To the Man Who Told Me I Was Too Old to Color

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Dear Man in Barnes and Noble,

You saw me curled up in a big comfy chair with a large bag of colored pencils and a journal with coloring pages. I had my ear buds in listening to some acoustic songs, trying to center myself and get myself to a more peaceful place. I am sure the reason behind my coloring didn’t even cross your mind, and if it did, you probably could not figure out why a girl my age was sitting there by myself doing an activity that, in your mind, only 5-year-olds should be doing.

“Aren’t you a little old to be coloring?”

I didn’t really answer your question then, mainly because I did not know what to say and was caught off guard, but I am going to answer it now.

No, I am not too old to be coloring. You told me that you used to color when you were a little kid, but that people my age don’t color. First of all, have you looked in Barnes and Noble? The store is filled with coloring books and Mandala books for children, teens and adults. Granted, I know you are quite a bit older than me and so we have very different experiences; you may not be up to date on the latest trends, and I certainly do not hold that against you.

However, you talked to me for 40 minutes in Barnes and Noble, when I do not even know you. I was trying to be polite and listen, but the truth is, I just wanted to return to my coloring book, music and forget about everything for a little while. By the comments you made, I’m sure you thought of me as silly and naïve, you certainly did not take my field that I am in seriously. “Well, have fun picking apart people’s brains,” you said to me about social work as you left.

Here is the thing — you don’t know a thing about me. You made assumptions without knowing the story, the background, the truth. I was in Barnes and Noble trying to kill time, minding my own business, when I was interrupted in a not so nice way. You probably didn’t know that before coloring in Barnes and Noble, I was sitting in the parking lot for half an hour having a meltdown. You probably didn’t know that I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety, fatigue and low blood sugar that all piled up to create one big mess to the point where I was in tears unable to go into the store for a chunk of time.

You probably didn’t know that before driving to Barnes and Noble, I climbed six flights of stairs on campus with a heavy backpack and a chronic illness, just to be too scared to walk into the student lounge, so I  turned around and descended the same six flight of steps. I felt dizzy and weak, I felt as if my body could collapse.

You also probably didn’t know that prior to that, I was in the store on campus buying some school supplies, and counted my money incorrectly at the cash register due to brain fog and anxiety, and felt so embarrassed and anxious that my body started to shake. You must not realize what it is like to live with a mental illness and a chronic physical illness for that matter.

I know because I know your life story after listening to you talk for a good solid 40 minutes. You certainly had your challenges that you faced, so why did you judge a book by its cover? Did you ever think that maybe I was trying to cope with one of my own challenges? That I was doing something to help myself get to a better place? It probably never occurred to you that I have anxiety disorders, or that I have a rare metabolic disease along with some other chronic health problems. I was just trying to get myself through the rest of my day, doing what I had to do to get by, and I really did not need or appreciate the comments that you, a total stranger, made to me.

So, to go back to your question, no, of course, I am not too old to color. I am not too old to journal. I am not too old to hug my stuffed animals when I feel scared or anxious, or when I am in the midst of a panic attack. I have to do what I have to do to get myself through the fear, and over the mountains that sometimes prevent me from living my life to the fullest. We all have barriers and obstacles we need to learn to overcome. Mine may seem silly to you, but to me, they are very real and frightening, and I am not going to be ashamed of using my coping skills and taking care of myself, no matter where I am.

Next time you see someone doing something that you don’t understand or that you think is silly, I invite you to keep an open mind, and to remember that we all have very different, unique experiences. You never know what kind of battle that person may be fighting, and if you do not know the reason or story behind the action, don’t judge. Take a step back and think before you speak.

However, thank you for reminding me that I need to stand up for myself more. I often am too afraid to speak up out of fear of hurting others feelings, but I should have politely told you that I could not talk at the moment. I am not holding on to the anger and frustration that I felt when you were putting in your two sense. It is not worth it. I am letting it all go because there are other things that I could be worrying about. I just thought you should know the answer to your question.

 

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How Serena Williams Got Me Through My Hospital Admission for Anxiety

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‘It’s just another fight I’m going to have to learn how to win, that’s all. I’m just going to have to keep smiling.’
– Serena Williams

Professional tennis player, Serena Williams, has been ranked World No. 1 in singles on six separate occasions. What makes her success so remarkable is not so much her victories, but her drive to win. She has become the definition of effort; a constant, undeniable determination. Her name has become synonymous with excellence. No obstacles nor haters have stopped her. She plays to win.

Recently, I had been hospitalized for a week. I was experiencing a severe panic attack and my mind resorted to suicidal thoughts. Battling anxiety isn’t easy, and after a 15-minute painful battle, I picked up the phone and reached out for help. I called my doctor and a close family member. I am lucky enough to have a great support system and I was taken to the hospital where I stayed for a while to be monitored and have my medications adjusted.

I spent some lonely hours in the emergency unit of the hospital in a room with nothing but a bed and bare walls. It gave me a lot of quiet time to calmly reflect and think about life, my choices and decisions; past, present and future. As I was thinking, the nurse handed me a big bottle of orange Gatorade to keep me hydrated. I was slowly sipping from the bottle when I saw Serena, in all of her glory, on the Gatorade label. Suddenly, Serena was my only connection to the outside world, as no cellphones or visitors are allowed on the unit. I thought about her image. I thought about her love of sports and her determination to go all the way. I thought about her willpower and her strength — how she never gives up. I thought of the battles she’s been through, her injuries, her haters; and yet she still fiercely plays and goes for the goal. She is not only an image in the sports’ world, but as a woman I admire her immensely. Her attitude and determination is what earned her a total of 22 Grand Slams. And when she says that it’s her hard work that made her a champion, I believe her. It’s not luck that has brought her this far.

We, Serena and I, play different games. I battle my own mind and strive to conquer my anxiety and negative thoughts. I aim for the championship. I want those 22 Grand Slams. And suddenly, right there on my hospital bed, I realized that it takes hard work, determination and a willpower made of unbreakable steel.

I stared at that black and white image and engraved it in my head. I engraved Serena’s message. Victories don’t come easy, but they are worth it. Serena is an inspiration to so many, and maybe one day, if I’m lucky enough, my battles will inspire someone also.

I embraced all the love and support I received and let my doctors help me, because this was the first step in my journey to stardom. And from here on, I play to win.

Thank you, Serena Williams. And thank you, Gatorade. (You know, just for keeping me hydrated.)

Follow this journey on Tea or Lemonade.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Serena William’s Facebook page

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When This Year's 'Bachelor' Called Anxiety 'Crazy'

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Last Monday night, I, like many others, was engrossed in the latest episode of “The Bachelor.” I eagerly watched this year’s bachelor, Nick Viall, hand out roses to the women who have won his heart — until he spoke four simple sentences that instantaneously made my “rosy” attitude disappear.

“I’ve thought a lot, coming into this week, just how crazy I was in these two weeks. I had anxiety, I had mild panic attacks… I mean, I drove myself insane.”

Anxiety. Crazy. Panic attacks. Drove myself insane.

The weight of these words hit me hard. My heart raced. I could barely breathe. I immediately felt sick to my stomach.

I have anxiety — Am I crazy? I have had panic attacks… Am I supposed to believe that I am insane?

Society has long utilized the words “crazy” and “insane” to reinforce the negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness. The word “crazy” conjures up images of violence, aggression and instability, and — in both everyday conversation and in the media — it is primarily used to derogatorily describe a person’s mental state. “Insane,” by contrast, originated as a legal term, but it has devolved into a word widely used to disparage those living with mental illness. Tying loaded, derogatory language, such as the words “crazy” and “insane,” to mental illness — as “The Bachelor” did — perpetuates the harmful stereotype that people living with mental illness are violent, aggressive, incompetent and unstable.

The chaotic, disorderly picture these words create does not represent the reality for the vast majority of people living with mental illness. People with a variety of mental illnesses — including anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder — are able to lead stable, successful lives. They attend college and graduate school, have careers in a wide variety of fields, get married, own homes and care for their children. Despite the widespread view that people with mental illness commit acts of violence, particularly in workplace settings, research not only suggests that they are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of aggressive acts, but that a significant proportion of people with mental illness has been victimized more than once. The words “crazy” and “insane,” as well as similar language, not only serve to reinforce the deleterious stereotype that people with mental illness are too unstable to succeed in society, but they perpetuate the cycle of violence against those who live with mental illness.

Therefore, it is crucial to be cognizant of the way in which the language used in the media can powerfully reinforce negative stereotypes surrounding mental health conditions.  By insinuating that experiencing anxiety is “crazy” and having panic attacks drove him “insane,” Nick Viall inadvertently perpetuated the notion that people with living with anxiety and panic disorders are unstable, out-of-control and potentially violent, due to the connotations of the words he chose to describe his anxious mental state. Those who viewed this particular episode of “The Bachelor” received confirmation of the deeply-entrenched but highly misleading stereotype that people with mental illness — particularly those living with anxiety disorders — exist in a constant state of instability and chaos and are unable to function in society. Presenting this type of language as an acceptable way to describe mental illness not only perpetuates the stereotypes surrounding mental illness, but by seemingly lending credence to the harmful perceptions of those with mental illness, it also further marginalizes those living with mental health conditions.

It is important for everyone in our society — regardless of background or social status — to choose language wisely, particularly as it pertains to describing symptoms of mental illness. A young professional experiencing anxiety symptoms before a job interview is not “crazy.”  A man having panic attacks while attempting to find love on national television is not “insane.” Words have the power to either reinforce or dispel the stereotypes surrounding mental illness and, therefore, to influence future perceptions of those living with mental health conditions.

It is imperative that we think before speaking.

It is crucial that we speak with care and deliberation.

We have the power to create a world in which people with mental illness are no longer oppressed by negative stereotypes.

We must choose our words wisely.

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Image via The Bachelor Facebook page 

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The Senses of Anxiety

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If my anxiety could talk, it would snap at you, yelling in an overly irritable tone for no known reason.

If my anxiety could hear, it would cover its ears and tune you out, humming louder than you speak.

If my anxiety smelled, it would smell like when a fire is being snuffed out, low and almost out, but never fully extinguished, waiting for that one spark to reignite it into a full fire.

If my anxiety could feel, it would feel like sandpaper, rough and abrasive.

If my anxiety was a person it would wear black, and it would lurk in the shadows, following me around every single day, stalking my thoughts, my movements, my feelings.

It would pounce when I least expected it. When I’m having lunch with a friend, when I’m driving, reading a story to my children or when I am sitting at my desk at work.

Why would it do all of these things you ask? Because it can. Because I am still learning how to control it. Some days it runs amuck, and my fight or flight instinct is so high it’s all I can do to not run circles around myself screaming inside of my head for it to just stop already. Some days I cannot fight it, I can’t calm down, I can’t let it go. Some days it wins, but one day, I will win.

Until then I wait, and it waits…we wait together and see what’s next.

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Thinkstock photo via SanneBerg

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How My Mother Helped Me Accept My Anxiety

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That feeling where you stay up at night, staring at your ceiling, asking yourself an infinite number of questions, then sit there and debate on whether or not you actually know the answers.

That feeling where you wonder who truly cares about you and who is just using you — who is there for you and who is waiting to see you fail. That feeling where you want to vent to somebody but you never do because you feel that nobody will understand you. That feeling where you question your worth, your pride, yourself, everything. That feeling where you wake up every morning with a sense of dread about getting through the day. That feeling where you get spontaneous, uncontrollable panic attacks and you feel all alone. That feeling where all you’re left with is you, yourself and a very dark place.

These are the feelings I have experienced since the sixth grade. It was in this grade that I was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder.

I have always been a person who was afraid of the unknown and trying new things. Anxiety consists of constantly over-thinking, worrying and it can even cause physical problems. This is something many people experience. It is a natural part of life. Fortunately for most of us it isn’t as intense and persistent though. Unfortunately, this was not the case for me.

My anxiety disorder caused me a lot of discomfort throughout my early high school years. I would often stay home from school, because attending school made my symptoms flare. My attendance declined rather quickly. I often felt like I had run out of time and options. After numerous visits with a social counselor, I was more comfortable attending school, but I was too afraid to go individually.

I’ve learned through this experience that my mother is a very dedicated woman to her daughter. She would sit with me in class, every day, for what seemed like 24 hours. I felt like a nuisance, like I was making her life more complicated. However, her constant willingness to sit there with me and listen to all my doubts has led me to believe in who I am today. Because of my mother, I am who I am.

I’ve learned that it is OK to let it out. I’ve learned that you are stronger than you think. I’ve learned that others are going through it. too. We all have a story, we just tell them a little differently. I’ve learned that you do not have to let your past define you, and that as much as the support of friends helps, it is nothing compared to family. I’ve learned that you will have good days and you will have bad days, that you have to keep fighting or the anxiety will fight you.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that it is perfectly OK to not be OK.

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When Anxiety Says No, I Say Yes

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I wake up every day terrified of something. Whether I’ll meet that day’s work deadline. Whether the last thing I wrote was crap. Hell, I worry about getting the girls to school on time. You’d think that since I’ve never missed a deadline and never been fired by a client and consistently arrive at school so painfully early that we have to cool our heels in the parking lot so I don’t have to pay extra for before care – you’d think that I’d “get over” these worries. But history of success is no match for my brain’s ability to envision the worst-case scenario.

This is what it’s like to live with an anxiety disorder.

I used to crave a day when I would wake up calm and reasonable — what I imagine life is like for people who seem to ease through their days unscathed by worry and fear. But I’ve given up hope of that. I’ve accepted that anxiety will by my constant companion, my fellow traveler through life. When it comes to my anxiety, I try to manage it mostly with thought control. Over the past two years, since a nervous breakdown left me unable to shower on the regular, what I’ve learned to do is the opposite of what my brain tells me.

Now, if my brain tells me to stay under the covers, to not bathe, to eat Eggos and chips for breakfast instead of real food, here’s what I do instead: I force myself to get up, to make the bed, to wash myself, to fry an egg.

And if my brain tells me to stay timid, to not raise my voice, to give up at freelancing and seek a day job that would be much easier on my nerves than this constant hustle, then I send out more pitches, reach out to more contacts, dive into new projects.

Because for me personally, to hunker down is to “die.” At one point, that death could have been quite literal, as suicidal ideation was my mind’s favorite hobby. Today, giving in to worry would represent more of a figurative death: Death by letting anxiety keep me from living a bold life.

And in 2017, my goal is to live the boldest life possible.

So I’ve been doing the opposite.

Just this week, fate-like, a friend from 20 years past reached out to me with an offer to fill in for a drop-out on her Grand Canyon rafting trip at the end of March. The trip will end with me hiking 10 miles out of the Canyon with a mile gain in elevation.

I’m not a hiker, not a wilderness camper and I’ve never rafted. I can’t tie knots, I don’t cook and I cannot overstate how out of shape I am. “Irregular yoga” would describe my exercise routine for the past year. As in, sometimes when my back hurts from writing all day at the computer, I’ll do the “child’s pose” on the mat behind my desk for like 30 seconds.

I said yes.

I mean, I have a tattoo on my wrist that tells me to do just that: Say yes. To do things even though they terrify me, even though I absolutely hate doing things I’m not good at, hate the thought of letting people in a group down, cried through a humiliating ski trip years ago with experienced skiers, broke my foot getting out of the bathtub, passed out at Universal Studios and spent the rest of that vacation in the Disney World hospital recovering from heatstroke.

I said yes. Even though I spend my days anxiety-ridden about the smallest of small stuff, even though I battle imposter syndrome on the daily, even though I don’t particularly like being wet and/or cold, even though I make a thousand decisions every week simply to stay “sane.”

Because I will not let anxiety defeat me. I will do the things that scare me – the big things and the little things. And I will no doubt wake up the next day still terrified of something, and I will do it all over again.

Follow this journey on Reedster Speaks.

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