Escaping my small Connecticut town and heading to UMass Amherst with 25,000 people brought on a whole dynamic to my unknown ‘feelings” of hopelessness and nervousness. I wasn’t worried about moving away from my family or passing classes. I was confident in my abilities to make friends and join an intramural basketball team. However, I still found myself spending many nights alone, listening to music, writing in my journals… I was not growing out of my 7th grade tendencies. I was plagued with fear all the time, and I was desperate to know– if I feel so happy, why do I feel equally as sad?
This is Elena. She is 28. Her story is below.
There isn’t a single day where I remember feeling “worried” for the first time. In fact, when I think back to my days in middle school, I thought I was relatively normal. I had a lot of friends, was in the drama club, was captain of the basketball team, had the eye of some cute boys. I was generally a happy kid! However, I’d come home from school and a wave of nerves would flood my body. Everything that felt normal during the day would literally haunt me after the distraction of school went away. Was my jumpshot improving? Could I remember all the lines in the play? Would the boy I like come on AIM tonight and talk to me? Would I pass tomorrow’s math test? These worries, that seem so little to someone else, were terrifying to me. My body would shake; I would sweat uncontrollably; I’d lock myself in my room and blast music and write the lyrics to help cope. My parents would ask if I was going to come spend time with the family and I’d decline, literally paralyzed in fear and only wanting to be alone. I kept daily journals, outlining the pain and agony I felt constantly. My family thought it was just part of being a teen. I felt this way all the way up until college.
My first week of sophomore year at college I had an “attack”. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stop crying. I went to health services, who said “your birth control must be messing with your hormones (insert eye roll emoji)”…. HUH? Really? You mean all this time I’ve been in panic because of birth control? I didn’t believe it. I went to my primary care physician who took thyroid tests and blood tests and and said I was fine. They switched my birth control. Pushed me out of the door and I continued to live my life the only way I’d known how all of these years–in darkness, feeling alone.
Senior year of college, I decided to do some soul searching and studied abroad in Greece. I took psychology with a Greek professor who was kind, funny, and reminded me of my own crazy Greek family back home. I felt comfort in her class, and I was learning so much from her. She spoke about things I had never heard of before– “mental health”… “emotional well-being”… “depression”…. “anxiety disorders”…… It was as if a light went on inside my brain. It was there, in a foreign country, where I self diagnosed myself with an anxiety disorder. I spoke with my professor… I rented books from the library… I googled… I had to know more. I was so thrilled to finally have an answer for how I’ve felt all of these years. Four months later when I returned home, I pulled out all the journals I had kept from over the years of being locked in my room. There were 11 of them. I read every single one, seeing the same triggers and words over and over again. I couldn’t believe I had a mental disorder, one that I’d been struggling with since I was 12.
I met my boyfriend (now husband) a few weeks after Greece, when I graduated from college. My anxiety was the same, but I was learning what my triggers were (large crowds, the possibility of running into people I knew from my past, being around people who were very drunk). I was also learning coping mechanisms! Working out at the gym, going for walks, cooking, and baking. All four of these things literally make up my core DNA of who I have become as a person, and I honestly wouldn’t have known had I not been searching for ways to cope with my anxiety. My boyfriend encouraged me to do the things I loved when I started to feel anxious, and he knew how to handle my intense, uncontrollable mood swings. Sometimes he would come home from work and find me on the couch in our apartment, crying for no reason, shaking with anxiety. I was so happy and in love, why was I still struggling? He told me to call a doctor, which I did. It took me some searching but I finally found a female doctor who listened to me, and diagnosed me with a General Anxiety Disorder. I am now on a low dose daily med along with regular exercise and a healthy diet. I am 28 now. I’ve been struggling for over 16 years.. and I now finally have it semi-under control.
I have my days. I have my weeks. Actually I just had a terrible week keeping my anxiety under control, but when I saw your post, I felt that maybe writing my story would help me be reminded of how far I’ve already come, and I hope it can inspire you and others struggling with mental illness to seek help, and never give up. I had doctors tell me the most ridiculous things, but I never stopped searching until I got my answers. It’s scary the way our society brushes off mental illness, and I hope I can inspire others to never stop looking for those answers. I am not defined by my anxiety. I am a sales woman, a baker, a cook, a crafter, a weight lifter and now a wife. I’m not my anxiety.