Why We Shouldn't Wait Until We Emotionally 'Bottom Out' to Get Help for Mental Illness

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I waited until I had what I describe as a nervous breakdown. I waited until my unchecked emotions converged and powerfully washed over me like a tsunami. I waited until I showed up at my brother’s front door uncontrollably sobbing, not really understanding what was happening, but knowing all of my defense mechanisms were crumbling all around me.

The splintered lives I had been living have completely given out now, no longer able to proceed under the weight of all my angst, insecurity and sorrow.

It was under these conditions — a total emotional collapse — that I finally allowed myself to realize I needed the paid professional help of a therapist. No one should have to struggle so long before getting help.

For much of my 20s, I drifted aimlessly through life. I had graduated from college with a disdain for my focus of studies, which was biology. My first job out of college, while it was a Fortune 500 company with a respectable compensation package, was in the field of collections. I was on the phone berating people for their car payment money.

The collections call center was filled with young 20-somethings right out of college like me, so the social scene was lively, but the work itself was demoralizing. There was nothing even remotely rewarding about being on the phone all day arguing with people who may have been in deep pain themselves. My view of humanity became jaded and cynical through the lens of these contentious phone calls I was embroiled in all day at my job.

While that work was emotionally brutal, I performed above expectations and made my way up through middle management. My success only served to further cement me in a career track that I fell into without much consideration, let alone had passion or excitement for. All the while, my good friends and brother were making a considerable go of it in the music industry, a world I was on fire for at the time.

Music had been an intense love of mine. I played drums for my entire youth, went to countless concerts and helped a handful of local bands, out of the love of being involved in their shows. I had legitimate opportunities and offers to get involved in the music industry back then, but fear and a false sense of security kept me tied down to my collections career.

As time went on, I thankfully got another job opportunity within finance that involved sales, credit analysis and loan underwriting. It was a major step forward in the type of work I was performing, but I still felt adrift and disconnected in life.

It is hard to reconcile and explain, but while I always loved life and had an enthusiasm for friends and experiences, I was slowly beginning to feel a simmering angst and unease about my purpose and place in life.

My only means of finding joy back then was to try and manufacture it on the weekends through partying. I had no career goals or big life objectives. At work, I just tried to chase down a paycheck and get myself to the weekends. The shallow social scenes of bars and clubs were where I went to try and mask my insecurities and growing disconnection from life. My identity was rapidly becoming intertwined with partying.

For the first few years out of college, partying with friends was innocent and fun. We stayed out late, we roamed around Philly and Atlantic City in big groups of 10 plus guys, and had the time of our lives. I also maintained my involvement with the local music scene, attending shows and spending weekends with the bands I was tight with. It was incredible fun and it kept me tied to my passion for music.

As I got deeper into my 20s, friends started to slowly settle, relocate to different cities for work and start families. The local bands I was tied into, who served as a genuine sense of community and fulfillment for me, all had their moments in the sun and disbanded off into other walks of life. My brother ascended rapidly in his career in the music industry and made a few major relocations to different parts of the country.

While all of my close peers seemed to be settling into different lanes of life, I doubled down on the partying. I was also funding much of my “faux baller” extravagance with credit cards. This sounds pathetic to me now, but socially, partying was the only thing I knew to do outside of working during the week.

My immediate family was always there and present for me, but I felt an isolation from them that only deepened as I got later into my 20s. I still had a great group of close and supportive friends, but they all had moved on from the late night revelry on the weekends.

I was immature and lacking self-awareness, but on some level, I also recognized my lifestyle was not sustainable, either emotionally or financially. When those feelings of discontent started to come up though, all I did was avoid and deny them. When you are living a life that is out of harmony with yourself and the universe, I believe something eventually has to give. All of the dysfunction in my life finally did boil over and it gave way through a major emotional event.

I broke down, hobbled and scared, and rushed over to my brother’s house. I knocked on his front door, unannounced, sobbing uncontrollably. My sister-in-law answered the door and I was so relieved to see her. I unleashed what felt like a decade of bottled up emotions. My brother came home from work right away. My parents left a vacation they were on to come home that day, too.

I shared just about every single detail of my past few years of dysfunction and unhappiness in my life. It was a major unburdening. The next day, I went into a therapist’s office for the very first time as a result.

Prior to my collapse, I had thoughts of possibly needing to go see a therapist, but I immediately denied those thoughts over the fear of what that could look like to the outside world. I remember looking up into the mirror once, after brushing my teeth and bursting into tears. Instead of taking that troubling outburst as a sign of needing help, I quickly stuffed that moment of sadness far away to be left unexamined. I wanted that hurt out of reach to never be thought of again. I denied it and moved on with life.

To me, going to see a therapist voluntarily would have felt like some sort of admission that I was not a “normal” young adult living a “normal” life. I was afraid of admitting to myself that I needed help and even more so, of what my family would think. The latter part, the potential shame with my family, was completely unfounded.

My family would become the most stoic and nonjudgmental support system imaginable, but I had all sorts of fears and worries built up about sharing any kind of problems with them. Those unfortunate feelings all stemmed directly from the conditioning regarding mental health that so wrongfully exists in society.

We have to fully erase any remaining stigmas attached to seeking help for mental health. I believe a “normal” human existence is one wrought with pain and struggle. It is inescapable. We all share the same challenges of having insecurities and feeling disconnected in life at times. As a society, we need to seek a new normal, which I believe includes the proactive choice of seeking help before a crisis strikes.

Proactive care for our minds and mental well-being needs to become as routine as seeing a dentist. There is so much proactive care and maintenance that we put into our physical health, but for some reason, caring for our minds has been attached with shame and weakness.

I have been to see a therapist a few different times over the past 15 years and each time it has felt like a life-saver to me. The most recent time I went, I went well ahead of any sort of crisis striking. I made the determination that I wanted my emotions to be in the best state possible for being a father to my young son.

I did some powerful deep work on connecting moments from my youth to my current parenting situations with my son and it was a huge help. I also worked a good bit on my hyper-sensitive nature, how that impacts my parenting, as well as the unfair expectations I sometimes place on myself as a parent. None of this work could have been hashed out on my own without the professional help of a therapist.

Too often, seeing a therapist is the “last resort” step. We often wait to play out the string of a dire situation for too long, until we crumble under the pressure. We typically view therapy as a reactive measure to extract ourselves from a crisis, but it does not have to be that way. Therapy can be a proactive tool for self-empowerment and life improvement.

Do not wait until you bottom out like I did. Take a step towards a more fulfilling life and seek the guidance of a professional therapist. You deserve the best life experience possible.

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Unsplash photo via Stephen Arnold.

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21 'Warning Signs' That Let People Know They're About to Have a Panic Attack

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Like most anxiety symptoms, panic attacks come in all shapes and sizes. Many experience the “classic” panic attack symptoms — shortness of breath, racing thoughts and sweating — while others experience less well-known, but just as debilitating symptoms. But what about before a panic attack happens? Are there warning signs that let us know when panic is going to “attack?” And furthermore, is there a way to intercept a panic attack before it happens?

To answer these questions, we asked our mental health community to weigh in on the “warning signs” that let them know they are about to experience a panic attack. While it’s not always possible to stop a panic attack in its tracks, sometimes knowing the warning signs can help individuals get themselves to a safe place or slow the attack before it hits.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “The best way I could describe it is narrowing vision, like everything around me seems to just blur and I start to get dizzy.” — Nichole L.

2. “My heart races, my chest gets tight and my body just starts to shake. Then the panic attack hits. [Then I experience] hyperventilating, stuttered speech and head jerks.” — Aaron B.

3. “I can’t concentrate. It feels like I’m zoning out of everything, but I can’t control it. I feel frozen mentally, physically and emotionally. My thoughts start racing, and then usually my chest tightens. Then the panic attack starts.” — Kaylie E.

4. “My heart feels like it skips a beat and all the sudden it feels like it’s going 100 mph. I feel dizzy, and it feels like I have marbles stuffed down my throat to [the point] I can’t speak or breathe.” — Kayla B.

5. “I start to become unsettled and feel out-of-body. All my senses start to become extremely sensitive too. I kind of know my triggers now, so I’m not as manic as I have been.” — Danny C.

6. “Electricity. I get this jolt of electricity right in the center of my chest that spreads through my body. Then it gets hard to breathe and I start sweating. My heart and mind start racing. I start thinking, Oh god, I’m dying, over and over and over.” — Heather E.

7. “My mind starts getting cloudy… I experience depersonalization and feel very anxious. Finally, I start hyperventilating and crying. Then I know it’s for real, [and] later, the other symptoms start coming as well.” — Luz B.

8. “My heart starts banging out of my chest. My hands start shaking, and my hearing muffles. At that point, I know what’s coming.” — Shelby S.

9. “For me, it all starts with the sensation of trying to swallow hot coals, then shortness of breath, followed by being hunched over as I am struggling to breathe. I feel as if the ground itself wants to swallow me whole.” — Nathan H.

10. “I always know I’m about to have a panic attack when the smallest of messes get under my skin. [It] makes me feel like I’m spiraling out of control. Whether it’s my room or at work, I become obsessive about cleaning, maybe since it’s one thing I can control.” — Emily L.

11. “My chest gets really tight and it’s like there’s a huge weight sitting on my back shoulder blade area. Then it’s like I can’t catch my breath or take a deep enough breath to be able to breathe normally.” — Abigail B.

12. “For me, I start to tense up and [search] for escape routes. I completely shut down to the point I can’t even speak when I have an attack. I’ll start to hyperventilate and try to hide. My biggest warning sign is I start looking for a quick exit or a place to hide.” — Jessica E.

13. “Seeing stars is my main warning sign… Then the feeling of someone jumping on [my] back and giving [me] a massive bear hug, cutting off [my] blood flow and oxygen.” — Jake T.

14. “I get very irritated by everything.” — Rebecca L.

15. “If I’m out somewhere, I start feeling really self-conscious and nervous, like everyone is watching me and judging. My breathing starts to pick up speed until I can hardly take a breath and I start shaking my legs or fidgeting with my fingers. It just comes out of nowhere.” — Gerrie K.

16. “When I can’t count to 10 or ground myself and calm down, I know it’ll be a panic attack.” — Ashley L.

17. “I get really, really hot. And I feel like the walls are closing in on me and I try to breathe, but the air won’t enter my lungs. Then I can feel everything spinning and I try to remove myself from any situation I am in before it happens.” — Ashlyn P.

18. “I clench my jaws to the point my teeth hurt and I develop a headache. And it feels as though my insides are being rung out like wet towels. Lastly, I get a pain from my mid-back up to between my shoulder blades and [experience] painful, shallow breaths. If I catch myself clenching my jaws, I can regain control. If I get to the back pain and shallow breaths, then it’s too late to stop it. I’ll be in a full blown attack.” — Kyra H.

19. “I start to hear my heartbeat in my ears, my breath quickens and my vision narrows. It’s like my world is crashing around me and there is nothing I can do to hold it up. Truly a helpless feeling.” — Kelsey R.

20. “The ‘sense of impending doom.’ It usually comes on when I’m faced with a task I suddenly feel I can’t do — most often it’s coursework. I just sit there staring at the task in front of me, unable to even think about how I might get it done. My thoughts race and my [breathing] gets shallow, and I often have to fight back tears. That’s when I know it’s about to hit.” — Lauren C.

21. “I start to feel ‘tingly,’ especially in my hands and feet, like I have too much energy in these points that just wants to escape.” — Susan K.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.

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How Getting Help in College Changed My Perspective About My Anxiety

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Here I am. It’s just me and the keys of my laptop, wondering which combinations will suffice to tell the story of my struggle with anxiety, and more importantly, my recovery.

Perhaps I will never illustrate everything I hope to say. Maybe some things are too personal, or maybe things just need to be said and heard. Each word will be carefully chosen, and evaluated. I’ll try not to babble, or talk about irrelevant details. But this is my story. This is the process I have gone through to get to where I am today.

I don’t know how, or when, it began.

Timid at age 5, hesitant at 9, anxious at 13 — I believe everyone has the capability to be anxious because it’s a natural response to life. I overlooked my constant worries, fears and stresses, as I believed this was how my life was meant to be at 13. This was until I had my first panic attack.

I remember I was sitting with friends during a lunchtime at school, it was crowded and people were pushing and shouting, people were trying to talk to me, but I went into “lockdown.” My breathing accelerated and my heart leapt as my body exploded. I was shaking and crying, yet I was frozen. What was happening to me? What was I meant to do? A friend noticed my pain and helped me leave the situation. Put simply, it was the first time I had ever been truly scared. I thought I could die. Eventually, I regulated my breathing, wiped away my tears, put on a brave smile and returned. No one knew what to do or say. I didn’t let anyone know its impact on me.

I thought whatever happened was over, and I could forget about it. That is, until the same thing happened the next day, at the same time, in the same place. This time, I noticed earlier on what was happening, so I left sooner than I had the day before. Confusion consumed me. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Perhaps this was the start to the habitual and routine panic attacks which would become a part of my life some four years later. How was I meant to know how to deal with this at age 13 when I couldn’t even understand it myself? I didn’t know what panic attacks were. I didn’t even know anxiety was a mental illness — more so, a mental illness I had. I ignored it. Maybe if I forgot about it, then it would never happen again. 

What a fantasy that could have been.

For the next year or two, I had occasional panic attacks, but never within a time period where I could indicate a pattern, a cause or a trigger. Within this time, I was diagnosed with anxiety by my doctor. I learned about my mental illness and began to accept it, although I hoped — I always hoped — each panic attack would be my last.

Then, my final years at high school arrived, and took exams I was informed would “decide my future.” At that time, I received heartbreaking news. I lost three extremely close relatives — all within the space of 11 months. I enclosed my grief within a chamber buried deep inside of me, because I didn’t want to let my sadness and anxiety affect the grades I’d receive. Somehow, I valued that more than my happiness and health. I had locked away all of my emotions, but I knew one day I would have to try and find the key.

Despite my success in those exams, they were far from easy — especially for my mental health. That final year included lessons I would have to escape from due to impulsive attacks when I would least expect it. It meant there were attacks during exams, leaving me struggling to fight away the symptoms to prevent them damaging my future. What did I get from that? I got pieces of paper. Meaningless pieces of paper, each with a letter on them. I drained myself, for something that was not worth taking my health away from me.

Though, once it was over, I became myself again. I felt happy and I had strong relationships with the people in my life. That summer I travelled, and I went on flights halfway across the world to visit new places and experience different cultures. I still had stumbles along that journey, but I was doing OK.

Just when I thought I was leaving something difficult behind, September came, along with my new start at college. This brought a whole abundance of experiences I never thought I’d have — none of which were experiences I’d have dreamt of.

My anxiety escalated, my panic attacks became progressively worse, and I was struggling more than ever before. Each day was painful. It was a challenge to walk through the doors of my college, let alone for me to get out of bed, because I feared what would happen. I knew the possibilities that could occur. I spent my nights lying awake obsessing over the thoughts that consumed me. I never thought I was good enough, yet I had a deep need for perfectionism. I lived consistently worrying of losing the people I was close to in my life again. I feared my own fears, and the panic attacks corrupted me around a dozen times every day. The most difficult thing was, I didn’t know why this was happening. How could I explain this to others, when I didn’t even understand it myself?

I knew something needed to change.

Once again, it was impacting my grades, but also my relationships with people around me, and both my physical and mental health. It was draining, I was exhausted.

So, I sought therapy.

In October, I began CBT, counseling and hypnotherapy. I was desperate for recovery. I was prepared to try everything I could, and I never stopped trying. Slowly, I got better.

The panic attacks diminished, to a level where now I can stop them as quickly as I feel them seeping through. I changed my mindset, or at least that is something I am currently working on. I have tried to erase negativity from my life, which has been essential to my success.

Anxiety will always be part of me. As much as I would happily rid it from my life, it’s not as likely as I’d hope. Though, I know I have come such a far way.

You may wonder what worked best for my recovery? Honestly, there is no clear answer. I knew I wanted to fight my illness, so I did, and I used the tools I had available to help me. I was lucky enough to have constant support from family, friends and my boyfriend, as well as the staff at my college who were incredible with me. I always had someone to talk to and I knew I wasn’t alone. I trusted they wouldn’t hurt me, that they were there to help me and their positivity would radiate to boost me up to my true potential. I certified, and they confirmed, that there was no time pressure for me to get better. They just wanted to see me OK.

Certainly, I found that changing my perspective was key. I stopped blaming myself for all my hardships, and now I am beginning to become truly happy once again.

There are so many positives in my life right now, and I am proud of my success. This isn’t the end of the story, for I know I am a girl who has anxiety, and that isn’t going away. Though, it doesn’t control me anymore. I am the one in control. I decide where my path leads, and I choose happiness and health. The past is in the past, and I won’t worry about the future. For me, it’s about living in the present. So today, I am OK and I am happy. I decided my anxiety doesn’t depict my life.

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Thinkstock photo via Jacob Ammentorp Lund.

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Zach Perry's 'Panic' Captures What it Feels Like to Have Anxiety

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Since third grade, high school senior Zach Perry has lived with anxiety. Around the same time, he became interested in filmmaking, when a Christmas film he produced for his church proved to be immensely successful.

Perry found a way to merge his passion for filmmaking with his experience living with anxiety for a short film he created for his senior project at Discovery High School in North Carolina titled “PANIC.”

Perry’s high school requires each senior embark on a yearlong journey driven by a central topic the student is passionate about. As part of the project, students must write a paper, make a presentation and create a product that has a lasting impact on the world — whether it’s one person or one thousand people.

Perry’s topic revolved around anxiety and how to explain it to others. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for two years,” Perry told The Mighty. “But it’s something really delicate and really important and I wanted to make sure it was done right.”

The film follows a student named Kevin as he experiences an anxiety attack during a music class one day. When the teacher questions him, the film shows Kevin in different settings — underwater and in quicksand — to show what an anxiety attack might feel like. At one point, Kevin’s anxiety manifests into a shadowy, physical form and follows him wherever he goes.

Perry hopes that everyone can take something away from the film, regardless of whether they have anxiety. “If I impacted just one person,” he said, “I’d consider that a success.”

For those living with anxiety, Perry wants viewers to know they are not alone. “They’re not alone, that what they’re feeling is something similar to what thousands of people go through,” he said. “You don’t have to be burdened and it’s so important to get help because it works…  Anxiety is nothing to be embarrassed about because you can’t help it and it’s part of who you are.”

As for viewers who do not have anxiety, Perry hopes the film can help them understand what anxiety feels like and how important it is to support your loved ones living with the condition.

“I couldn’t have made the film without my friends,” Perry said. “They were very helpful in every aspect. Even if they didn’t quite understand some of the metaphors at first, as they kept helping they saw how different things related to each other and explained anxiety.”

Seeing the examples illustrated in his film, Perry’s friends were able to understand how physical and real it can feel. Perry said that his friends, with their dedication and sympathy, have been one of the best support groups.

Perry’s film has made it beyond his high school. What originally started as one Facebook post has since been shared by hundreds of people beyond his community. “It was shared and shared by people who I have no idea who they are,” Perry said. The film also won the grand jury award at the Southeast Psych Student Film Festival in Charlotte, NC.

Perry plans to study film at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the fall. “I want to spend the rest of my life making movies and films,” he said. “The fact that you can share emotions and make people feel things without necessarily saying a word is amazing.”

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Why I Constantly Wonder, 'Is He Happy?' as a Young Mother With Anxiety

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“Raising boys is not for the faint hearted.” That’s how the saying goes, right? Well, I believe it’s also not for the young mother filled with anxiety either. Well, it is, but it just isn’t easy.

Now, let me tell you. I know there are mothers out there going through struggles harder than I could imagine. After all, I have a healthy 2-year-old, his father stayed and loves us unconditionally and heck, we’re getting married next spring. We own a beautiful house and have full-time jobs at the ages of 22 and 23. We are beyond blessed when it comes to love and material items.

However, having a beautiful little boy watching my every move and me knowing every choice I make impacts him and who he will grow up to be? That’s a lot of pressure for me. It has me in a constant state of restlessness.

Did he get enough to eat today? Did I hug him enough today? Did I kiss him enough today? Did he get to play enough? Is he happy?

Yes. Is he happy? It’s a question I ask myself daily. Multiple times a day. Because I couldn’t handle knowing for a second that the sweetest, most innocent boy I’ve ever laid eyes on is even the slightest bit upset when he lays down to go to bed at night. I know that you’re thinking. He’s 2 years old. What 2-year-old isn’t happy? Give him a lollipop and he’ll be on his merry way.

Since becoming a mother at the young age of 19, I’ve grown in so many ways. All of that growing in such a short time — something I think a lot of people don’t experience for years — has sparked a whole new fire of anxiety. I lay in bed at night with these thoughts and questions racing through my mind.

Sometimes, I don’t even want to allow him to leave my arms because I’m filled with voices in my head telling me this world is evil. That no one is truly just here to be nice anymore. All I want is to see him grow to be happy and healthy and to achieve any goals he has in life.

He’s only been gracing this earth for two and a half short years, and yet, he’s already the biggest dreamer I know. He’s got plans for this world, and Lord help us all when he finally gets going. The impact he’s going to have on this world will be mesmerizing.

I can’t wait to watch it happen.

I tell myself daily that I have to let him fly. I have to prepare myself for the day he no longer says, “Mama, help!” When it’s time for that day to come, I worry my anxiety and fears about this world are going to hold him back, when all I’m trying to do is protect him. 

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Thinkstock photo via Thomas Northcut.

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When I Realized Anxiety Was No Longer My Friend

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I don’t remember when I first met him. Perhaps, it was when I was in sixth grade when I had to first give a speech in front of my class. Or maybe it was fourth grade on an elevator when my face turned white and my mom asked what I was so afraid of. Maybe it was when I was about 7 and was sure the parking garage was going to come down around us. Either way, Anxiety claims to be my advisor, my closest and oldest friend.

He comes to me and whispers worrying thoughts. He whispers about how absolutely everyone saw me slip in the dining hall and is laughing about it with their friends. He assures me my friend who isn’t texting back finds me annoying and hates me. He tells me that one failed test will ruin my entire life.

Sometimes he comes with a reason. Like when I’m in traffic, and someone tails me. Other times, he shows up without warning. I know he’s here when my heart races and my hands shake. He yells over my sobs and grips my hands so they sweat a cold and clammy sweat. He ties tight, inflexible knots in my stomach.

I thought he was everyone’s friend for a long time. I thought everyone worried like I do. A lot of people struggle with giving speeches or being in tight spaces, or meeting new people. But I was wrong. He singled me out, made me special. I only learned when the effects became apparent to others.

“That’s an irrational thought to think! You aren’t making any sense.”

“You know that’s not true. Stop being difficult.”

“Are you sick? You look so pale.”

But then, he came more and more. In the car on the way to school, he’d rant about how horrible today was inevitably going to be, so I ought to turn around and go back to bed. At night, he’d keep me up with his questioning. What is going to happen in the future? Well, you’ll probably fail. There’s no point in even trying. He could immobilize me, make me throw up and have me sobbing and shaking on the floor of my bathroom with the door locked.

I knew then I had to fight back. I got weapons and started defending myself against his slander. I grew stronger and separated myself from his toxic presence. Even still, he creeps back, however. He comes on the worst days. He comes when I’m alone and thinking too much. He makes me question all my success and all my relationships. I battle against him every day, and I have partners in my crusade. The clash will continue on forever; I know this. But I will never let him win. He is no longer my friend.

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Unsplash photo via Alexandru Zdrobau.

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