Girl hugging her best friend. In the park

Dear friend,

Let’s be honest here. I struggle. You know this. I struggle most every day. I won’t deny that. I also won’t deny that on most of the truly dark days, it’s blatantly apparent. I can’t hide it as much as I’d like to. Yet, I need to provide some clarity about those moments when I’m beaten down and barely standing.

Yes, I struggle, but I am still capable and successful. I am still here. I am still achieving. I am still purposed. I am still believing. Somewhere in there, I am still hopeful, despite the overwhelming hopelessness.

Do not patronize me. Just express your love for me. I need reminders on those days.

Here are a few things I need you to understand a bit better on the darkest days:

1. I am not “crazy.”

Irrational thoughts may plague my brain, but I am extremely rational. This is why I struggle most. There is a continual effort on my part of taking the irrational thoughts and replacing them with the rational. Constantly. I must take captive every thought I have. It is exhausting. Do not call me “crazy.” I hate that term.

2. I never fake symptoms or bad days for attention.

Ever. If anything, I fake that I am not experiencing symptoms. I smile the widest and laugh the loudest on the roughest days. I don’t want to seek attention. On the contrary, I’d rather not have an audience for an anxiety attack or emotional meltdown. Attention-seeking has never been my intention, and it never will be. So, please know I trust you. I trust you with the pain, shame and guilt I sometimes experience.

3. I am independent, but I still need people.

Everyone does. I need you. I need love. Thankfully, I am able to accomplish my day to day tasks, like going to work, school, church, doing laundry or eating. However, when I can’t see the light or find hope, presence is crucial for me. Having another breathing person who expresses even an ounce of love and care for me makes such a difference. There is a comfort and a safety I embody that I cannot begin to describe.

4. I am not weak.

Not in the slightest. Rather, I am powerful and incredibly strong. To admit my shortcomings, I must push through so many obstacles. This takes humility. I have to lay down my pride. Asking for help feels weak, but it requires tremendous amounts of strength. Do not look down on me (or anyone else for that matter) for being transparent and honest. I love you, and I trust you. Please respect, value and protect my vulnerability.

5. There are times when you don’t have to say a word.

Don’t worry about what to say to me. I don’t always need a lecture or an uplifting, encouraging speech. Sometimes, it’s comforting to be reminded that quiet isn’t always violent. (Go listen to Twenty-One Pilot’s “Car Radio” for this beautiful reference.) Just being there is enough. It has been enough. Be there with me. Be there for me. You don’t have to be my counselor, psychologist, pastor, psychiatrist or my mom. Just be you. Be. I love who you are, and I love that you love me. I love that you care and that you are willing. You stand by me even in the ugly or scary times. You are here. That is enough. My expectations are realistic, and my love is unconditional. I’m eternally thankful.

Just know even when I am not OK, I am always trying to be. I will get better. I will be better. I will help myself. I will help others. I may struggle, but I am not a loser. I am an overcomer. Thank you for being a fan of mine. Thank you for being on my team. You are a blessing.

With love,

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Humans crave being understood.

Especially humans with anxiety.

Often other people don’t understand why we behave the way we do.

They may not understand our abrupt need to flee the room. Our tears and shallow breathing. Our unlikely and outrageous fears.

They may not understand why we might need to psych ourselves up to do something seemingly simple like make a phone call or leave the house.

Or why we spend a whole day analyzing a single comment or gesture.

Or why we redo things that were fine the first time because they need to be “perfect.”

They might be surprised by our “sudden” outbursts or breakdowns, completely unaware that our calm demeanor is almost always masking a state of internal panic.

They may be confused when comments like “you’re overreacting” or “you’re lucky compared to most people in the world,” make us more upset than we already are.

Often, they don’t see we’re aware of the illogical nature of our anxiety. That we know we’re being irrational, but don’t know how to make ourselves think or act differently.

So what would life be like if everyone understood anxiety?

Life would be easier if people just understood. We would find ourselves in fewer awkward positions and uncomfortable situations. We would have fewer arguments. Our stress would decrease. There would be less frustration from all sides. We wouldn’t have to struggle to explain a condition that we ourselves don’t fully understand.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to make others instantly understand or accept us. Some people will never understand or sympathize with our anxiety.

And that’s OK.

Not everyone has to understand. Not everyone has to know why we act and think and feel the way we do. They don’t need to like us or believe us. Not everyone even needs to know that we have anxiety.

But it is important to have a support system.

We should have people in our lives who are familiar with anxiety and its manifestations. It’s comforting to occasionally hear: “I get it,” or “you’re not crazy.” It’s vital to know you’re not alone.

That being said, we don’t need everyone in our life to be able to relate to our illness. I used to think this was a requirement for closeness. It makes things easier, but relationships are messy. People are imperfect. We connect with each other on many different levels. It’s nice to think our family and friends and romantic partners will all become anxiety experts, but it’s just not always a reality. Chances are, the closest people in your life will make some adjustments around your anxiety, but they still may never get it. The good news is that’s not really necessary. They don’t need to understand us completely in order to give us their love and support. In fact, there’s something beautiful in them loving and accepting us without needing to understand.

Often, when we’re asking for understanding, we’re actually asking for permission. We’re asking for affirmation. We’re asking for approval.

We want to know that we’re OK. We want to be sure it’s not our fault.

We crave this affirmation, but the truth is that we don’t really need it. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not someone can see our anxiety and properly diagnose and dissect it.

There doesn’t always need to be an explanation. It doesn’t make our experience any less valid. You don’t need to justify it to anyone. We know it’s real.

Our success and happiness isn’t dependent on other people understanding our anxiety. Only on us understanding it.

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I’ve missed out on my son’s first years. I’ve been here pretty much every day as it goes, but I’ve not been here, if you comprehend? Before my son spoke, there were many quiet moments. I would sing and read to him, but speaking, engaging my own thoughts and verbalizing them was sometimes impossible. How could I, when I had no thoughts? I was empty.

On nights when he wouldn’t stop screaming, sometimes we would just lie together, our chests heaving as we cried in tandem. A trip to the shops invariably ended in tears. I don’t know what the definition of a nervous breakdown is, but I broke down so often I can’t recall the half of them. It started during pregnancy. Many times since then, pushing my son’s buggy, I have been overcome with anxiety. It’s an overwhelming sense that takes over your body and soul, a shortening of breath as you feel your life spiraling out of control, unable to regain the reins.

Fighting to keep that cloud over your head from creeping down until it’s smothering you is hard work. The extreme stress I experienced from my relationship going into meltdown and the subsequent loneliness, hopelessness and anxiety, made me want to take my own life. It was a “none” life. So it was nothing to take.

The exhaustion of rising again and again was too much. Other times, when I knew the guilt wouldn’t allow me to take such action, I would dream of someone knocking me over and putting me in a coma. This way my life could be put on hold, giving me time to catch up with myself. Other times, the desire to cut myself and release the build-up of pressure inside my exhausted shell would be nearly overwhelming.

Now, as my son is older, I have to compartmentalize my pain and anguish. When, late at night I become distraught, I can cry loudly, rock myself back and forth until the tears stop and the fuzzing ear ringing silence descends upon me. When I have reached that point, where I have nothing left inside of me, no more screams of anger or anguish, no more tears of self-pity, I become numb. I am speechless and thoughtless in every sense. It’s a protection mechanism. Each of us has a level of pain beyond which we cannot sustain ourselves. When we surpass it, our mind shuts down.

Things are getting better now. It’s hard to be silent in the wake of a bumbling, chaotic toddler. There are still days when the strength I need is gone though. Mornings when he pulls and pushes at me to get out of bed. On such days, we often find a compromise. I lie on the sofa as he clambers over me. There are no words. Somehow my presence comforts him and he knows I can manage no more. I lie there, deadening silence within me and around me. I’m so fragile and the only person who seems to realize is my son.

Looking back, sometimes it feels like I can’t remember his early days. What did he do all day? What was the crawling stage like? I remember so little of it. I hardly have any photographic evidence. It wasn’t just about not having someone around to take photos (though as a single mom that was an issue). It was about not having anyone to share them with and not wanting to immortalize these moments, which while they contained bursts of happiness, were also filled with sadness and despair.

Even now, it’s rare that I will revisit those photos, the few I have, for fear that the sadness lingering around the frame, might seep out and take center stage again. Maybe it is this feeling of having missed out on so much in my son’s first years, which means I miss him so dearly when we are apart.

It hurts I don’t remember all the moments because it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I used to dance around the room while my son giggled in delight. I kissed and cuddled him numerous times a day, vowing he would always know the physical presence of love. Despite all he has witnessed, somehow my son seems to be turning out pretty damn fine, but that doesn’t stop me feeling guilty and worrying about the long-term effects.

Sometimes, I think things are improving. I’m an instinctively optimistic person when I’ve had a good couple of days, and the hope and happiness tricks me into believing it’s here to stay. Then, something happens. It doesn’t have to be much, a disagreement or an unkind word. It’s like a right hook socks me across the face, and I stumble backward.

I don’t fall. Being a parent doesn’t allow you that luxury, especially when there’s no one else to pick up the pieces. Yet, my journey toward a better state of mind flounders. Who was I to think I could do this? Who am I to think I can have happiness? Invariably such crashes occur at night when there is no one around to reach out to. Ultimately, perhaps this is why they happen. I have no one to reach out to and no strength left to reach.

The morning after a crash, I wake up feeling unnerved. It feels like something awful has happened, but I can’t quite remember the details. Then, I realize I’m still here. It’s fine, and not fine, all in one. On those mornings, it’s like I have taken a battering on a boat stranded in a stormy sea. Somehow though, I have clung on and weathered it. The sun is rising, and so shall I, until the next crash.

This post originally appeared on Ella Mental Mama.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Dear Anxiety,

You’re wrong. You are wrong when you tell me I am not valued. You are wrong on the days when I wake up and can’t think about anything but what could go wrong if I get out of bed. You are at your worst when you make me play with my fingers in an attempt to cope with a panic attack. When you are at your worst, you are the most wrong.

You’re wrong when you tell me I am not able to comprehend what is easily comprehensible to the rest of the world. You are wrong when you tell me my form of intelligence is not valued. You are wrong when you tell me nobody will want to wake up with me in the morning. You are wrong when the lump in my throat hurts so bad I have to place my arms around it while you mock me, while you tell me this is what I deserve and this is what I have gotten myself into.

You are wrong when you make me compare myself to my friends, wondering if everyone would like me more if I looked more like them. You are wrong when you tell me I won’t receive a college acceptance letter. You are wrong when you tell me I am second best.

You are wrong when you tell me what you tell me isn’t wrong, that it’s a truth I’m unwilling to accept. You are wrong when you tell me I don’t belong in my family. You are wrong when you tell me I could leave, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Most importantly, you are always wrong when you tell me I’m not exactly where I’m supposed to be because I am. I work every day, for 24 hours, fighting every thought you’re constantly streaming into my head. And that is never going to end.

You’re wrong because you’re not supposed to be here, but you are. Today, instead of believing you and letting you inside, I am pushing you out. You are wrong. You always have been, and you always will be. Today, I win.

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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.

This is my battle, but on the outside I am smiling. This is my silent lament.

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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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