I think of this photo often when I think of my anxiety and how other people perceive me. If you looked at that photo you would probably see a happy go lucky girl who looks healthy and is just doing really great. In reality though that photo was taken on a day where my anxiety was out of control and at the height of my anxiety in quite a few years. That photo was taken in April of 2015 and about 5 months since my heart started being an asshole. I was going to the doctor all the time, I was getting tested, poked, prodded, and felt like shit constantly with very few answers. And to top it all off my anxiety was out of control.
People can’t see that though. People can’t peek inside my brain and see all the what ifs that are happening or feel the way I feel when I’m having a panic attack. People only look at me and see the smile and that’s enough for them to decide that I’m perfectly fine. I’m here to tell you that I’m not though. I mean in the grand scheme of things I’m fine but when it comes to anxiety it’s something that I really struggle with and I have for along time.
It’s also something that I’ve only recently started to talk about which is why I was so happy when I was listening to Radio 1 the other day and Greg James started talking about a new series they are doing called “My Mind and Me”. Where they encourage people to discuss their mental health and the struggles they go through with anxiety and depression and the like. Listening to Greg talk about how important it is to erase the stigma surrounding mental health reminded me how far we’ve come. That’s not something I would have ever heard when I was growing up. When my anxiety was so bad my friends had to carry me (literally) kicking and crying on a class trip to California because I was so anxious that I tried to back out at the last minute.
Except I didn’t know it was anxiety back then because it’s not something that was ever discussed. I didn’t know the reason I was sick to my stomach every day the month before I graduated high school was debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. That the reason I missed a bunch of school and almost didn’t graduate was because of my mind being unhealthy.
I’ve learned a lot more as I’ve grown up and my anxiety has ebbed and flowed. It was pretty calm when I was in college and then my dad died and it was like I was in a black rain cloud of anxiety constantly and that time there was depression along with it. I had a massive panic attack in a restaurant the day after my dad died. I looked around at my family and realized I would never sit at a table with him again and lost it. I couldn’t breathe. I had to run outside I was crying so hard. To this day I still get major anxiety when I go out to eat. And that was just the tip of my anxiety back then.
Eventually I started exercising and taking care of myself and my anxiety ebbed. It was calm and I was okay. I could breathe again. Not all of the time but most of the time. Then in October 2014 my heart arrhythmia kicked into high gear and along with it came my high anxiety again. It’s been a constant struggle since then to deal with it but I can still feel the ebbs and the flows.
My friends and family really didn’t and probably still don’t understand what was wrong with me. They thought that I was just not hanging out with them because I didn’t want to. I wanted to more than anything but my mind was having none of it. It caused major rifts between us because I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to say I have anxiety and even though I want to be with you sometimes I literally can’t leave the house or else I will have a panic attack. I didn’t know how to explain myself to them and I always felt like I had to. I’ve been called a hermit and a party pooper, people make snide comments about me “leaving the house”, and on and on. I want to scream and say I’m not a party pooper and I’m not doing this on purpose because I’m boring it’s just sometimes my brain has other plans and I have to deal with that. I’ve learned that it’s just part of people not really having any idea what anxiety is like or what it truly means when someone suffers from it.
Everyone feels anxiety now and then. There will be something you’re worried about, something that makes you nervous, you know just normal life stuff. Not everyone suffers from anxiety though. Not everyone knows the feeling of staying home for days on end, or missing a party (or leaving a party early), or not going to dinner with your friends. Even though deep down you know you’re going to be okay it’s almost like you feel like the only way you will truly be okay if you have a panic attack is if you’re at home when it happens or at the very least if you’re in a situation that you can leave and go home as soon as you start getting that panicky feeling. At least that’s how it feels for me. I guess it’s a comfort thing.
It’s why it’s so important to talk about it and why I am so thrilled to see more people with such a loud voice talking about mental health. Chrissy Teigen recently wrote an essay about her postpartum depression and I was in awe reading her truthful account of what she was going through. Gemma Styles opened up about having a panic attack at a massive music festival. Even in the fictional world NBC’s This Is Us beautifully and accurately portrayed what anxiety is like and how it can physically affect a person in an episode recently. And now along with all of that BBC Radio 1 is doing this major thing to destigmatize mental health and get people actually talking about it.
Because I know how it feels to not talk about it for the fear of being judged or like people will think you’re just making it up. I did that for a long time but now I’ve learned how important it is to tell the people around you what it really feels like inside your head. Otherwise they take their own version of what they think is happening. They take the laughing happy picture they have of you and they can’t associate you with anything but that.
Most people don’t see you in the same pair of pajamas for three straight days when you haven’t left the house and you feel like you can’t breathe. When the thought of “when is the next time I’m going to go have to go somewhere” becomes overwhelming. Because you know that when your anxiety is bad you need to mentally prepare yourself for what comes next. Spontaneity is not a word in my vocabulary for the most part. It might sound silly to some of you but for those of you who knows what it means to have to mentally prepare yourself you know that you don’t just up and do things at random.
I get it though. I really do. I get that my friends and family are confused about the fact that I could up and go to London (from Texas) by myself for a week but if you ask me to go to dinner I’ll probably hesitate or just not go. I get that the girl in that photo doesn’t look like she is anxious but I’ll never forget the feeling the first time I saw it and thought wow I look pretty normal and not like I was going crazy inside. It doesn’t make any sense. Mental health sometimes doesn’t make any sense. It’s murky and weird but it starts becoming a little bit clearer for other people the more you talk about. The more you tell them how you feel. If you talk about the black clouds they might be able to help you find an umbrella. It’s not something to hide or be ashamed of. It’s not a dirty little secret that needs to be hidden. You’re just as amazing and capable and worthy of everything you want even if you deal with anxiety and depression. It’s time to claim it as your own and remember healing is not linear. There will be good days and bad days but at the end of it they are all yours.