If I Had Known What was Wrong With Me

If you have read any of my previous blog posts or if you know me personally, you may also know that I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and moderate depression at age 20. After a year of medication trials and errors, three different doctors, and a lot of research and education, I am now 22 and feel better than ever where my mental health is concerned. I have an understanding of my disorders, my symptoms, and how to better cope with these symptoms in healthy, useful ways. I am very open about this because I wholeheartedly believe that this is how we end stigmas- by being honest with ourselves and others. With that said, I wanted to take some time to dive into my personal past.

My struggles with anxiety and depression didn’t just pop up at age 20- they are things I had been unknowingly struggling with for most of my life. Because of this, I often wonder how different my life would be if I had known what was going on my brain earlier in life. Education on what’s going on inside my head has helped give me power over it; understanding it has made it easier to manage. Now, when my body completely freezes up when someone I don’t know sits next to me, I can tell myself that it is my anxiety and I am better able to work through that anxiety. When I feel myself spiraling down into a hole of sadness, I can recognize that it’s my depression creeping back into my mind, and take steps to prevent it from getting unmanageable. But what about when I didn’t know what was going on? What about those times I felt myself losing control and breaking down, and couldn’t seem to figure out why? What about those times I didn’t know what was wrong with me?

I truly believe that if I had been aware of these things earlier in life, my life would have gone much differently. I probably wouldn’t have checked my grades 3 times a day, because I probably wouldn’t have been so obsessed with doing everything perfectly. I wouldn’t have fallen apart at just the thought of getting a B, and I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about my grade on every little assignment. My social anxiety probably wouldn’t have been so crippling, so I probably would have had more friends. I would have ended my toxic friendships so much sooner, instead of letting them destroy my self-esteem and my trust in people. I’d probably be better at making friends now, because I would have learned how to do it then. I would have known why I couldn’t handle things out of order and panicked when there was a sudden change. The announcements of group projects wouldn’t have caused my body to be paralyzed in fear and my stomach to lurch. I wouldn’t have thought so much about self-harming and suicide. I wouldn’t have spent a period that lasted months of obsessively tracking my calories and eating as little as I could, which was sometimes less than 1,00 calories a day. I wouldn’t have spent day in and day out in my bedroom, secluded and isolated. I wouldn’t have felt so miserable all the time. But that’s just high school.

I can trace some of the symptoms I have now back even further than that. I remember having days in middle school where I felt such a deep sadness, but I couldn’t figure out why. Days where I didn’t want anyone near me and just wanted to be completely alone. Days where every little noise was just too much, and would drive me up a wall. I would have these intense stomach aches that would spring on so suddenly, that I thought it had to be the flu. I called my mom to pick me up on two different occasions when I was in the fifth grade, but as soon as I was in her car, the pain would completely disappear. As any mom would, she thought I was faking, and because I didn’t understand what was happening, I just started learning to cope with them. I would just curl up as much as I could, gripping my stomach or ask to go to the bathroom to just sit until the pain passed. I remember always feeling like people were talking about me or trying to “get me,” and being terrified that my friends were all planning to turn on me. I would lay awake at night because the pain in my stomach would be so bad. Often times, in the middle of the night, I’d go downstairs and kneel over the toilet, because I was positive THIS would be the time I’d throw up. Of course, nothing ever came up, so I’d just curl up and press my cheek to the cold, bathroom floor until the pain subsided enough to allow me to walk back up the stairs.

There are even times in elementary school that I remember experiencing symptoms, but never understanding what they were. I remember the fourth grade when we’d have color by numbers with math problems in each space. I never understood why I never could seem to get mine done. I did the math really fast, usually faster than anyone else, and would spend the rest of the time coloring, but still never get them done. Looking back now, I understand why. Most kids saw a cluster of spaces that were meant to be colored blue or red, and color the entire cluster, but I HAD to color each space individually because I have obsessive-compulsive symptoms within my anxiety. As a nine year old kid, I didn’t know this. I didn’t know I was coloring “wrong.” All I knew was how embarrassing it was for my teacher to say that I didn’t have my work done in front of the whole class. I knew that I felt ashamed and wanted to cry every time I couldn’t get them done. I felt so stupid, despite the fact that I could do my math the fastest. I remember having stomach aches almost every night in bed, but assuming my parents wouldn’t believe me, because no one’s stomach hurt that often. I remember laying in my bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, and rubbing my hand gently over my aching stomach until I could fall asleep. I remember being so afraid to ask to use the bathroom, that I would try to hold it until I got home. In the case of what elementary teachers refer to as “bathroom emergencies,” when I could no longer hold it, I would have to talk myself into asking and feel terrified when I finally worked up the courage to do so. I remember being in second grade, and every morning there would be math problems on the board to solve. I remember walking in one day and seeing the problem “6×7” and feeling like I wanted to cry, because I didn’t know how to solve it. This was the first day I was introduced to multiplication, but I didn’t want all my classmates and my teacher to think I was stupid, so I listened to conversations around me, and eventually figured out to add the number 7 six times. I think a lot of why I became so intelligent is that I was always so scared to ask for help, so I figured out almost everything on my own. Eventually solving new problems became easier and easier, that it seemed odd to me that others couldn’t get it.

So why am I telling this story? It’s not like it’s fond to remember- in fact, it makes me wish I could go back and give my younger self a hug and explain to her what was going on in her brain. I want to go back, knowing what I do know about my disorders, and do my life differently. A part of me even wants to cry for that little girl I used to be. I don’t tell this story to try and get people to feel sorry for who I used to be. I tell this story because I hope I can help other kids not have to suffer in silence like I did. The more we as adults are aware of how these symptoms can present in younger children and in teenagers, the better chance we have at identifying them for what they are when we see them. When we are better able to identify these symptoms, the better chance we have of helping these kids before they spin out of control. Before they self-harm, before they develop eating disorders, before their self-esteem is destroyed, before they get themselves in trouble, and even before they become suicidal. The more we understand about mental health, the more we can do to manage it and maybe even prevent it from getting any worse. The more we understand it, the easier we can identify it at younger ages to teach them how to cope with their symptoms in healthy, constructive ways. Most of us who struggle with mental health know that the more we can learn about our disorders, the better we can manage symptoms and prevent mental health relapses. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard at this at age 22, if I had known what was wrong with me back then.

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An Inside Look

As you are all aware, I try to be very open about my mental health. I’m honest about my diagnosis and delve into my past experiences with it without holding back. The reason I do this is to try and end stigmas surrounding mental health. When I am honest about what happens in my head, but still show that I am able to function normally (for the most part), it helps people to see that mental health is not who someone is- it’s just a small part of them. With that said, I’d like to use this post to dig a little deeper into the inner workings of my twisted brain.

When people hear the words “depression” or “anxiety,” certain thoughts and images tend to come to mind, but often times, it’s so much more than what we commonly understand. There are symptoms that you wouldn’t even think are a part of a disorder, but rather a mere flaw in personality. There are so many parts of life that can be impacted by these things that most people may not have noticed or even heard of. This post is about the deeper symptoms I experience as a result of my disorders, but also ones I have found, through research, to be quite common. My hope is that by learning these things, people can start to better understand people who struggle with these symptoms everyday of their lives, whether you notice them or not.

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To give you a better understanding of my personal story, my official diagnosis is Severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Severe Social Anxiety Disorder, Moderate Depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive-Like Symptoms. I don’t have OCD officially, but I do experience some of the symptoms that tend to be associated with the disorder, such as an intense need for order and an obsession with the feeling of my hands that can cause me to be unable to function if they don’t feel “right.” Because my anxiety affects me so much more than my depression (most days), my psychiatrist (who I no longer see) seemed to think that my anxiety fuels my depression. While each disorder comes with its own list of common telltale signs and symptoms, many of which I experience, there are also many that run much deeper than what you may see on the surface. There are also symptoms I experience that you may notice, but never realized were a part of a deeper problem. I would like to add that these are symptoms from my own personal experience. While I have found a lot of them to be quite common, I am in no way saying they affect everybody. This is purely based off of my own personal experiences. With that said, I’m hoping that me being open and honest about these things can help others better understand their own disorders or that of someone else.

The most noticeable one would be my picking. I have gotten a lot of comments on this, because it is obvious for a lot of people. What this means is that I pick at myself; I pick at the bottom of my feet, my cuticles, and my face. Others may pick other places, but these are my hot my hot spots. I have taken chunks of skin off my feet so big, that it hurts to walk. I have picked my cuticles and the skin around my nails until it bleeds. I run my fingers over my face to look for even the tiniest bump and claw at it until I can’t feel it anymore. There are times that I claw at my face so much, the skin becomes completely red and angry and even bleeds. A lot of times, I’m not even aware I’m doing it. I’ve since discovered that this is a side effect of anxiety, and I’ve realized I do it most when I’m feeling anxious. I know a lot of people find this habit gross, but I can’t seem to stop it.

Another thing I tend to do a lot is catastrophize. While this probably sounds familiar, I feel that not a lot of people really understand how it can happen. For me, it mostly comes from unanswered text messages. I will text a friend and he won’t respond, and I’ll start feeling like something is wrong. When I can’t take it anymore, I’ll send another one. When no response comes I start spiraling down by thinking I did something to make them angry. I analyze everything I’ve said to him in the past few days, looking for where I might have made a mistake. I’ll take every tiny little phrase that has the tiniest possibility of being the culprit to try to figure out where I went wrong. I start obsessing over how I can make it right, and drive myself crazy thinking they are mad at me and that I’ve ruined everything and they will probably never talk to me again. The hardest part is that the logical side of my brain knows there is most likely a simple, harmless explanation for this, but no matter how many times I tell myself that, I can’t seem to stop the part of my brain that is creating scenarios in which I am the bad guy who needs to beg for forgiveness. This can make life extremely stressful, especially when it’s multiple people at once. If I do finally get a text back, I am filled so much relief, it’s like I wasn’t able to breathe normally until that moment- like whatever was squeezing my chest has finally let go. But when they don’t, I get an overwhelming sadness that takes hold, because in my mind, I’ve lost another friend and it’s all my fault. Catastrophizing happens in all sorts of situations, but this particular one seems to happen the most.

Going off of that point, another thing I struggle with is abandonment. I am constantly afraid of losing the people of care about, whether it be literally or figuratively. I try extremely hard to keep my friends happy, but I mess up and make mistakes. When I do, I freak out at the thought of losing them and find myself consumed in a full blown anxiety attack. I often feel as though I am being replaced by someone “better than me,” or cut out of a group to be left on the outskirts. I got to extensive lengths to try and prevent this from happening, such as not using a certain spoon because a friend mentioned it was her favorite, or never giving my opinion on simple things like where to eat for fear of picking something someone else may not want. I adjust my lifestyle to fit others’ wants without even discussing it, even when I don’t want to. I try really hard to be this perfect friend in hopes I won’t lose someone, but I always seem to inevitably fail.

I get into a period of sensory overload where every little noise irritates me. Sometimes this gets so bad that someone clearing their throat or shifting in their chair makes me want to scream. The ticking of the clock gets so loud that I can’t hear anything past it. Every tiny noise sounds like thunder in my brain and I just want to yell at everything to just shut up. This tends to happen when I am extremely anxious or depressed, especially when I’m a store that’s more busy than usual or something along those lines. Noises make me feel like I’m going insane. It tends to go away within a few minutes, but that doesn’t make the minutes it’s there any easier.

I get physically exhausted. I’ve written a post on this before, but I still wanted to include it to reiterate how important this is. Having anxiety and depression is unbelievably draining. Simple tasks like getting dressed or taking out the garbage suck up all my energy. Too much time spent in an anxious state can wipe me out completely for the rest of the day. When I’m depressed, I’m too tired to eat or change my clothes or even shower. Every little task feels like running a marathon. When it’s really bad, I get muscle aches from being so tense. My legs ache to the point where walking is a pain and my head feels too heavy for my neck to hold up on its own. I am so drained, I don’t want to do anything but lay down and maybe watch T.V. Even sitting up feels too difficult. A lot of people will perceive this as laziness, but in reality, fighting a battle inside your mind sucks the life right out of you. It bothers me when people comment on how I’m not doing anything or that I just lay around, but some days I don’t have any energy left to give.

Mental illness can creep up in a variety of ways that run so deep, it’s amazing to learn that it is a side effect of a disorder. There are things you thought were just your personality that can end up being another symptom. The good news is, the more we understand about mental health and how it affects people in different ways, it’s easier to recognize the signs and do our best to maintain better control over them. I hope some people found this post helpful, whether it helps you discover things about yourself or helps you to recognize these symptoms in someone close to you. The more honest we are about mental health, the more we can destroy stigmas that hold us back.