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Ignorance Isn’t Bliss When It Comes to Undiagnosed Anxiety

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For a teenager who thought introspective conversations were the most uncomfortable, humiliating form of torture possible, I was highly aware of myself emotionally. I knew for years, prior to my official diagnosis, I was struggling with severe depression. The day when I finally accepted five years of darkness were a good indicator I needed help and visited my college’s counseling program, I fully expected to hear the words “depression” and “low self-esteem” thrown around. I didn’t, however, expect to hear “panic attack” or “anxiety disorder.”

To say this diagnosis was a bit of a surprise is a massive understatement. I always thought I was fairly tuned into my mental and emotional instabilities. I never considered myself to be an anxious person. Quirky and particular? Sure. Anxious? Definitely not.

I was a changed person that day as I left my counselor’s office. I was suddenly noticing all of these idiosyncrasies I had always considered to be facets of my personality, which were actually symptoms. I found myself haunted by this new awareness of my constant state of worry. I guess you could say I was worried about my worrying.

I suddenly hated to go places alone because I now felt this imaginary weight of everyone’s eyes on me at all times. I couldn’t ignore it like I used to. I retyped every text and email multiple times to eliminate any chance of someone being offended or upset by a possible connotation of a word I used. I recall one night I spent the better portion of an hour berating myself for answering a question with “yes” instead of “of course.”

My first reaction to this shift in my fragile mental ecosystem was to compare myself to others who had this struggle. Shame on me. I know everyone feels things differently, but I just couldn’t believe I had the same illness as they did. It looked so different in them. It was so much more destructive and it stole their ability to function. Mine didn’t look like that. It was just a mean voice that screamed in my ear when I was around other people and made me occasionally hyperventilate when I got upset. So I decided I didn’t deserve to attribute my “quirkiness” to their agony. I wasn’t in enough pain to deserve a place in their community.

The night I finally accepted my anxiety, I was locked in my dorm room, having what I realized to be a panic attack. Taking inventory of how this could have been influencing my life over the years, I began to worry my anxiety was so deeply rooted into my personality I would be a completely different person without it. I convinced myself the parts of me everyone found to be so fun and sweet were really just byproducts of this emotional tumor hidden inside of me. In my mind, removing the anxiety meant losing everyone I loved, which, of course, did nothing to help with the depression.

Admitting to myself I had anxiety was a genuine struggle that could have been simplified if I had understood my mental illnesses did not, and do not, define me as a person. They made no statement as to whether I am strong or weak. My anxiety did not determine my personality. It simply altered how my personality filtered out into the world.

Another concept difficult to come to terms with was the idea that other people’s pain does not make your pain smaller or less important. It just makes it different. This world is full of unique people who process and express things differently. A person whose anxiety presents itself in painful, draining panic attacks that leave them completely dysfunctional has a mental illness. A person whose anxiety is an incessant, consistent level of doubt and discomfort can also have a mental illness. It isn’t a special club where only the sickest of the sick are allowed to get help. Mental illnesses are exactly that, illnesses.

Sometimes I wonder if that day was a blessing or a curse. I can honestly say if I could go back in time and do it differently, I wouldn’t change a single thing. Yes, it caused a bit of emotional upheaval, but it also lead me to a deeper understanding of who I am and it made me wiser. If I had never been told I had anxiety, I wouldn’t have recognized my dysfunctional habits as a problem. I would have spiraled even further. A diagnosis can be scary and jarring, but it isn’t a death sentence. It’s a chance to do better.

Originally published: July 14, 2016
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