Real Talk: Confronting Anxiety
In honor of this week's #WorldMentalHealthDay, I have decided to write about something I have wanted to address for some time, but have not entirely been sure how to approach. I was hesitant about it, given that I do not want future employers to see this post and let that dictate how they see me or my working ability. However, I am now realizing that is even more of a reason to address this head-on. It's time to break the stigma. Let's talk about anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% of adults in the U.S. are affected by some form of an anxiety disorder. That may not seem like a large amount, but that is about 40 million adults. It is important to know that there are a wide range of anxiety disorders. These include but are not limited to: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive-disorder (OCD), post-trauamtic stress disorder (PTSD), and even phobias. Given my extensive educational background in psychology, I have spent a lot of time learning about these disorders through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as "the DSM"), case studies, scholarly articles, textbooks, and the personal experience and advice of my professors (many of whom are licensed therapists). While this, by no means, makes me a professional, I have grown very familiar with these disorders from both an academic and personal standpoint. One of the most important things about talking about mental disorders and breaking the stigma is learning about and understanding the disorders and how they affect every individual differently.
Having a psychology or social work background can be especially difficult, because you are have to be mindful and careful about self-diagnosing and hyper-analyzing those around you, especially ones you are close to. On the other hand, it also gives you the knowledge, skills, and awareness to recognize when something is truly arising. On that note, I will begin my story:
Growing up, I had a pretty dysfunctional and damaging childhood. I'm not going to go into detail about that, for the sake of my family's privacy, but it's the reality of my life. At a very young age, I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder - which looking back now, I think was my way of trying to gain control of something in the world I had no control over. To be honest, I don't think I ever fully knew I had OCD until I started to get better. It's not something you learn about as a 5-year-old, and there wasn't really much awareness on it in order for my parents to be able to recognize it as an issue. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a disorder in which you have obsessions (fears, need for order or "perfection", or excessive doubt) that are followed by compulsions (repeated behaviors, rituals, or tics) that are done to alleviate the obsessions for the time-being.
My earliest memory of my OCD is sitting in front of the TV at my mom's house and trying to clear my throat. Every time I would do it, it wouldn't sound "right" to me, so I just kept clearing it and clearing it until I achieved the "right" sound. That became a ritual for me. Any time I would clear my throat, it had to be right or I would just keep doing it. The worst part is, I was aware that this was abnormal, but did not know why I did it or what to do about it. I did things like count toilet paper squares - if one wasn't ripped off perfectly straight, I would keep ripping off a square until it was. Then, when I was about ten or so, I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which had me convinced I was going to be possessed by the devil. I vividly remember reading the bible, which is not a light read for anyone, let alone a 10-year-old. I began to pray about everything. And I had to do it a certain way. This was sometimes out loud, or in my head - depending on if I was alone or not. (Again, I knew this was not normal to be doing, so I hid it when I could).
This was also around the time my mom had passed away, which put me in a state of extreme paranoia for a few years following and also heightened my OCD. I began to obsessively worry that something was going to happen to my dad next, which is of course, understandable. I began to become neurotic about checking every door to make sure it was locked, and if I didn't say "I love you" to my dad right before he left for work, I was in a state of crippling anxiety the entire day. I also developed this really strange hand-clapping ritual that I had to do before bed every night. I really don't know where this started, but my friends started to notice it at sleepovers, and it became harder to hide. Once I became aware that people were catching on, I started to stop the rituals. I think with age, I was beginning to realize that nothing would actually happen if I did not complete them. But, you have to understand, for someone with OCD, this realization is so hard to come to. For some people, it's impossible.
My OCD followed me through high school, luckily, far less intense. It surfaced in having to have everything in my room perfectly aligned, and my room had to be clean or else I would not go to sleep. I would be up until 2:00 or 3:00 some nights. I think this is where my "late night habits" began. (I am notorious for always being up late, even now.) I began to realize how much I was torturing myself with staying up just to clean. Plus, my family was getting pretty irritated at the noise I would make cleaning my room so late, so I slowly started to try and go to sleep without cleaning my room. This was honestly incredibly difficult. I would sleep really badly and wake up feeling very off - and this would stay with me throughout the day. Even now, I still get really stressed out if I leave the house and my room is a mess. Fortunately, I'm at the point where it's not controlling my life and I can get past it. Also, it does help me to be clean and organized, when I can.
I am incredibly lucky to be able to say I have managed my OCD on my own and have not needed medication or therapy for it. I really do think I just grew out of it (for the most part), and I know this is not the case for a lot of people. I do wish I was in therapy for it when I was younger, because it was pretty debilitating at some stages. While my OCD improved, my anxiety did not end here.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is different than OCD and is the most common anxiety disorder among adults. This is usually what people are diagnosed with when they refer to "having anxiety". GAD is marked by excessive worry and concern, which is persistent and can be unrealistic, as stated by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. I can't really place when I began to experience a "general" anxiety. Because of my OCD, it's hard to know or see where it ended and where my GAD began, or if there was just an overlap. From what I can remember, it really surfaced in my junior year of high school.
This was the year I was beginning to understand what the real world was actually like. I was paying for the car my dad had given me, because I had just gotten my license and obviously needed to drive. I was also paying for part of my phone bill and saving up for car insurance. I was on my own for money, and I was learning all too quickly that life is impossible when you are spending more than you are making. I had a few minimum-wage jobs and was really experiencing the beginnings of financial worry. This began to take over my life, especially with my dad constantly reminding me that it was only going to get worse once I got older. I began to feel very helpless. I was stressing about everything and it was beginning to really impede my life.
I was also in a very unhealthy and mentally/emotionally abusive relationship at the time, which was the first time I noticed actual physical symptoms of anxiety. Whenever I would get stressed or overly nervous, I would actually vomit. Not to be confused with bulimia, this was my body's response to outside stress. This ended once I left the relationship, but I was starting to fully understand at age eighteen that my body was being affected by my automatic thoughts (things that come to mind before you even realize you're thinking about them).
The problem, however, was I was never seeing these as symptoms of anxiety. I thought I was just "stressed" or "on-edge" and thought everyone was experiencing this on a day-to-day basis. Once I entered college, I started to become depressed, and at this rate I could not distinguish depression from anxiety or even understand that these were not normal, "every day" feelings I was experiencing. More times than not, depression and anxiety are comorbid (present at the same time). This can make it even more difficult to treat and understand. Even up to my junior year, I was still not recognizing that something was not right with me.
I was internalizing everything and refusing to recognize my problems as problems. Instead of finding an outlet, I would just suppress everything, which started to cause things to surface physically. By junior year of college, I was really starting to decline. My family was splitting up at home, and I was living away for the first time at a college I 1) could not afford and 2) was paying for all on my own. Everything around me disintegrating. My relationship with my dad was the worst it has ever been, and things were awful at home. Home was no longer a real thing for me, and I felt like such a stranger in my own head. No matter how many people I was with, I always felt alone. I finally cracked to my dad about it and said I wanted to see a therapist.
This is probably one of the biggest take-aways of this post. Seeing a therapist was one of the best things I could have ever done for myself. I truly believe anyone and everyone should see a therapist. It is such a good way to express your thoughts and feelings, without having the emotional burden and bias that comes with disclosing thoughts and feelings to someone you are close to. It's kind of corny to say, but your therapist is also your personal cheerleader. This person wants you to succeed and improve, and they will praise and encourage you for every step that you take toward doing so. There have been times when I have really been so hard on myself, and my therapist has said things like, "You are so much better at coping than you realize" or "You're doing great for someone dealing with what you have been", and it really makes me feel better. Sometimes, an objective view is really what you need to hear.
I was having major anxiety at this stage of my life and it was manifesting itself in my sleep schedule. I had severe insomnia and was not falling asleep until 5 am (when I had to be up for class at 7 or 8 the next morning). I was becoming a walking zombie and could not function as a human being, let alone a full-time student who was also working. My therapist prescribed me trazadone, which is an antidepressant used to treat sleeping issues. Unfortunately, I did not react well with this drug. I began to feel extremely suicidal and took myself off of the drug immediately. It did help with sleep, but at this point, talking to my therapist alone was allowing me to find the skills to manage my anxiety - which was improving my insomnia.
Senior year, I was starting to fall again. I went into detail about this in my 'Finding Strength in Suffering' post, so I'll try to keep this part a little more brief. While I did address my anxiety in that post, I just want to take the time now to explain how much of a physical disorder anxiety is and can be. Anxiety has gripped my life in so many ways - mainly my health. I have lost so much hair from stress and anxiety and am so self-conscious as a result. I am constantly having back and neck pain from the tension I carry in the two. My migraines are incredibly stress-related and they have been at an all-time high. Plus, the medication I take for them is not something I should be taking often, so this is becoming extremely problematic. My entire endocrine system has gone out of whack due to me not taking care of myself, because of my anxiety. It is so hard to hear when people say, "it's all in your head", because this has left my head and entered my body at this point. I have literally watched my anxiety destroy not only my mental well-being, but my physical well-being.
The toughest part of mental disorders is that you have highs and you have lows. To make things worse, I'm extremely affected by the weather, so in the winter, my anxiety and depression become far worse than they usually are in the summer. Every year, I feel like this is such a cycle. And I dread it. Mental illness, especially anxiety, is a battle, and you have to face it every day. It's ugly, and it's painful, and it's devastating.
This being said, you can manage your anxiety. After realizing what a physical toll this has taken on my life through countless doctors visits the last few months/years, I am determined to make a change for myself. I am forcing myself to exercise daily (the benefits of exercise for your mental health are astonishing), I am eating a healthy diet, and I am learning to meditate and be mindful. I also made another appointment with my therapist, and I am admitting to, addressing, and conquering this head-on.
I am lucky that while I have personally endured all of this, I have also been learning about mental illness. Without even realizing it, I have learned my own coping skills and theories on treatment, and I think that is a huge part of how I have gotten through this the way that I have. Not only do I know what my therapist is saying, but I also understand why because of my psychological educational background.
When you enter the world of counseling, you pick your own professional "theory", which is basically what you believe is the most effective approach for the clients you will be helping. My therapist uses the "cognitive-behavioral" approach which is essentially saying if you change how you think or act, you will change how you feel. You don't realize how much of your life the constant stream of thoughts in your head controls, and this approach helps you recognize and change your way of thinking.
The best part is that I already happened to favor this approach more when learning about it, so it is really something we both are advocates of. Because this is a behavior and thinking-focused approach, we work together to try to keep medicine out of the picture. It has been suggested a few times, but neither of us feels I need it at this point in my life. This being said, I fully believe there are individuals who absolutely need medication to manage their symptoms and live healthy lives, but I know a lot of my problems stem from change and lack of control, and that is something I feel I can manage without medication.
I want to make it very clear that I did not write this post for pity or to be overly personal. I went into a lot of detail in order for you to form an understanding and gather a true learning about mental illness and how it can arise. I also do not want you to look at me differently for this. I don't want you to slap me with labels because of my disorders. I am still me, I am still Taylor, I am still the person you know. My biggest intention for this post was to bring awareness to the fact that everyone is fighting a silent battle. I want you to know that you are not alone and that I understand, and there are many others who do too. Unfortunately, there are others who don't, and we all need to work on changing that. All too often I hear people say things like, "But she/he is so happy, I can't believe ___ is depressed or has anxiety!" You truly never know what is going on inside a person's head or behind closed doors - especially because of the "happy" facade social media allows.
I want to close this post with asking that you put yourself first, always. If you find yourself feeling differently, acting differently, or thinking differently than you used to, talk to someone about it. A close friend, a parent, a sibling - even talk to yourself about it. Writing things in a journal over the years has really helped me to see the changes I've experienced in my life and what external factors have influenced my mindset. Most importantly, please don't think that getting help is something to be ashamed of. Some of the strongest, bravest people I know regularly see a therapist. These professionals exist for a reason! Don't put off your mental health, because you think it is not as important as your physical health. We need to start treating the two equally, because your mind cannot work without your body, and your body cannot work without your mind.
I would also like to say that I am always here if any of you ever need a person to talk to.