In this post, I’m going to be talking a bit about my own experience with mental illness, not because I think that my way of experiencing it was “right”, or because my experience was universal or anything along those lines. I am not a trained therapist. I am not a definitive master in this subject by any means. All I am is someone with an experience, someone who took a lesson from what I lived.
I am mostly going to be focusing on my experience with anxiety, as well. And, of course, every mental illness is different, and even those with anxiety experience it differently, but my hope is that you as the reader might find something in my experience that you relate to as well.
Anxiety has always been prevalent in my life. It is something that has run in my family – something that plagued some members to the point that they refused to even leave the house if they could avoid it. Yet, for years, my family just thought of a person’s anxiety as their “quirks”. If someone didn’t leave his house, it wasn’t because they were mentally ill, but because they was quirky, they had a healthy dislike of crowds, it was nothing. That was the way that mental illness was discussed in my family throughout most of my childhood.
When I was eighteen, I identified my constant stress and outright illogical level of fears as an anxiety disorder – one that hadn’t quite reached the degree of some of my family members, but that plagued me nonetheless. I had a hard time applying to jobs, because the thought of doing so was enough to send me into a panic attack. I couldn’t talk to anyone without stuttering, and after talking to them I made myself miserable with thoughts of “I bet they hated me” and “god, I’m so stupid, why did I do that?” And while I excelled at school, a big part of the reason for that was because I needed to finish all my projects several weeks in advance because I couldn’t stand the stress of having essays that weren’t done yet.
After I identified what I had as an anxiety disorder, I started to talk about it. And after I started to talk about it, I begin to identify the several others in my family who also dealt with their own anxiety, tracking the signs that should have been apparent to me from the beginning.
From there, I wanted to move immediately from identifying my anxiety disorder to curing it. I didn’t want to be swallowed whole by it, like so many others had. While they might have been perfectly satisfied living their days in solitude, I didn’t want that to be me. When I looked into my future, I longed for the image of a highly-educated, greatly successful writer with a wonderful partner who supported me through everything, and the way I saw it, none of this would be possible if I was still dealing with my anxiety at the time.
So, the logical choice: I needed to get rid of my anxiety.
The next year or so was spent trying to find ways to do that, although many of them only made things worse. I would intentionally do things that gave me anxiety because I knew that these were things I needed to do. But once these things would inevitably put me into a panic attack, my insistence on simply banishing these feelings wouldn’t work, which would only make me more stressed, which would only make me feel bad that I was so stressed. I got to a point where I was stressed about being stressed.
Essentially, I was telling myself that I couldn’t be a person with anxiety, which didn’t really work out because I was a person with anxiety. And throughout all of this, I had my mother trying to tell me that my anxiety wasn’t actually something to be ashamed of, that it was just a part of me that I needed to learn to live with.
But I didn’t want to hear that.
I didn’t want to have anxiety.
But eventually, I did come to the conclusion that what I was trying wasn’t working, and I was willing to try something different.
So when I got a panic attack, I stopped fighting it.
When something started to stress me out, I would slow down and talk to myself before a panic attack could start.
I learned ways of doing things that worked best for me, and before long, I discovered that I was capable of doing everything. At one time, I would have thought that anxiety stood in my way of getting the future that I wanted, but it doesn’t; all it is is something that I need to keep in mind and work with so that it doesn’t slow me down or stop me.
I still have anxiety. I do everything that I can to keep it controlled, which includes eating healthy, exercising, taking supplements, and, of course, designing my thinking around it, but every once in a while, it still props up. It just doesn’t stop me from doing anything that I want to do.
I am not ashamed of who I am, or the struggles that I have dealt with. If anything, they have made me stronger, made me realize just how capable I am. My anxiety has made me realize that the things that I want in life are going to make me uncomfortable, and they’re going to scare me, but that isn’t a sign that I shouldn’t do it. It’s just a sign that I need to change the way that I do it.
And this is the part of the post where I speak directly to you, because this is my message to you: not to be ashamed of who you are. Mental illness is not something that you choose to live with, but it is not something that needs to hold you back or define you. You can do everything that you want to do, even with it. As cheesy as it might sound, your only limits are the ones that you set for yourself, and that is just as true for mentally ill people as it is for neurotypical people.
And maybe you don’t completely believe it right now; I get that. Maybe it’s still difficult to believe that you can conquer the world when it’s difficult to even get out of bed in the morning, or leave the house. And I’m not trying to say that all of this will happen overnight. It didn’t for me. It will take time, and it will mean forming new habits and ways of thinking and doing, but it can happen. And the most important step in starting all of this is refusing to think that there is something inherently wrong with you. There isn’t. You are not wrong, you are just different, and you are not the only one who is different. Once you reach out and talk to other people, you’ll begin to realize that you are not alone. You are beautiful and you are strong and you are so much more capable than you know.