On Mental Health

Gingham Dress

I had my first anxiety attack when I was 17. 

To this day, I remember so clearly what had set it off: I saw a girl from my class. Let me make myself clearer: I saw a girl who had been bullying me all year because she didn't feel I deserved to be editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, (despite the fact I worked so hard for it since my first year of high school and she didn't) and I happened to see her in the parking lot at school after stressing about a disagreement over what article should go on the front page. I'm sure there were a billion other factors at play that day - it was senior year, I had been stressing about SAT scores, final exams, my parents' expectations, etc. But for some reason, seeing her specifically made me seize up in terror. I could feel my lungs restricting and I couldn't take deep breaths. I could feel my heart racing but I did nothing to warrant that. At the time, I had no idea what was happening to me, only that after my best friend, Jen, helped removed me from that situation, I could feel myself calming down a bit. 

My family moved a lot when I was growing up and there were times in my life my family and I didn't have health insurance. Knowing as a kid that any illness could potentially make you a huge financial burden on your family, you learn to just not say anything about pain or sicknesses unless you feel like you're actually dying. Maybe that's why I didn't say anything to my parents and I downplayed the incident to Jen when she checked up on me the next day. "I'm fine now, so obviously it must have been nothing." 

I can't really tell you much about the next anxiety attack that happened because they all came when I was in college and eventually they started to blur together. College was hard. I had a boyfriend but we were clearly very mismatched for each other. I had a core group of friends but they brought out a very toxic side of me that I'm not proud of - not necessarily because they were toxic people themselves but I honestly felt I had to put on a specific face to stay in the group. People expected me to be a certain way and I hated disappointing people. I jumped through hoops and sacrificed my mental health in order to maintain my status among my peers. Sad to say, I wasn't even good at it.  My senior year of college was my worst. Everything I tried to hold together completely fell apart and I spiraled into a cycle of anger and guilt. The anxiety attacks happened almost every day. I knew I had to do something to change. 

After I graduated college, I got my first job on a political campaign. I ditched the people who brought out my negative side and made a whole new group of friends who were supportive, caring and open-minded. No more anxiety attacks and I thought I was better. I thought that whatever freak thing that was happening to me in college was just because I was unhappy and it's never happening again. 

After the campaign ended, I got a job at a trade association where the working environment was awful. The daily anxiety attacks started again. Luckily, I had more resources now to combat the issue. I had health insurance that covered mental health and I was a lot more open to seeing a therapist than I was in school. At a friend's suggestion, I saw my first therapist. 

I honestly wish I could have gone sooner. 

After I described the symptoms to her, she said, "It sounds a lot like you're having anxiety attacks to me." I was stunned! I finally had a name to that awful feeling in my body. Instead of feeling bad for myself, I just felt relieved. If there's a name for it, it's obviously because enough people deal with it, meaning I'm not alone. 

I feel so grateful that I had a support system of people in place who encouraged me to seek therapy or counseling but I know that not everyone has that. Like I said earlier, I was always worried about being a burden on others -whether emotionally, financially, or mentally, which was why it took so long for me to seek professional help. After so much encouragement from others, I went to therapy and not only did I receive mental tools to deal with my anxiety attacks, I became a better friend, a better girlfriend, and a better person. It made me realize that I was burdening myself and others by not seeking help. 

Jen told me that once I sought help, she was able to be a better friend to me. Before, I would call her in the middle of my anxiety attack and tell her everything I was feeling in an incoherent, stream-of-consciousness, and nonsensical way. She would try to help me calm down but frankly, when I'm like that, there's really no getting through to me. After talking with a therapist, I realized that when I'm anxious and overwhelmed, talking about it to someone during my anxiety attack actually ends up getting me more worked up instead of calming me down. I learned to use coping tools to calm myself before jumping on the phone with Jen and let her know how I'm feeling. Jen said that it's helped her be better at helping me. It's a good feeling knowing that my being better is helping others be better. 

The reason I'm writing this post today is because I want to help de-stigmatize mental health. A lot of people have been coming out and talking about their mental health statuses and I think it's a good thing. It took so long for me to talk to a professional about my issues because I never thought of myself as someone who needed "help," nor am I the type of person to ask for help of any kind, mental or otherwise. It wasn't until I went to therapy that I realized how badly I needed it. I am eternally grateful for the support I had to get the help I needed. Like I said, it's not something everyone has so I consider it such a privilege. I want all of my readers to know that if your going through something, I hear you, I feel you, and you are not a burden. It's not wrong to seek help and you're not alone.