I’ve read a lot of friends’ posts on social media and their blogs about their mental illnesses and I always thought– “good for them! The world totally needs awareness about these type of things!” Then I would just kind of do that whistle/eye roll combo that people do when they’re trying to act like nothing happened and they have nothing to do with anything (just kidding, I can’t even whistle. But if I could, I would). Although I didn’t believe shame should be associated with mental illness, I still felt a little bit of shame about mine. As time has gone on, I have finally accepted that I have a mental illness, opened up with others about it, and it’s gotten a lot easier. But there are still things that would be helpful if the general public realized. So the general public of 30 people that read my blog, learn away…
I’ve had anxiety probably since birth. I can imagine myself coming straight out of the womb screaming bloody murder (as most infants do) and thinking, “I can’t leave this place! Where am I going? It doesn’t feel safe. I’m going to die!!!!” Then being surrounded by huge giant people and screaming some more. As a kid, my general anxiety (parents will die, siblings will die/be kidnapped, tornadoes, earthquakes, sinking sand!!) was pretty intense and led to some ritualistic habits–OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I had some of the classic old school counting ticks, etc. For some reason, I felt the only way to control the things I was afraid of was to perform these rituals. Despite this, I actually had a fairly normal childhood and because I knew that these thoughts I had weren’t “normal,” I tried to hide them and was pretty successful (except for my siblings who would always be like “why are you counting? You’re so weird.”) At the time, I had no idea that what I was experiencing was anxiety/OCD and was never diagnosed or anything. Over time, I learned some strategies to help me cope and pretty much overcame it. My general anxiety was still there, but it wasn’t so bad I couldn’t handle it and the OCD went away.
In high school, my anxiety resurfaced one year and led to massive stage fright. Although in several performing groups, I declined any solos and had to force myself to perform even in groups on stage. That lasted about a year and through more coping techniques I tried, I was able to overcome that as well.
Up to this point in my life, I would never have labeled anything I’d experienced anxiety or mental illness. I had too many negative connotations with those words and I didn’t want to be those things.
As an adult, I was able to serve an 18 month mission in a foreign country with little grasp of the language initially. I was successful in my academics at college and managed to work and do school simultaneously. I felt that I had overcome all aspects of my anxiety and would just label myself as a “worrier.”
With pregnancy and birth, a whole new level of anxiety opened up that I had never experienced before. The thought of possibly losing this child was enough to take my breath away. I had never loved someone so intensely before and so I had never feared losing someone so much. That combined with the hormones was pretty intense. Although I knew I was supposed to let my baby sleep in a crib on her back, I was terrified. The first night home I rocked her to sleep and then couldn’t put her in her crib because the paralyzing thought of a spider crawling up her crib and biting her in the night was on my mind. I brought her in bed with me. At first, I tried to put her in her crib. I knew that logically that was the right thing to do–the safest. But every time I did, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was terrified that I would walk in to see her not breathing. I had to hold her close so I could feel her breathing all night. There are about a million other crazy thoughts I had/things I did while she was an infant. The bottom line is, my anxiety got worse.
After I lost my ovaries (and natural hormones) in 2014, everything went a little bit crazy. Trying to find the right hormone balance was a challenge and at the same time we were dealing with grief from losing fertility. During the middle of our home study, I started having panic attacks–something I hadn’t had for quite some time (probably since high school or when I was a kid). I was pretty resistant to the idea of any type of medication initially, because I had been able to handle my anxiety and still live a happy, successful life thus far–and in some way, that was a source of pride for me. The social worker we were working with pointed out that medication for illness is normal and if I was physically ill, I would use medication. I had said that exact thing to other loved ones who experienced anxiety or depression, but at my core I didn’t believe it applied to me. I decided that it was time for me to try it. I spoke to my doctor about anxiety–the first time I had ever spoken to a medical professional about it at all–really the first time I had ever been able to come out and say, “I have anxiety.” In my mind I imagined him rolling his eyes or looking down on me or somehow making me feel stupid, but of course, he didn’t do any of those things. He helped me understand how common it was and we talked about my options. Right now I’m on a low dose of a medication that is helpful for me. I’m still a worrier, but I am more able to talk myself down from irrational worry. I am far less likely to have a panic attack. I probably won’t be on this medication my whole life–as my life has shown, my anxiety kind of ebbs and flows, but for now this is working. I have also found peace with the idea of being on the medication my whole life if that is what works.
I want people to know that mental illness isn’t just something that affects people who may “seem” mentally ill. It doesn’t always look like erratic behavior or people talking to themselves (although it can look like this). The truth is about 1/4 of people in the US have some type of mental illness–so for the most part, it looks like a lot of the people who are around you every day. People who are going to school, working, raising families, and living life.
I will now give you the top 6 things that make anxiety difficult–
- Something that makes anxiety difficult for me is not being able to trust my instincts, my feelings, or my gut reactions. I have heard so many people tell me to trust my gut, use mother’s intuition, I will know it when I see it, I would be able to tell if something was really wrong with my body, etc… but that really hasn’t been my experience. Oftentimes, my anxiety will lead my mind somewhere very far off course of what is probable. I have had to learn to do the opposite–discount my gut and often how my body is feeling. Loving friends and family members have told me not to worry, that if something really bad was happening with my body, I would feel it. The problem is, a panic attack feels like something REALLY bad is happening inside my body. Somebody with anxiety cannot tell if what they are experiencing is a panic attack or something medically wrong with them. I am often struggling with my mind–is this a real thing or is this anxiety? It’s like a constant Peeta/Katniss scenario between my husband and me– “real or not real?” People with anxiety often start to doubt their bodies and their feelings. They’re worried about that time that something actually is wrong/their gut is kicking in and they tell their anxiety to go away and ignore it. *This becomes especially hard when you have experienced medical emergencies. Sometimes it IS an emergency and sometimes something truly is wrong. How can I tell?
- Something else we deal with is other people not trusting our feelings and downplaying them openly. I understand why this happens, but it hurts. It’s hard when we are expressing worry or stress and the common reaction is, “I’m sure it’s not that bad” or “you’re overreacting.” Even if it’s not and even if we are, it just stinks that that is the typical response. What if we aren’t overreacting? What if it is that bad? Or what if even if it’s not that bad, we feel it as if it were that bad? This can be especially difficult with medical concerns. Since we already don’t trust our bodies (is this real or anxiety?) when we have outside voices telling us our feelings aren’t real, we get extremely confused. I start off most queries to my doctor with, “I have anxiety, but…”
- Anxiety about anxiety. This is a fun one. Have you ever had a panic attack because you were worried about having a panic attack? It is like the most horrible kind of frame story.
- Mocking. People with all mental illnesses have been mocked since the beginning of time. It is one of the main reasons people experience shame with mental illness. I think we often tend to mock ourselves in an attempt to keep things funny. As part of my anxiety, I have some definite hypochondria. This seems to be the brunt of a lot of jokes. (PS. I do think that laughing at ourselves is important–balance here)
- Incredibly realistic imaginations. One of the reasons I experience so much fear about events out of my control (illness, violent crimes, etc.) is because when I hear about them or read about them, I imagine it is happening to me. I can imagine things extremely well. I remember being a child and crying because I had this vivid image of a “Missing” poster for my little sister. After my marriage, I was on a WWI kick (reading books and watching movies) and remember crying at night to my husband because what if we lived during that time period and he had to go to war? (For the record, my husband cannot imagine scenarios like this and was looking at me like, umm.. what? I’m here. I’m not at war. What are you talking about?)
- We want to share about ourselves, but we also don’t. Just like anybody else, we have the fear of being defined by something like anxiety. Anxiety is a condition I have and it’s part of me, but it’s not me. A person with anxiety can also be extremely capable, a high performer, outgoing, or any other personality trait you can think of.
What you can do if you know someone who has anxiety: Love them! Please, do not roll your eyes at them. Do not talk to them like they are a child. Ask them what they prefer you to do/how to respond.
What I have learned about my own personal preferences for a response are- 1. Listen to worries and concerns 2. Validate feelings 3. Reassure them it’s okay. My husband is the genius mastermind of this–he always listens, always. Somehow having him listen, validate me & my feelings, and reassure me has been the magic sauce so far. Sometimes I say, “Kyle, I can’t seem to get ____ off my mind. Would you please tell me that it’s ok?” He will then reassure me that everything is okay. Sometimes all I need is that quick, loving, outside voice to calm my mind. Remember, there is a big difference between telling someone, “uhhh, everything is fine! Chill out!” (eye roll). and saying in a loving, calm voice, “everything is fine” with a hug. Of course, sometimes things are not okay–people with anxiety (like everyone else) do experience disease, trauma, relationship problems, death. When these things are happening, continue to help them figure it out in a loving way.
The main thing with anxiety, like any other human condition, is empathy and love.
How do people wrap up blog posts?? Okbye.