Anxiety and Depression; My Two “Best Friends”
by Alex Andrews
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My anxiety has always been a fear of all of the impossible things. On certain days, if you asked me for a list of everything I was afraid of, I would say, “everything.” Other days I would say, “Everything, plus everything that’s not included in everything.”
People have told me I am strong for fighting this anxiety day and night for as long as I have. I have never been able to believe that I am strong, or inspiring. I have felt weak in the face of my challenges, and I have felt fragile at the hands of my mental illness. It’s hard to feel powerful or brave when you’re crying on the bathroom floor or pushing caring people away. I have done nothing but play the cards I was dealt. Bad genetics or bad luck—it doesn’t matter; this is the game I am playing. I am not stronger than anyone else because I have pushed through my battles, because that is not the point. The point is that I’ve kept playing, kept pushing. Never once have I looked at my cards and decided to fold.
I have anxiety and I have depression; two best friends trotting around the playground buried somewhere in my mind. Ducking underneath the slides at the slightest of sounds and screaming when the other one scrapes their knee. Peering around corners and under the rope checking for dragons that don’t exist. Never turning their backs in fear of the things that lurk behind them.
Though I’m sure there was a time when I was not afraid, I have a hard time remembering it. I had my first panic attack in sixth grade. Like most of my panic attacks, it was seemingly random; no trigger, no big test about which I was anxious. I remember the school nurse giving me a glare for wanting to go home before the first bell had even rung. For a few years, nothing but the occasional panic attack bothered me. Nothing pointing to the storm that was brewing.
I was a competitive gymnast from age five to fourteen. Towards the last six months before I quit, I was facing a mental block on a skill that was so intense I was having daily panic attacks and breakdowns and begging to skip practice. I was constantly performing obsessive rituals like repeating movements and relying on obsessive counting to keep my overwhelming anxiety at bay at only thirteen. I needed constant reassurance from those around me, often asking the same question several times till I felt secure. I didn’t know that I was on my way toward a life with chronic mental health challenges.
My anxiety continued to slowly increase, without me ever really noticing until late in eighth grade. My panic attacks seemed to come more frequently and were worse than ever. I distinctly remember before school during eighth grade having such a terrible panic attack that it left me in the bathroom gasping for air with a group of girls around me asking what was wrong and if I needed a nurse. I locked myself in a stall and was fifteen minutes late to class that day. I don’t remember summer being anything spectacular, though I wish it had been. I would have had a lot more fun if I had known that that year would be to this day one of the worst years I’ve experienced yet. I wish I could say I had some sense of what was to come, but I did not.
Eventually I began to have weekly panic attacks that soon turned into daily panic attacks, which soon turned into ceaseless anxiety. I was left feeling as if I was drowning without the ability to come up for air. My lungs were always constricted and I didn’t take a real deep breath for months at a time. I felt physically sick every single day. I began to fall into a depression that left a lifeless lump in my place. Getting out of bed in the morning was almost impossible for me, it felt like each of my bones weighed fifteen pounds. I constantly missed school and, when I did make it there, I often had overwhelming breakdowns in bathroom stalls. Suddenly the A student and teacher’s pet I used to be was replaced by an F student who never answered any questions and barely passed tests. I rarely spoke to even my closest friends or family and, when I did, it was to make a snide or snappy comment. My anxiety often presents in anger and irritability, a trait I am not proud of but still seems to get the best of me. Pair this with the fact that I was a young girl missing out on the quintessential teenage life. I was jealous. Everyone around me became an unavoidable picture of all that I didn’t have. Those closest to me suffered through these years nearly as much as I did.
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My panic attacks caused me to dissociate in my own bathroom for the very first time. I would forget who and where I was and panic even more if my family came near me. This became a scary staple in my life. That is why I now call anxiety a shapeshifter. Most people will probably say that anxiety is feeling extra nervous and jittery. While this can be true, it is a million different things. It can transport me to a dream-world where I feel like nothing is real and I cannot wake up, it can create a fiery pit inside me that begs me to scream at those around me, it can force me to change my clothes several times to fend off the unlikely events that it tells me are bound to happen. It can take any form it pleases, changing bodies daily throughout my mind, leaving me exhausted and waiting for the other foot to drop.
When I was in elementary school, I had a friend who suffered from their own struggles with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Watching someone close to me go through the pain that mental illness brings urged me to make a promise to myself; if I ever started to feel that way, I would get help. To this day, I owe a large portion of my recovery to that promise. After months of exhaustion, panic, and watching myself fade away, I kept that promise and talked to my mother about finding a therapist. Within weeks, I had found a therapist I was comfortable with. Not long after that, I saw a psychiatrist to consider medication.
I slowly learned, and am still learning, that though I cannot always control the shapeshifter, or the impossible things that my mind convinces me are going to happen, I can control reactions to things; in my mind and going on around me.
I find that, in our times of greatest of pain, we discover exactly who we are—maybe not all at once, maybe in pieces. Maybe everything you have ever been and will ever be is scattered around the floor from being repeatedly broken and beaten down by fear. It might take months to pick up the pieces. It might take useless days when the glue won’t stick and everything falls apart all over again. The process will take time, but they say bones that break heal stronger than ever before. I have to hope that is the same for souls. In recovery, they will tell you that you are strong, and inspiring. While I don’t yet believe those things, I might one day.
I’ve found that there is a certain type of comfort in pain, in knowing that your future is set. In knowing that even when everything else is done and gone, pain will welcome you home with open arms. I have to hope that one day I will no longer look to pain for a place to sleep. While I am still scared of all the impossible things that live a few feet ahead of recovery. I have learned now, that not all impossible things are dark shadows or terrible things. Some impossible things are beautiful and amazing. Some impossible things will fill you with a light that you should never want to extinguish. Some impossible things are the same impossible things that will get you through the darkest nights and the hardest times.
I wrote much of this essay when I was fifteen and at the height of my struggles with mental illness. I am now eighteen. I now know, from experience that everything I said about recovery is true. It is not something that is one-and-done. Since my early adolescence, I have done intensive group therapy, tried several medications, concluded one-on one therapy, and then re-started again recently. Managing my mental health now means paying attention to its natural ebb-and-flow. It means keeping my promise to get help, whenever I need it. I am not “cured” of my mental illness, in fact, I don’t believe a “cure” exists. However, I have found things that help, I have found a support system that I can open up to, both professionally, and otherwise, and I now have the tools to manage my mental health in a way that works for me. Recovery is not easy. It is scary, a long walk, a silent battle, and a hard journey. I am not done walking, I am not done fighting, and I am not done losing, winning, and everything in between. I am not recovered; I will always be recovering.