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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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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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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20 Tweets That Nail What Anxiety Feels Like

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When Sarah Fader, CEO of Stigma Fighters, first used #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike on Twitter, she used it to talk about her own experience living with chronic anxiety and panic disorder. Soon, the hashtag took off, and now people are using it to offer honest accounts and start important conversations about what living with anxiety means to them.

Here are some of our favorites. Perhaps, you’ll be able to relate. 

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When Everything Feels Like It's Just Too Much

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Mental illness is an interesting thing to live with. It affects everyone differently, but there are also a lot of similarities in the way that various illnesses affect individuals. One thing I’ve really been dealing with lately, that I’m sure some people can relate to, is feeling chronically overwhelmed.

In fairness to myself, I have a lot going on right now. I fell a few weeks behind in school work because of my mental health, so I have a lot due. Some of my friendships are in transitional periods. I recently decided that my plans for after college need more consideration (aka, I have no idea what I want to do with my life). And my mental health, on the whole, has been tumultuous.

But even before some of these stressors were so pronounced, I often found myself feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed on a regular basis. When I’m with a group of people and there are multiple conversations going on, I can’t follow the course of events, and I often recoil into myself. When I’m in a group chat on messenger and people won’t stop sending messages, it often overwhelms me to the point of becoming anxious. When I allow myself to think about upcoming due dates on assignments, it becomes too much to bear at times.

Sometimes, oftentimes, everything feels like it’s just too much.

So what do I do in these overwhelming times?

Change My Focus —  I’ve been practicing the art lately of mentally separating myself from my stressors. If I’m overthinking, I work on the practice of changing my mental focus. It takes time to build up this practice, but the more I do it, the more I’m able to effectively shift my focus. It helps to have a pre-determined topic of thought to turn to when I become overwhelmed, such as thinking about fun conversations I’ve had with friends. When I shift my thoughts from due dates to friends, it helps to lessen the anxiety I’m feeling.

Disconnecting — Because my phone is often a place of overstimulation, I’ve been trying to have a set time every day (usually an hour, sometimes more), where I put all of my electronics away. I like to use this time to focus on spending time with close friends and family, but it could also be a good time to pick up a book you’ve been wanting to read, playing an instrument or otherwise engaging in a positive activity that lowers the amount of stimulation you’re receiving. Not only does this lower anxiety, but it’s a really good model for self-care. Start with just 15 minutes a day, and build up to having more time unplugged from the world and plugged into your own needs.

Grounding —  When these overwhelming feelings  turn into anxiety, grounding techniques become invaluable in bringing myself back to reality. Deep breathing, mindfulness and being aware of the five senses are all great ways to pull my mind away from whatever anxious thoughts are running through my head. I do one thing where I play with my hair. If I can focus in on only the way that I fiddle with my hair, then I’m not focusing on all the things that feel like too much. It’s a great, but subtle, way to calm the mind.

These are just a few ways that I try to cope with overwhelming and/or anxious feelings. Have you ever felt this way? What are some things that you have found helpful in calming yourself down after feeling overstimulated?

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Thinkstock photo via Ingram Publishing

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When You Feel 'Too Broken' to Be in a Helping Profession

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After weeks like this one, I cannot help but question whether I am in the right field or not. Despite the fact I have never once actually regretted my decision to pursue social work and cannot even slightly imagine doing anything else for a career, I have left the office most days this week wondering to myself, Am I too broken to do this work?

There are tough weeks like this one where it seems like I am just a little too fragile and vulnerable to interact with patients who are incredibly fragile themselves and I sometimes wonder what makes me any more competent and capable to be sitting on the practitioner’s side of the couch or my end of the telephone than the patient. Weeks like this one are ones in which I seem to be triggered by anything and everything and my past comes flooding back to me with a vengeance.

I wonder how I am supposed to reassure a kid that everything wrong in this world is not his fault when there are days when I feel that exact same way. I wonder how I am supposed to tell a young woman that eventually she will be able to think about things beyond her trauma when it is hard for me at times to stop ruminating on painful memories of my own. I wonder how I am supposed to offer hope to patients when there are moments when I cannot even find any within myself. How can I ever be a good social worker if I still have so many personal issues I haven’t quite managed to rid myself of yet?

It is weeks like this one when I need extra reassurance from my supervisor and peers what I am doing is right because my anxiety is off the charts. Most of the time when I voice this need for reassurance, my colleagues and supervisor have not even noticed I am having an extra rough week. They have no idea I’m internally questioning every little choice I make, from the simplest things of how I greet a patient, to the way I type up progress notes.

My inner self-critic is absolutely out of control. It is times like these when I need a little extra space from people too. I need to be able to go into my metaphorical hole, do my work, get through my day and leave. I do not have the energy to engage in small talk or even meaningful conversations because it is at any point I feel vulnerable of breaking down and crying for no reason. It is hard to be around others in general when I am in this funk because the things that are important to you are not as important to me – I am simply trying to survive my day without a flashback or panic attack. Because I care about my job as much as I do, I need to put all energy I have left into working with my patients.

Ideally, I would have enough mental energy to go around, to be able to engage in playful banter with my colleagues and meaningful work with my patients. But during these weeks, I just can’t. We preach in social work that we need to meet our patients where they are and I need the same.

One day, I hope not to have weeks when I am in this funk, but for now, that is where I am. None of this is easy for me to admit. I am a perfectionist and people-pleaser, but I am slowly learning I need to listen to my own needs and this is OK. For it is when I listen to my own needs I can survive. It is when I listen to my needs that I am able to be triggered but still be able to cope in one way or another, so that I don’t have to leave work in the middle of the day.

I have been able to hear stories incredibly similar to mine and not only listen without breaking down in front of the patient, but also professionally and appropriately empathize in a genuine way. When I really stop to think about this, it is amazing progress for me. I’ve realized although the time and energy I put into treatment certainly did pay off in helping me to learn coping skills, I cannot put my life on hold forever to deal with my issues. Eventually I needed to jump back in and work through it all.

My past is always going to be with me and there are unforeseen things that may trigger me for the rest of my life. The closer I can get to accepting this and listening to my needs, the easier it will be for me to live my life with increasing self-compassion and decreasing self-judgment. No doubt there will be more weeks ahead like this one when I feel completely incompetent due to various triggers, but I am slowly understanding what I need to get through these weeks. I am slowly becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in asking for what I need.

So going back to the question of trying to decide whether I am too broken to do this work. Yes, I am broken, but I have decided this doesn’t mean I can’t go after my dream of making a difference in the lives of kids and being an incredible social worker.

Admittedly, I do not feel completely whole right now but I have moved beyond the days of feeling completely unrepairable. I know there will be more days when I have a hard time holding any and all belief in myself and my abilities, but it is in these times I must remember how far I have come and that next week will be better.

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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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns.

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