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The Emoji I Use to Describe My Anxiety

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When I was an undergraduate psychology major, we often asked what certain mental illnesses “looked” like. Some had fairly visible symptoms, but one illness always seemed to stump myself and my companions, and that was anxiety. It is hard to place a particular visual element to an illness that is so different for so many different people. While I had not had debilitating anxiety during college, I did experience a particularly scary health event that allowed me to experience what millions of people experience around the world every minute of every day of their lives.

For me, anxiety was more than just feeling overwhelmed. It included the process of becoming overwhelmed. I had specific triggers and pain points. When they got particularly bad, I could often find myself gasping for air and sobbing quite uncontrollably. But still, my anxiety was hard to describe. I imagine it could look like an amalgamate of Emoji symbols, each one harnessing and detailing a small part of what I was experiencing.

The sad face with the tear above his eyebrow. That one clicked first for me. It was able to visually represent my physical symptoms. The tears and the strife I felt were reminiscent of that.

face with cold sweat

The face that has a zipper for a mouth. That one represents how closed off I felt. I was not able to describe to others how I felt at times, especially when I started to spiral. I was in a place where I felt as if no one understood the pain, both physical and emotional, I felt on an everyday basis.

zipper mouth face

The emoji of a man in disguise. This is my ultimate favorite. Anxiety, for me, acted like a big old trench coat. It wrapped me up, made me a different person, with different feelings, different likes and dislikes, and a different demeanor.

sleuth or spy emoji

While I know it is not typical to use emojis to describe how I felt, it was difficult to pin one particular image on anxiety as a whole. For something so multifaceted, it was if I was not doing it justice. There are so many different experiences one can have when struggling with anxiety. Everyone’s choice of emojis to represent anxiety can be different. We do not all fit into the same mold with the same symptoms and the same effect.

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Anxiety Is...

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Anxiety is…

Sneaking in to whisper “I love you” into each child’s ear for the 50th time, just in case it’s the last.

Endless thoughts of what will happen next, and when, and why and how…

It’s asking God for forgiveness 500 times for the same thing, because you want to be sure.

It’s having night terrors at 30 years old, and waking up gasping for air.

It’s seeing the worst case scenario in your day dreams, instead of a white, sandy beach.

It’s spending the end of the day seeing wasted moments and broken hours, that could have and should have been spent more wisely.

It’s praying over your babies as if you will never pray over them again.

It’s writing these words at 1:17 a.m., because if you don’t, you may never get to write them.

Anxiety is the endless comma in the world’s longest run-on sentence, because a period is too final, and you’ve got more to say.

And what if you don’t get to say it?

Anxiety is a thief. Of joy. And peace. And love.

Because I have to get this done.

And it has to be this way.

And I don’t have enough time.

And please forgive me.

Anxiety is not…

The answer. Or the ruler. Or the end.

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Thinkstock photo via fyb

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My Anxiety Feels Like a Plant Trying to Squeeze the Life From Me

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It starts as scattered seeds. Kernels anchored by anxiety and waiting for the right conditions to sprout. Some days they are fertilized by memories. Some days by fear. Most often they germinate themselves, arriving with a lunchbox of sunlight and water as they feed one another.

They don’t grow up and out, freeing themselves. Instead they grow in twisted, circuitous paths around my body. From a seed into an invasive vine.

Most of the time I have no idea why I feel anxious. No idea why my brain is trying to prep my body for flight. The more effort I put into getting to the roots of the creeping briar, the deeper they dig and the faster it grows.

The tendrils move behind my eyes and squeeze. They continue down into my lungs. Unlike most plants, this one eats oxygen and exhales adrenaline. I have to remind myself to breathe. Dizzy and tingling, exhaustion creeps into my fingers and fills my churning stomach.

I look for a problem to solve, only to discover my mind is rootbound and unsure. I try to tease it apart, to get to the “why.” Lightheaded, I pull harder. Eventually, I’m just hacking at it with desperate fists and hoping to figure out something, anything. And so it grows.

It spirals and twists, over and under, through my body. Forcing its way out via my skin and stealing all of my uneasy energy for itself. I wonder if it’s going to take me out with it as my skin vibrates and crawls, electric. Every nerve ending is fragile, every touch spreads cracks along the surface. My muscles twitch, a whole body version of restless legs. My daughter gives me a hug and it’s all I can do to not scream.

Finally, the vine slows and I pull the thorny infrastructure apart, once again able to think. I know this bramble will eventually starve itself. I know this, but I am equally convinced this will be the time it just keeps growing, unchecked. I know this plant is nothing but over-watered anxiety. I know this, but I am equally certain its roots are more sinister and deadly. I don’t even need WebMD to catalog the potential maladies.

I swing back the other direction. Maybe I just drank too much caffeine. That would be preferable to anything else, but man would I feel stupid.

But what if…

What if my brain is just… broken?

I am shaky and weak when it finally dies back. There is still a lot of work to do to get rid of all the rotting vines and I’m too tired. Weary and hungover and achy from misplaced adrenaline. I step around the wilted and spent anxiety, worried it is only becoming mulch for next time.

I am forever looking for any signs of movement within those seeds, but somehow they always, always surprise me when they finally sprout. I wish I could tell them they aren’t even real, but how do you call out the nonexistence of something when it is actively hurting you? How do you detach yourself from something clinging like kudzu? How do you separate yourself from something that, in the moment, feels like it is you?

It feels impossible to look at something objectively while it is pulling you apart.

It sure does have interesting flowers and look at the color of those leaves!

Oh. That’s right. It also has thorns.

And isn’t that a cute swarm of killer bees…

Follow this journey on Rhiyaya.

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Image via Thinkstock.

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Dear Professor, Here's the Real Reason I Missed Your Class Again

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Dear College Professor,

There’s something I would like to let you know. I woke up this morning, got dressed and ate, but as you took role, I’m not in your class. It took everything in me to get out of bed this morning, and I planned on going to class. The moment I went to leave my house I felt paralyzed. The world around me started to spin, I felt my heart drop and I couldn’t catch my breath. I knew exactly what was going on, but yet I was still scared. As your taking role right now you probably called out, “Alizabeth Stachlinski,” then once it was silent you thought to yourself, “What a surprise.” As I’m sitting on the floor in my living room trying to get the strength to walk up the stairs, thoughts are going through my head.

“I’m going to fail.”

“I should give up now.”

“I’m missing something important.”

“Everyone thinks I’m a failure”

“People don’t think I care.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I need help.”

“Should I call someone?”

“Should I go to the doctors?”

“I’m fine, it’s anxiety.”

“I’m fine, I’ve felt this before.”

“I’m not OK.”

“I won’t be OK.”

“I need to take notes.”

“I need to read the PowerPoint.”

“I have to get upstairs.”

“I can’t miss another class.”

“Breathe.”

Most importantly, professor, I’m thinking of a lie to email you about. Anxiety doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. Should I be honest and tell you or should I lie? If I’m honest I’ll probably be looked at like a “freak.” Professor, you probably wouldn’t understand. You would most likely think it’s just an excuse I came up with. That I needed to get over it and push through it.

Well, professor, I emailed you and it went something like this: “Professor, it’s Alizabeth Stachlinski from your ____ class. I just wanted to let you know that I missed class again today because I’m still sick. Could you please let me know what I missed? Thanks in advance, Alizabeth Stachlinski.”

I then feel guilty because maybe I should have just told the truth but I feel society doesn’t treat anxiety or mental illnesses as valid excuses. They are a lot like physical illnesses, just harder to see. Anxiety isn’t just an excuse to get out of certain situations. It is a real health issue, that doesn’t get easier even when I know what it is.

Professor, I missed your class today, but yet I’m sitting in my bed trying to calm my breathing down sitting with my notes open. I missed your class, but I’m sitting here doing the same work. I go over the PowerPoint and I take the same notes as if I was in class. I feel more comfortable here because I’m not being “judged.” I missed your class, but I’m already punishing myself enough for doing so. I hope you understand that I do care. I want to be successful, it’s just harder for me. I wish I could email you and tell you the truth, but I feel you wouldn’t understand.

Sincerely,

Alizabeth Stachlinski

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Thinkstock photo via kieferpix

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The Realization I Had When Anxiety Wouldn't Let Me Jump in the Pool

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Two years ago, I stood for 40 minutes with my toes curled around the edge of a ledge and stared down 15 feet and 7 inches into a cold, somewhat dark abyss. My stomach churned, my brain swam, and I wasn’t quite sure oxygen existed anymore in my general vicinity. No matter what brain said, my body was not going to cooperate.

In reality, the abyss wasn’t an abyss but the local recreation pool, and I wasn’t in any danger, except nobody bothered to tell my anxiety that.

I had decided earlier in the summer that at the ripe age of 17, I was going to learn how to swim. I was going to submerge my face in the water and breathe from my nose and act like a real college-bound senior who had a handle on her fears, even if this was just one of many.

With all this in mind, on a Thursday evening in late July, I failed to jump in to the pool.

It seems trite. Silly. Inconsequential. But after four years of losing battles to my anxiety, of failing to do things, of thinking I wasn’t “enough,” of constantly struggling against my various mental issues, this failure affected me more than anything else before.

The instructor was kind for the first 20 minutes. Then she became frustrated with my many failed attempts to jump. I became frustrated. She gave up. I gave up. She went home and probably moved on. I went home and beat myself up for not being good enough to overcome my anxiety.

I’ve always wanted my mental problems to just disappear. Maybe if I just tried enough, focused enough, then I could will myself “normal.” The solution to anxiety was to stop being anxious, just like the solution to being fat was to stop eating. (Simple solutions appear to be a pattern in my mental health.)

That night, though, as I cried to my best friend over the phone, I realized something wasn’t working in my plan; if it was, I wouldn’t have been walking the entire neighborhood convincing myself I was worthless for this failure. I was losing this fight to anxiety, as I had been for four years, and no amount of brute force was going to make it go away. I needed to be smart. I needed to pick my battles (and jumping into a pool was certainly not one of them). I needed to accept that anxiety was a part of me as much as my poor eyesight. Most importantly, I needed to internalize that having anxiety, just like not being able to jump into a pool, did not make me “less.”

I’m not at peace with my anxiety yet. I still struggle, a lot. However, I’ve learned that “fighting,” as they so often tell mental health patients to do, isn’t just about biting your cheek and continuing; that’s called ignoring, and it only works until it doesn’t. Instead, I’ve learned to explain, to talk, to count, to ease in, and, sometimes, to accept, truly accept, that it’s just not the right time.

They say jumping into a pool is refreshing, but I have never felt more refreshed than from the realization I gained from failing to jump: I have an anxiety problem, and I need to own it before I can fix it.

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Thinkstock photo by oneinchpunch

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Why I'm Telling My Anxiety Story Through a Comic Book

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Mike and Addey, in “The War for Kaleb,” are every friend I’ve never talked to about my anxiety disorder. For those who do not know, “The War for Kaleb” is a comic book, I write, draw and self-publish about a young man named Kaleb who has a severe anxiety disorder in which he is medicated for. In the story Mike and Addey are his best friend and girlfriend respectively, and supporting characters. They aren’t front and center, but they are extremely important to the overall plot. Mike and Addey represent the people in our lives who are close, but who are left out of what is troubling people who have mental illness.

Personally, my anxiety and trichotillomania (I pull hair from my face and eyebrows) are not something I usually discuss with others. For a long time, particularly the hair pulling, I believed I was the only one in the world who had these disorders. Over the years it became something I never really talked about, because of the usual reasons: people will think I’m a freak, or they won’t be interested or even care. Today I don’t talk about it, I guess out of force of habit. One thing I’ve learned through research is it is helpful, and can be beneficial in the healing process, if one talks about it to others.

I found my own way.

I received my first comic book, “Wolverine #6,” when I was 11 years old. I flipped through the pages, and I was in a world that I fully believe to this day can only be achieved through the art of sequential storytelling, or comic books. Of course, spending my more formative years in junior high through high school, reading comics wasn’t one of the most popular things in the world. It was the 90’s, and most people were more interested in parties, popularity and sports. I was interested in the worlds I was reading about. I wanted to make my own, and I wanted them to be comics, too.

Flash forward to college. I was going to The School of Visual Arts in NYC, with a major in sequential art. I was in a big city alone. I mostly buried myself in the work of creating comics. At the time, I was going through some hardships in my personal life. I had lost a special person in my life, and one of my best friends, my Aunt Barbara, who had died in a car accident.

Barbara also had severe anxiety. The world outside shut her down, and scared her. It’s almost as if her being became part of me after she died. Before her death, she would be the person I talked to every day over the phone. She would tell me that she was so proud of me for stepping out into a world that she was so afraid of, and pursuing the goal I set out to achieve, creating comics. The only problem was I was afraid of the world too. I had basically jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim. I would not leave the apartment, it was extremely difficult to make friends and being in large groups of people made me horribly anxious. This became my stigmata which follows me to this very day.

Years later, I began really feeling the strain of my anxiety. I was having my first panic attacks, my temper got the best of me and worst of all I began taking it out on my wife Desiree’. At the time I was living in Long Island, NY working at a warehouse job picking and packing orders to ship. It was a brainless job without any critical or analytical thinking. This allowed me time to spend in my head for eight to 10 hours a day yelling and arguing with myself about the things that were making me miserable about my life. Eventually the anger about my situation turned into focus, and I started seeing scenes in a comic book. These scenes turned into “The War for Kaleb.”

A comic strip

At the time there were a handful of people who knew there was something upsetting me, but I would never talk to them about it. It was and is still not something I like to talk about with people. I talk about anxiety, sure, but only in a general sense of the disorder itself, but not usually the details of what is happening with me. When I thought up “The War for Kaleb,” it gave me the freedom to tell “my” story, without telling my story. After all, “Star Wars” arguably came to fruition partly because George Lucas didn’t want to work for his father in the family owned office supply store. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of The Rings” based on the atrocities he experienced serving a tour of duty in World War I for the British Army. Those stories became the proxies of their experiences without having to make themselves front and center.

Art in my mind, has always been an outlet for truth. Art is the closest any living person will get to seeing the word through someone else’s eyes. Kaleb’s story is a semi-fantastical world that is seen through mine. Just like Kaleb, with anxiety, episodes can turn into visions of what we feel, rather than what it is. As far as Kaleb goes he has a hard time separating the two. What’s worse is he has an even harder time telling the people he cares about what is going on. Mike and Addey are left in the wake of confusion with what they don’t know or possibly understand. Through my story, I can give the “Mikes” and “Addeys” in my life eyes to help understand. And for those who also struggle with anxiety, I can give them a space, and world to enter, where they can hopefully put into perspective what it is they are going through.

In “The War for Kaleb” I use the tool of two superheroes to express this world of anxiety. There is a light hero and a dark hero. They are a purely visual, metaphorical representation of what people don’t see, when one is having an episode, brought on by anxiety.

I chose the superhero motif because superheroes are what created my desire to create stories with comics. I’ve also always been fascinated by the doppelganger superhero; a dark version of the hero that represents light and good. It symbolizes the push and pull of anxiety, and was just one way to show how an episode of anxiety can play out.

comic strip

Creating “The War for Kaleb” was important in the sense that through art and storytelling, I could show people not only what it is, but more importantly what it feels like to struggle with anxiety. Kaleb in the story is my proxy. The superheroes that follow him are his proxy. And probably most importantly of all, Mike and Addey are the proxies of all the people I have a difficult time talking to about my disorder. The story also acts as a vehicle for others to see that no, they are not alone in the world dealing with their own disorders. There are plenty of people, myself included, who are here to connect with, and let them know, “We see things just like you.” Sitting down to write and draw these stories are the letters to the people I care about, and the world I want so desperately to connect with.

comic strip

To read “The War for Kaleb, Part One,” visit Jason’s site. Click here to shop at his store.

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Image via Jason Pittman

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