want to scream out my true feelings written on my face and all the chaotic thoughts haunting my mind.
Now in my case you can addsocial anxiety into the mix, in which communicating with people becomes another struggle. For the friends I meet, I hold onto them because they’re far and few in between. Do I speak of my anxiety? Oh no! I used to think “Everybody has problems, who wants to hear or even care about mine?” I don’t feel like hearing the typical responses of:
Things will get better.
Stop being so down on yourself.
As if I choose to have these overwhelming thoughts creep in my head on a daily basis.
Then night comes as I find myself alone with my thoughts, with the occasional tears that flood from my tears, in which my pillow catches. Never grabbed the razor or a knife, but I did learn how to pick up my pen. I pretend that the paper is my skin, as my words bleed emotions between each line. The tears create droplets and bring back the past memories, toxic people and situations that were never meant to be.
I have found comfort in my solitude, while learning to manage this catastrophic mind of mine, perfecting the art of loving myself including these “societal flaws.” Nonetheless on my journey, I am thankful for my real paper and my pen.
As my wedding was nearing, my mood swings and panic were all over the place. I wanted to share this because of two things: first, it’s a lot different than the normal bride panic and anxiety. Also, I’m sharing because it helped me to realize not every panic attack or little anxiety is caused by my disorder.
So as most of you know, weddings are stressful. They are about happy things that make it worth it, but it’s also a major trigger of many with anxiety and panic illnesses.
When I first got engaged, I was naturally ecstatic, but the day after being engaged, the night panic started. Basically, this is when I trigger a panic attack in the middle of the night. They don’t always make sense and most of the time I don’t remember the dream that caused it. I just wake up out of breath with my dog, Bella, laying on top of me, usually licking my hands and face to wake me up.
I struggled a lot and didn’t want to tell people because those first few weeks should be happy. In all honesty, I was afraid this would only get worse. My then-fiancé, Andrew, was amazing. Every step of the way he took in stride. Sometimes, coming up with things I didn’t even think of to ease my anxieties.
Me on the other hand, I shut down and took to my Facebook world of friends. One of the best parts of having a service dog in the social media and blog generation is the support system. I honestly have so many whom I count as friends, even though I have never met them. My blog also helped me to connect with friends who I didn’t know where struggling with the same things.
With the service dog groups, I found realized I wasn’t alone and even learned some coping strategies and shortcuts that made the months before my wedding a breeze. I honestly got better at controlling it after some tricks, which is good because Andrew can attest that the first month was our own mini hell. (I cried because of colors. I yelled because of food. I cried because I was getting married, and I yelled because it wasn’t fast enough.) I seriously am amazed I didn’t scare Andrew off, but it made me love him more.
Here are some strategies I learned to lessen the anxiety, which honestly are good for any bride to hear:
1. “No,” is a wonderful word.
If you can’t do something and it gets to the point where you’re making yourself sick over it, then saying no to ideas or even traditional wedding things is a great way to lessen anxieties. Granted, remember your groom has a voice and you can’t just veto everything (I tried that. It didn’t go well.) Saying no to the many suggestions you get is good. An example? I was so stressed out about flowers and bouquets, I decided not to have flowers.
2. Take a break.
Weddings are exhausting. Planning a wedding over the span of a year is a good time to remember that once you get the initial important stuff (food, venue and pastor, oh yeah, a groom is nice, too) it’s OK to take a break. I stopped planning for a month. It gave me time to breathe and remember getting married is fun. Even our dogs got tired!
I wrote a to do list every week. Andrew and I would cross off what we’d accomplished during the week. It helped space things out.
4. Panic and anxiety happen.
Even if you are the calmest person ever, you will get stressed. If you have any sort of panic or anxiety tendencies, then remember they will be amplified. It is important to learn how to handle that.
5. Practice coping skills and getting help.
If you already go to a counselor, then know you might need to up your number of visits. If you don’t, then find someone (not family) or even some of your closer friends to talk to. Having an outside ear really helps. Luckily, if you are getting married at a church, then mentors are available.
6. Take your time and do things when you need to.
It is OK to be selfish sometimes. This one is hard to explain, but sometimes you have to make important choices to make things easier. This definitely calls for major open communication between the couple.
7. Take more breaks.
As the wedding nears, take breaks from planning often. Find something you can do that the wedding is not involved in. I painted. I painted so much I think everyone in my life has gotten a painting whether they liked it or not. I decorated the house to focus on other things besides the wedding.
8. Have fun.
Do little things with your groom to take breaks and have fun while planning a wedding. We took a vacation in the middle of planning just to get away and have fun. We went to the aquarium in Minneapolis and went to Legoland. It was great!
9. It is your wedding, so do whatever you want.
Find the unique part of your life and make it part of your wedding. We are obsessed with Legos. So naturally, they will be at the wedding.
10. Last, it’s OK to panic.
If you have a disorder, then remind yourself all this anxiety is actually normal for a bride (and groom).
I had a smart person in my life remind me while my anxiety was amplified, it was so normal that it’s not even funny. A lot of girls experience anxiety leading up to weddings.
Now, I am not going to tell anyone to relax because these situations control your irrational mind. While your rational mind says relax, your irrational mind can not control the fear. It is an ugly monster that holds you in its clutches until you can’t breathe. However, remember what the wedding is about. It’s about celebrating the marriage to your best friend. It’s about combining two families to join in your celebration, but most of all it is about being happy.
This turned into more of a how to survive a wedding, but I wanted to write that it is OK to feel this way. It is OK not to want a wedding. It’s OK to feel alone when you aren’t or overwhelmed at the little things. It is OK to panic and be anxious. Just remember it’s worth it.
A big trigger for me is when I can’t see someone’s face when they’re speaking to me, which is why it’s so hard for me to have phone conversations. (Sometimes even texting is hard!) Living with anxiety can feel like you’re prey. We are always 100 percent aware of everything going on around us. We have to be because anxiety can feel like always being in danger. You don’t know why you’re in danger or from what. All you know is you must always be on guard. Always.
Halloween revels in scariness. To be terrified is kinda the whole point of the holiday. Thanks, but daily life is terrifying enough for me. So why on earth would I enjoy parading around to houses covered in spider webs, where a scarecrow on the porch may or may not come alive or have the door opened by a zombie from “The Walking Dead” in full makeup. Also it’s dark. Everyone’s wearing a mask, and you have no clue who anyone is. Have fun!
When I was little enough, people felt bad about scaring me or my brother. So I could stay really close to my mom and dad, until I got to fifth grade. At my fifth grade Halloween party, we all got to change into our costumes. My tablemate had a dark robe on with a skeleton chest. He had a hood, but we weren’t allowed to pull them up or wear a mask. I thought I was safe.
He sat down (with me in my fairy costume), and I probably had my nose in a book when he said my name. When I looked up, he had on the mask from the painting “Scream,” and pressed a button to make fake blood run down his face. Apparently, he liked the look of abject terror on my face. Since I was a trusting and naive little child, he was able to do it three more times before I ran to my best friend and refused to look at anyone else for the rest of the day.
I avoided Halloween parties, trick or treating or anything to do with the holiday. I said I was “too old” to be doing that stuff anymore. Secretly, I felt like I was missing out.
When I was in eighth grade, I moved to a different school, but my best friend and I lived within walking distance. So we still saw each other regularly. In early October, she begged me to come with her to a Halloween party. All my friends from my old school would be there, and I really wanted to see them. But Halloween.
As a smart anxious child, I figured out all ways to hide my anxiety. I told my friend my mom wasn’t a fan of Halloween, and so I wasn’t even going to bother to ask. Since my best friend is also highly intelligent and knew I was full of sh*t, she asked her mom to ask my mom to let me come. My mom agreed and was overjoyed I was going out on Halloween.
It’s really hard to pull one over on my mom. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been able to fool her (and all of these events have gone as well as being a crane operator in a lightning storm). She bought my “too old for Halloween” excuse for approximately zero seconds.
I see my anxiety as the other personality living in my brain or a “brain buddy.” When October rolls around, Megan stops being part of the conversation and Anxiety takes over. Anxiety makes all the choices, whether I like them or not.
My mom told Anxiety she would stay at the party. That she would walk with us during trick or treating, even reminding Anxiety about the big bag of candy that comes at the end of the night. The final thing that allowed me to get back control over my anxiety was when my mom said she would bring my dog with her. I agreed to go to the party. Anxiety was not pleased.
Halloween night rolled around. I spend most of the day alternating between panic and excitement at seeing my friends again (whom I hadn’t seen since the summer), but it was mostly panic. Finally, my mom and I drove over to pick up my best friend and go to the party together. Upon arrival, I was relieved to see there were no masks or face paint on anyone (I think there may have been threats involved).
During trick or treating, my mom walked slightly behind with the rest of the mothers. Anxiety was OK with that because I positioned myself in between my two best friends and right in the middle of the pack. Although there were a few times I walked so close that one of them tripped on me, I survived the journey. We all cheerfully ignored the houses with billowing smoke machines and creepy porch ornaments.
When we got back to the house, a little after dusk, we all poured out all our candy and traded among ourselves so everyone got their favorite types and replaced all the broken and unwrapped ones with candy our hosts had purchased. We had moved on to the movie “Monster High” when my mom called up that it was time to go home. I was shocked at the time. Halloween was almost over, and Anxiety hadn’t crashed the party!
While a great experience, this party did not cure my Halloween-phobia. I still dread the appearance of decorations in stores everywhere, and the copious amounts of candy that fill every aisle. Yet, this one experience taught me that my anxiety doesn’t always have to crash the party. The Halloween party taught me scary things doesn’t mean I have to hand control over to Her.
So, despite the terror, I go anyways. I do Halloween parties. I hand out candy. I’ve even gone trick or treating with friends. I still walk close enough to my best friend that she sometimes trips on me, and I won’t go without one of my dogs with me, but I go. Despite the triggers that abound on this night of the year, I even have fun. Because I’ll be d*mned if I let one of my brain buddies take away walking around with friends, laughing and, of course, a huge bag of candy!
I often have people tell me I don’t have it all that bad, so what could I be depressed or anxious about? I have a steady job and a roof over my head, so what could I possibly have to worry about? I couldn’t agree more. Why then, am I still afraid and worried all the time?
Just because I do not have a “real reason” to be anxious doesn’t mean I am not anxious. After all, if I had “real” concerns I was worried about, wouldn’t that be the healthy response to those concerns? The very problem with anxiety is that I am worried about anything and everything I can be, rational and irrational. I decided to keep track of the anxious questions that wash over me as a single day rolls by.
From the moment I wake up in the morning:
What time is it? Did I oversleep? Have I worn this shirt too many times to work? Will people notice? This is the shirt I am wearing in my ID photo; people will think it is the only shirt I wear. Should I try to do something new with my hair? It’s too boring; it’s the same hair I have always had. People will think I am boring. Is that too much cologne? Will people think I am trying too hard? Are my windshield wipers going too fast? Does it look like I am overreacting to the rain? Am I going to be pulled over? I should turn my music down because if others hear it they will think I am weird.
That’s before I even get to work and interact with anyone. Let’s continue:
Will someone notice I am just sitting at my desk? Will they report me for wasting time? When will they realize I don’t know what I am doing? Do people think I walk funny? Are people taking advantage of how nice I am? Am I letting people walk over me? Am I being too nice to this person? Do they think I am flirting? Will I get taken to HR? Am I being creepy? I feel like I am not doing enough. Am I being lazy? Do they know I have no idea what they are talking about? Should I have taken this job? Maybe I should have stayed where I was unhappy but at least knew what I was doing. They will find out I am making it all up as I go.
I need to stop spending money. Why can’t I stop spending money? Why can’t I lose weight? Do people think I am fat? Do they make fun of my height? I need to stop texting my friends. I am being overbearing and annoying. They have real lives, and I am bothering them. Does the waitress think I am rude for looking at my phone? Do I come here too often? Does my roommate think I am too loud? Do I bother him when he wants to be left alone? Why is my room such a mess? Why can’t I keep it clean? Why haven’t I finished reading that book yet? Why do I look at Facebook? No one is talking to me. They have their lives, and you are bothering them.
This all seems petty, mindless and pointless, right? That is the point. It wouldn’t be a problem if I was constantly worried about important things. The constant flood of stressing over the unimportant things is what makes my anxiety what it is. I know just as much as the person telling me I am worrying over nothing that I am doing just that. The part that annoys others, that they are so ready to dismiss as not a “real” problem is exactly what the problem is. So now, in addition to the myriad of other little worries raining down on me, tearing me apart like a storm of needles, I have to worry that I am bothering you with these other trivial concerns.
Please understand I know more than you do that I should not be worried about these little things. Please also understand that is exactly what anxiety is. When you dismiss my anxiety, you actively participate in confirming all those little fears and insecurities. Instead of adding to the pile of worries of someone you care about or even do not care about, remember that if I had rational fears it would be a survival instinct. It’s the irrational fears that make it a sickness. Please consider that, and act accordingly.