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 1,000 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.