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Why Nobody Realized This Illness Was a Physical Symptom of My Childhood Anxiety

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It was a “normal” day for second-grade Taylor. She walked up the stairs to Mrs. Buteyn’s second-floor classroom and put her backpack and lunchbox away in her cubby. Then she ran to the bathroom and threw up for the next 20 minutes. She proceeded to go home afterward. Just a typical day in my life.

Anxiety takes many forms. Some people shake, others have racing thoughts, and some feel pain, among many other symptoms. I am one who feels debilitating pain, specifically in my stomach. Before doctors knew it was anxiety, they thought it was lactose intolerance, stomach ulcers and a million other things. In fourth grade, I had to get an endoscopy — a procedure where a camera is put into a person’s stomach to search for ulcers — but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. I was then diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

For years after that diagnosis, my pain continued, still unidentified as anxiety. I continued to miss school because of sickness and pain, and the anxiety continued into high school.

My medical mystery may not surprise experts, for mental illness often goes misdiagnosed, but it surprised me. The reason why I was surprised it took me until sophomore year to get diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is because both of my parents are counselors. My parents talk to individuals with mental illness every day, yet they never noticed I also struggled. I had all the symptoms, so why was I diagnosed so late?

It’s because I never talked about it. Even the very best counselors — even the very best counselors who are also your own parents — cannot read minds.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I am aware of my mental health, but are you? If you are struggling, don’t let your pain go unnoticed like I let mine. The quicker you find help, the more likely treatment will prove beneficial.

After letting my anxiety build up for so long, I was unable to sit still in class. I woke up every morning doubled over in pain. I spent my mornings curled up on the carpet in my room. If I would have gotten help earlier, I may have been able to spend more of my days in class rather than teaching myself at home. I know that asking for help is scary. I am a very independent person, so telling someone I can’t manage on my own made me feel weak. But I learned I would rather feel weak than not feel at all. I bottled my pain and my emotions up for so long that the first day I went to therapy, my therapist said, “Wow. We’ve got a lot to unpack here.”

Bottling up emotions only makes things worse. It’s still something I struggle with every day. I’d rather keep it all to myself to appear strong, but sometimes, we’ve all got to call our favorite person and let it out.

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Anxiety and depression can cause as many physical symptoms as a person with chronic pain, and they will steal your life if you don’t stop them. It’s easy to tell someone about a broken leg, but it is difficult to tell someone that your brain causes you pain. That’s what this awareness month is for. Let’s talk about mental health and make it less taboo. It’s not OK that people who are struggling think that they need to be silent about their pain.

Learn from my stubbornness and ask for help if you need it. Call a friend. Email a teacher. Tell a parent. Battles are better fought by an army, not alone.

Getty Images photo via SerhiiBobyk

Originally published: May 2, 2020
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