Do you remember the stomach aches before school? The 30 minute goodbyes before the morning bell? The desperate calls from my teachers? The sleepovers you would drive to pick me up from? The high school parties I sat at home avoiding? The colleges I couldn’t go away to? The sleep away camps I dreaded? And the dark places I go to and sometimes I can’t come out of?
Those were and still are the telltale signs of my anxiety — one of the things I’ve become all too familiar with as a young girl, now a young woman. Much like the growth and change of a young person’s body, my anxiety has come along with me as I’ve grown up. From my first pimple to my changing and fluctuating shape, anxiety has been along for the ride and still is.
As a young girl, I did not know what was holding me back from experiencing the “normal” parts of childhood like I saw the other kids do. I watched my younger brother soar past me (as he begged to get dropped off at school early when I could still be found crying under my comforter). In high school, my friends were spending weeks away at college summer programs, all the while I felt like I was stuck in a horror film thinking about having to leave home when college eventually came. For the longest time, I hated the cards I was dealt and wanted nothing more than to shed my mind and body, pick someone else to be and start over. Hermit crabs do it, so why couldn’t I?
Flash forward to present day. I feel like I’ve conquered world wars in my head, though I have yet to see the last of them. As I’ve grown up and experienced new things in life — driving for the first time, graduating high school, beginning college and studying abroad — I know I’m distancing myself from you guys further and my anxiety oscillates with each experience. Nothing made me feel more like I did when you would drop me off for the first grade than when you dropped me off in Scotland for the semester. (Talk about wanting to dig myself a hole to cower in.) With that being said, each and every time the back of my neck flushes from my worry-filled body, I feel better equipped and more capable of handling it than I did the last time.
So, as someone who could have a PhD in all things anxiety, here are some things I would like to tell you:
Telling someone with mental health issues to “just get over it” is like telling a patient with a broken arm or a life-threatening illness to “just get over it.”
Just because my anxiety isn’t visible on the surface doesn’t mean it isn’t as real as something you could physically see and grasp. Mental illness is like the infuriating fly that makes its way through an open window and door into your house. It is constantly buzzing around, annoying you to your wits end but out of sight, hard to catch when you try to swat it out of your life for good.
My anxiety is not a phase I’ll grow out of.
It’s something that set up camp in my brain a long time ago and hasn’t left — and it probably never will completely. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to live with it in a meaningful and productive way. Dealing with anxiety is as much of a process as building a piece of IKEA furniture. I will need certain tools and equipment in order to get a final product — and along the way I will probably need to ask for help.
Not knowing the right thing to say is OK!
Don’t hold back from helping me or being there because you feel like you don’t know what to say, and that you missed the lesson on “how to help your anxiety ridden-kid.” Trust me, I’ve scoured the Internet and no one (at least, not yet) has posted the right answers. I don’t need you to move the moon or come up with the cure for anxiety — I just need your support. I need to know you have my back and will be there for hugs, that you will be a listening ear during the times when all I want to do is lock myself in a room and throw away the key. My anxiety makes me feel like the man on the moon must feel: lonely as hell. So having you around to talk with and lean on during my not-so-great moments makes me feel a little less alien.
Don’t be afraid to offer help.
And when I say help, I mean professional help. I felt ashamed and a bit embarrassed the first time we talked about me speaking to a professional. I didn’t want other people to find out my mind waged war on me almost every single day and that I couldn’t perform the daily tasks of life without feeling queasy. The slight offense I took to you feeling that professional help was the right route for my anxiety soon dwindled when we found the right person and my life forever changed for the better. While I was very reluctant at first to admit that the saying “moms are always right” was true, countless therapy sessions later and I have to admit it: you were right.
Be open to conversations — conversations from anything from celebrity crushes to friend drama, all the way to the times I felt like I was past the point of no return. Be open to taking the road less traveled. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t one way to do things or live your life. I’ve had to learn that the hard way as I’ve edited my life to work with my anxiety, most of the time making me feel alienated from my friends who were doing things the supposedly “normal” way. Taking things slow and at my own pace, I learned, was A-OK — because everyone is living their own life and that means following your own path.
And, finally: Be open to loving a bit harder on some days. Most like to say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and while I don’t disagree with that, I found some runner ups — your hugs (and my therapist).
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