a woman holding a young child

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.

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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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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 just pull 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 add social 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:

Cheer up.

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!

Two dogs sleeping on a sofa.

3. Lists are the best things ever.

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.

Pictures frames on a wall inside a house.

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.

Wedding photo via Mad Photo & Design.

This post originally appeared on The (Service) Dog in the Room.

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