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The Anxiety and Depression I Hid Behind a Smile

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It all started when she asked, “Where is your mother?”

I found myself in the school nurse’s office with extreme stomach pains. Convinced it was appendicitis, I ordered the school secretary to call an ambulance because I had to be dying or I would die should my appendix explode.

She instructed me to calm down in the way mothers tend to do, then walked me to the cot notorious in school nurse’s offices. I lay down in the fetal position and waited.

This has to be my period. What else could it be? I’m ancient not to have gotten my period. 15 is old for that, right? Wait, maybe I am dying? Do you die if you don’t get your period by a certain age? Oh, man, I have to tell what’s her name not to call Dad. How embarrassing if this is just me getting my period! I would die if Dad knew I had my period, and I’m too dense to know that’s what this is. No. What if everyone finds out I haven’t gotten it yet? Shit. That’s more embarrassing than Dad finding out. Shit.

The nurse finally came in. She asked when I last got my period. I lied and explained that couldn’t be it. It had to be appendicitis. That was the only explanation.

“How are things at home?” she asked. I stared blankly at her. “Is there anything going on at home right now that’s stressful?”

No. No. How could she know? Does she know Mom is sick? No, this can’t get out. No, it’s worse than menstruation.

“Nope. Nothing to report,” I said, grimacing through a smile that had become my trademark coping mechanism. “I really think this is appendicitis. Could you just call an ambulance or something and haul me out of here?”

She smiled and did a quick examination. She felt where my appendix was and asked if it hurt when she pushed. It didn’t, but it was hard to tell with the cramping.

“You’ll be fine. Just hang out in here until you feel better,” she said, closing the door behind her. I heard murmurs on the other side of the door. They were talking about my mom. They had to be.

Oh God. Everyone knows. How could everyone know? F*cking small towns. Of course, everyone knows. Goddammit!

I began sobbing silently. I couldn’t remember the last time I cried.

I guess it was when she forgot me. That was months ago. Why am I crying now?

I didn’t know it at the time, but the racing thoughts and the stomach pains wereanxiety. That nurse was trying to get it out of me, but she didn’t explain that’s what it could be because I wouldn’t tell her what was wrong. She probably should have anyway.

The stomach pains started early in my sophomore year of high school and continued through my junior year. My mother, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when I was 13, didn’t remember me anymore. One particular night, I was helping her eat and she said, “Where is your mother?” Thinking about it now, this was a profound statement. Yet, from there on out, she couldn’t remember my name. The pains began.

My family didn’t discuss problems. The few times I reached out to my father about my stomach, he one-upped me by elaborating on his own ailments and how mine couldn’t be nearly that bad. I shouldn’t complain when others have it worse. I needed parental attention. He needed spousal attention. Neither of us was getting either.

I stopped complaining after that. Well, until that day at school when I reached out to the nurse. However, after that, my “best” feature became my ability to bottle things up and push them out until they exploded all at once in a blaze of glory. I ended up depressed in bed for a week. You know, “healthy.”

My mother died before I finished my junior year of high school. The pains had become so much a part of me that when they finally stopped, I didn’t know the sensation, or, rather, lack thereof. No one asked me how I was (save one teacher) after she died because I continued to wear a smile. I was grateful no one asked. Falling apart in public was the worst of humiliations or so I thought.

I had no idea what I was experiencing was anxiety and depression. No one talked to me about it. No one saw I needed help because I was so “normal,” and that’s just it. Anxiety and depression hide themselves in fake smiles. Smiles that, on the outside, seem genuine. We’re just trying to hold it together.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 5, 2017
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