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I was the smart one. I was the responsible one. I was the first in my family to attend university. I was destined to be “successful.”

So why do I feel like a failure?

The answer: Self-sabotage.

I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life. And somewhere along the line I figured it was easier to run or push away good opportunities rather than to work through periods of anxiety and depression.

I often hear, “Don’t be silly, you’re a great co-worker, employee, friend,” but in my head it’s all lies. At times I convince myself I have made mistakes or have done harm to the organization I am working for. The fear is terrifying. During an attack I obsess over every detail… check, double check, triple check my work then repeat until I find something that could have, should have been done differently.

Then the catastrophizing sets in. I am consumed by the “what ifs” and the harm it’s going to cause the company. Before I know it in my mind I am the worst employee the company has ever hired and feel the only option is to quit or be fired. Trying to rationalize these thoughts just doesn’t seem possible… or at least for a long time they didn’t.

But things are slowly starting to change. With the help of my therapist, I’m learning about self-compassion and how to let go of my perfectionism tendencies. I’m learning a lot of growth can come from making mistakes and I’m slowly starting to love myself.

It’s not easy. There are good days and bad, but I figure if I can try something new each week and fail a little along the way, I can learn how to embrace challenges in a work environment and stop the self-sabotage.

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Photo via Unsplash, by Christopher Sardegna

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Being a teacher is one of the most arduous and challenging professions that anybody can take on. It takes an exceptionally resilient and strong-willed person to survive the battles faced every day in this job. For me, returning to teaching after having my daughter took an already prevalent anxiety condition to an entire new realm. In this blog, I will share my experiences of teaching, the emotions and internal struggles I faced and how my job took me to a very dark and lonely place.

April 13, 2016: Returning to work

After 13 special work-free months caring for my beautiful baby girl, the day had finally come. Since the moment I gave birth I had been fearfully counting down the weeks. Each day that passed caused a greater knot in my stomach, bile in my throat and adrenaline in my veins. Every inch of my body and mind screamed out at me not to return to the shackles of the education system. I knew only too well the grasp a job in teaching has over your life. The late nights, the lost weekends and holidays, the unpaid hours upon hours of marking and planning. How could I possibly be the best mum and the best teacher?

Now my time was up.

The first few weeks were a blur of training, emails, slideshows and class lists. Starting again, learning the names of 120 students, trying desperately to search my battered baby brain for the tools of teaching and behavior management I had somehow hidden in the darkest corner of my memories. Then came the assessments and the marking, followed closely by the observations, the performance management, the work analysis and the performance-related pay progression. Everything was different. Everything had changed. A new curriculum, a new specification, a variety of new policies. It was never-ending.

I could feel myself slipping.

During my days off, precious moments with my daughter would be tarnished. I wasn’t there; my physical presence perhaps was, but my mind was elsewhere. Some days, my daughter would decide to take an impromptu, later-than-usual nap, and I would be overcome with panic for the late night she would undeniably have that would now jeopardize my evening of tackling the copious amount of work I needed to complete. When bed time came and we lay together in the unlit room, I would feel my heart begin to race, my breathing quicken and my body become irritable as the anxiety set in. I would pray for the moment her eyes would shut and wish away this time.

I would spend every day with my daughter this way. Never feeling present. Incessantly worrying about what I needed to do. Afterwards, when night came and I lay my head on my pillow, my thoughts would spiral and escalate out of control. The most powerful of all was the unbearable guilt of knowing I hadn’t been there for my daughter. In my mindful absence, I was tainting the memories I could never get back.

November 2016: Breaking point

Every teacher occasionally has a bad lesson, a bad day or even a bad week. During my time in schools I’ve experienced complete opposition and work refusal, odious insults, classroom fights, I’ve had books tossed at me and chairs launched across the room. It has never prevented me from carrying on. It has never left me feeling defeated. Until now.

Coping with the rampant demons in my mind made my ability to maintain resilience against daily teaching battles nearly impossible. What used to come naturally to me seemed to fade and fall apart. As soon as my students would enter the room my heart rate would surge; a cold sweat would creep over my entire body and I would feel myself suffocating and gasping for air. Most lessons I would try to escape to the sanctity of my cupboard for a brief 10 seconds just to catch my breath. As each hour of the day passed, these feelings would intensify. I could feel the panic building within me, and by the end of each day I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

To everybody around me: family, friends, colleagues… I was in control. Inside, I was falling apart. I felt completely lost. I was broken.

December 2016: Admitting defeat

Making the decision to go on sick leave should have been an easy one and one which brought with it the opportunity for me to seek help, manage my anxiety and begin recovering. This wasn’t the case. Somehow, it made everything worse. It brought with it an assortment of new worries and fears that I just couldn’t control. “Will I be letting my students down?” “Are my colleagues talking about me?” “Is my boss angry?” “Will my family be disappointed?” “Am I setting a bad example for my daughter?” “Does everybody think that I’m a failure now?”

During this time, I craved some reassurance from the people whom my absence was effecting. A simple text message, phone call or even a comforting email to say everything was OK, to wish me well, and to offer support. But it never came. The alarming silence made my worries and fears cultivate and left me feeling incredibly isolated and alone. I felt backed into a corner with no way of getting out.

This needed to change. I needed to change.

January 2017: Being free

Those with anxiety often hit a point when all of the worries and fears that control us seem to become such a blur that we feel numb. Incapable of worrying about those things which a few days before were governing every aspect of our life. This is what happened to me. I reached a point where I became so overwhelmed with the worry that in self-preservation, my mind blocked any and all thoughts associated with teaching. This sounds like a terrible thing. Denial. A false pretense. But ironically, it gave me the opportunity to put my life into perspective. I started to appreciate the important things in my life. The angelic smile on my little girl’s face, the late nights laughing with my fiancé, even the opportunities to do little things for myself like reading a book. It was during this time I finally realized I, and only I, could change everything.

Making the final decision not to return to teaching has been the most exhilarating and fulfilling feeling I have ever experienced. Finally choosing to disregard the effect my choice may have on others and put my own feelings and health first has meant I can begin to pick myself up and move forward with my life. Now, for the first time in a long time, I feel free. Free from the ridiculous pressure put upon teachers to achieve the unachievable, free from late nights and wasted weekends, free to appreciate every single moment with my family, and free to become anything I want.

Being in any type of employment while struggling with a mental health condition is often a daily struggle of fear, stress and panic. A lot of days can be spent existing in a haze of confusion and self-destructive thoughts of inadequacy, and a lot of people — colleagues, employers, even friends and family — find it difficult to understand how lonely this can be. For various reasons, I chose to leave behind my career for a happier life, but many people aren’t in a position to do this. I can only hope those people ensure they receive the support they deserve to help them cope with working with a mental health condition. As an invisible condition, mental health is often dismissed by society; but it is essential that organizations employ the tools to support these people through the struggles they are facing. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, but to make our way through the dark, we need those around us to guide us through.

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“Is it one of those days?”

That simple question is one that can bring up a torrent of feelings. Guilt, anger, frustration, denial, guilt. Mainly guilt. “Is it one of those days?” I ask myself. But I don’t need to really ask. I know. I know because my skin feels like it’s crawling. Like a million ants are squirming underneath it, pulling at every seam, trying hard to dig their way out of me. I know because when I feel her brush against me I try not to flinch. My teeth clench together and even though it feels like weights are pulling the edges of my mouth downward, I still smile.

Remember that relative who would pinch your cheek during the holidays? That foreign, distressing touch. You grin and bear it because as a child it’s often expected of you. Your mom told you to be polite, to be welcoming. So you stood there even though you’d rather rip the skin off your cheek than let them pinch it again.

You grin and bear it as an adult because when you are looking into the eyes of the person who holds you when your world is breaking, you can’t say no. How can you possibly reject the one person who accepts you for everything you are?

Sometimes I try to lie to you. I try to pretend your touch isn’t abrasive. That I’m not wishing I was anywhere but here. That you cuddling me doesn’t put me on edge. That you touching me isn’t akin to the sound of forks scraping against a plate.

It’s such a hard road for you to navigate. On the days where my anxiety is drowning me I need you to be my safe haven. I find welcome in your arms. I find comfort and familiarity in your touch. There are days where I just need to be close to you. Where nothing feels more welcome than your fingers intertwined with mine. There are days where I apologize for “harassing” you all the time. Where my skin greedily soaks in the nearness of you and I feel almost complete.

But some months those days are far and few in between when I am navigating the choppy waters of mental illness. There are some days where anxiety draws me tighter than a guitar string, and the only sounds that come from me are sour notes.

I see your hurt in those days. I see your sadness. I see you, and I want nothing more than to comfort you, to tell you how sorry I am. I am never sorrier than the days where I hurt you because I am hurting myself.

I just want you to know, no matter how “touched” out I am, no matter how many times I can’t help but pull away… you are still the only place that’s ever felt like home.

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This piece was written by Holly Riordan, a Thought Catalog contributor.

Anxiety makes me question whether there’s something wrong with me — for being afraid of talking to strangers, for being afraid of looking “stupid,” for being afraid of stepping out from my bedroom door.

I wonder why the group of girls that just walked past me started laughing — even though chances are it wasn’t about me at all. I wonder why some stranger has been staring at me — even if they only glanced.

I question every move the people around me make, because I’m worried that they’re focused on me. That they’re making fun of me. That they hate me.

I even question whether my friends actually like me — even though they’ve proven time and time again they do care. Even though they’re there for me whenever I need them. Even though they haven’t done anything to suggest I mean nothing to them.

But it doesn’t matter if every sign points to the truth, that they’re my genuine, honest to goodness friends. I still question their friendship, because I don’t see my own value.

I don’t see how anyone could enjoy being around me. I don’t see why they would choose to spend time with me when they could be hanging out with someone more fun, more “sane.”

That’s why I always wonder if a group would be having a better time if I wasn’t around. If they’re only being nice to me, because they feel bad for me. If they’re going to talk about me behind my back the second I leave the room.

I can’t stop doubting myself, wondering whether I’m making the wrong moves. I question whether the words I wrote in a text sounded stupid. Whether my stories are too boring. Whether my laugh is too annoying.

Friendships and relationships are difficult for me. If someone asks me out, I question their intentions. I question whether I have what it takes to sit through a dinner without embarrassing myself. I wonder how long I can keep someone interested before scaring them away.

I don’t know how to talk to people. I don’t understand people. Sometimes, I don’t even understand myself.

That’s why it’s so hard for me to socialize. I never know what to say. What to do with my hands. How much to smile. How long to look them in the eyes.

Instead of listening to what someone is telling me, I get distracted by my own thoughts. I focus on what I’m doing — how I’m coming across — instead of what they’re actually saying. I’m busy questioning every gesture I make, every breath I take, because I’m terrified of looking dumb.

But mostly, I question whether I belong on this planet. I question whether I have a purpose, if I mean anything to anyone. If there’s a reason for me to keep on existing.

Anxiety makes me question everything — especially myself.

This story is brought to you by Thought Catalog and Quote Catalog.

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It’s 2 a.m.

I went to bed at 8 p.m. because I was exhausted. Again. I’m always exhausted.

I slept for maybe two hours but was awake by midnight. I lay still. Listening to the sound of the wind blowing around the house. My husband is away again. My 7-year-old fills his space in the bed. I listen to him breathing.

Around 1 a.m. I switch on my phone. Check Facebook and Twitter. Then the worry sets in. Like a fog coming in from the ocean it creeps slowly over me. Firstly I worry about the wind. Will it blow down a tree? Then it’s about work. I glance across at my sleeping baby and realize he’s all grown up now. He’s pulling away from me. Won’t kiss me at school. Doesn’t need me nearly as much as he used to. I yearn for the babies we didn’t get to meet. I grieve again for the babies my infertility has taken from us.

By 2 a.m. my hands are sweating, my heart is racing and I can’t steady my breathing. I would cry if I had the energy. I recognize the panic attack, but I can do nothing to abate it. A million thoughts run through my head. Doubts and fears at first. Self-loathing next. Then a deep loneliness and sadness.

The dialog in my head is constant. Backwards and forwards I go, trying desperately to steady myself all the while falling further into the darkness.

“You need to go to sleep. You will be exhausted in the morning.” “What’s the point in sleeping now. It’s already nearly 3 a.m. Why don’t you get up and do some of the things you are worried about?” “What’s the point in working? You’re rubbish at everything.” And so it goes further and further down the pit of despair.

I pull my son into my arms, and finally the tears flow. He struggles free, and I can barely catch my breath. I would run away, but my body weighs a thousand tons. I feel detached from it. It’s not who I am. My head is dizzy, like it’s stuck on the Waltzer at the fair. Spinning out of control. Colors, pictures, sounds, memories rush by but nothing stays. Nothing sticks. My head is speeding, but my body can’t move. I lay in bed watching the minutes tick by. 3 a.m. 4 a.m. 5 a.m. Finally I drift off to sleep and wake to the sound of my alarm. Exhausted and puffy eyed.

I try to push away the memories of last night and busy myself with the daily chores. “Today I will be productive,” I tell myself. “Today I will get things done.” But my eyes are slightly glassier than they were yesterday, my body more sluggish, my mind is hazier. Everything is harder today. Everything takes longer than it should. My concentration dwindles. Trying desperately to reconnect my body and my brain.

Panic attacks at 2 a.m. are more common than I would like. The recovery seems to take longer and longer — 2 a.m. used to be mean night time feeds and sleep-deprived baby cuddles. Now 2 a.m. is my panic hour.

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First off, if you haven’t seen “This Is Us,” go do yourself a favor and watch all of the first season. Make sure to have a box of tissues by your side too. I have never been so invested or attached to a show like this before. That’s saying a lot if you know how much I love “Gilmore Girls.” This show is much different than that and from most shows today. It hits all the right emotions in me in every single episode.

Spoilers below.

The one thing I have loved the most about this show is the awareness it’s bringing for mental illnesses, specifically anxiety. Randall, who is a middle-aged African American man, has experienced anxiety attacks all of his life. They showed us him having anxiety attacks as a child while writing a paper, having anxiety attacks before his daughters were born, and now having anxiety attacks because he just has a lot going on in his life.

The writers didn’t make us aware of this until the last two episodes of the first season. I love the fact that they did it this way because they first showed us that Randall is a man with a successful career, a wife, and two beautiful daughters. He seems to be the perfect man who has no flaws — until his anxiety starts to build up and he starts having anxiety attacks again. I’m not saying this makes him imperfect; it just makes him seem more human. He ends up having to be hospitalized for awhile until he is better. The writers don’t focus on the hospitalization as much as they focus on how he made a comeback from it.

Another aspect of this show I appreciate is all the support he receives. He does not seem like an outsider to his loved ones, which is the way it should be! His brother sacrificed his career just to be there for him and to take him to be hospitalized. His wife goes to therapy with him.

His birth father told him he was surprised Randall deals with all of this because he seems to be really put together. Randall replied by saying he is “too together.” These words. If I had to describe someone with anxiety, including myself, I would use these two words.

When his father was asking about his anxiety attack, he used the word “breakdown” and then immediately asked if that was the correct language to use. Wow! Not many people are aware of the correct language to use for people with mental illnesses; most don’t even bother to ask. Randall responded by saying there are a lot of ways to word it, and he threw out different phrases people used. Randall, himself, called it “anxiety” and “anxiety attacks.” They were then able to talk about it more openly because there was a two-way street of empathy.

It amazes me how I can see myself within Randall. Even though he is of a different race, gender, generation, occupation, and economic status I can see myself. I saw myself while he was shaking in the shower crying. I saw myself while he was on the floor of his office hyperventilating. I saw myself while he was calling to cancel big plans because of his anxiety. I saw myself while he was talking to his therapist. I saw myself while he was trying to explain his anxiety attacks to his father. I saw myself when he learned to let loose a little bit while driving with the windows down.

The fact that I was able to see myself within him made me feel even less alone. It made me realize how universal anxiety truly is. I’m sure if this show was in a different language that I didn’t know and I was watching these scenes of Randall I would still feel the same way. Not only is the writing of this show amazing, but the acting of Randall is out of this world. He embodies anxiety attacks so well that it’s kind of freaky. But in a good way. I am beyond thankful for this show and for Randall.

I have noticed a big change just within myself coming out about my mental illnesses. More people on my Facebook feed are sharing or writing about mental health. I have noticed TV not being afraid to bring up mental illnesses and doing it in a respectable way. My biggest hope is for this awareness to keep on spreading. One day I hope the majority are understanding and knowledgeable of people with a mental illness.

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