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So, You Think Anxiety Isn't Real

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After a year and a half of hospitalizations, misdiagnoses, countless medication changes, and many unanswered questions, I was fortunate enough to get an evaluation appointment with one of the best mental health specialists in the country. My parents and I drove six hours south to meet this doctor to hear his opinions on my diagnosis and future treatment.

The evaluation process took more than five hours. At the end of the day, the doctor said, “There is no need for her to be on antipsychotic medication because she actually has a severe anxiety disorder.”

My parents were so happy to hear this prognosis, and everything the doctor explained about the onset, symptoms, and reactions I had to medications made sense. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I had an anxiety disorder because I didn’t understand how the severity of what I was going through was a term I heard people say every day. Many times people use the word “anxiety” when they are describing feeling stressed or nervous about something. When I heard the doctor say “anxiety disorder,” I thought he meant I was just a nervous person. After learning more about anxiety disorders, I realized they are real psychiatric disorders that can consume and change someone’s life and future.

The picture is my psychiatric service dog with me during an anxiety attack

Photo: My psychiatric service dog with me during an anxiety attack.

An issue I’ve seen many times for people with anxiety disorders is others’ belief that anxiety isn’t real. When people are dealing with anxiety, one of the most damaging statements they can hear is that they are making it up or exaggerating their feelings. Some common examples are phrases like:

“Everyone gets stressed.”

“All students go through this at the end of the semester.”

“You just need more sleep.”

“She’s just trying to get attention.”

As a woman with an anxiety disorder who also has friends and family with anxiety, I’ve heard countless versions of these statements. I usually don’t dwell on the limitations I’ve had to deal with due to my disorder, but what I’ve faced over the past few years illustrates that anxiety is real and should not be taken lightly. For those who think I’m “doing it for attention,” consider this:

I gave up my privilege to drive at night because I became afraid of driving in the dark. I had to change the career path I’d wanted since the seventh grade because I knew the job environment would trigger my anxiety. Why would I want to leave the part-time job I’d loved for five years? Why would I throw away three years of college after being so close to getting my teaching degree? Why would I want to spend three months in the hospital away from my friends, family, and brand-new kitten? Why would I spend Thanksgiving in a hospital three hours away from my family? Why would I want to take medications after living my whole life drug and alcohol-free? Why would I stay home from my best friend’s bachelorette party in Atlantic City? Why would I want to face mental health stigma? I have to see people graduate college, get their dream jobs, buy their first houses and take spontaneous trips just because they want to. Why wouldn’t I want to experience those things too?

This is how anxiety has had an impact on my life. I’m not using anxiety as an excuse to skip school, get out of a test I forgot to study for, get extra time on a paper I put off doing, leave work early or avoid my adult responsibilities. When people use the word “anxiety” as an excuse, it essentially tells the world that people with diagnosed anxiety disorders can turn it on and off and are just exaggerating their symptoms. Nobody would want to go through a battle with mental illness if they had the choice. We are not doing it for attention.

Anxiety is a disorder, not a decision.

Originally published: June 29, 2016
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