Hi I’m Natalie, and I have anxiety. Chances are, if you’re already reading this, you already know that.
It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, and I wanted to take a few minutes to drive home the importance of mental health.
Because of my experiences with anxiety, it has given me the drive to speak up about the subject. This is one that is extremely important to me. Dealing with a mental illness is a huge struggle — whether you have anxiety, an eating disorder, or depression.
With anxiety, your brain continuously constructs the worst case scenarios, sending your brain into a frenzy of what ifs. While anxiety is the mental illness I continuously struggle with, many others deal with mental illnesses on a daily basis. For example, those who deal with depression often have trouble getting out of bed. Those with anorexia destroy their body in the attempts of staying slim.
However, there is still a stigma floating around about those who deal with mental illness. You know, that if they are feeling upset, then they should stop complaining and just suck it up. That those with anxiety should just stop “worrying so much.” That self care should be the last priority on your list — even if you’re throwing up because of anxiety.
Frankly, those stigmas should go to hell.
But, sadly, they do exist.
This is why every week needs to be Mental Illness Awareness Week. This is why I continuously stand on a soapbox to remind readers that it is okay not to be okay. It is okay to put yourself first, whether it may be avoiding a phone call to get extra self, taking a break to eat, or doing something nice for you.
Mental health is honestly so important, and I feel we as a society often forget that. Sure, we’ve come a long way in terms of awareness and acceptance. But, we still have so much more left to do. We still need to learn to listen. We still need to make mental health care more accessible to those who need it — no matter what their economic status may be.
But, most importantly, we need to get rid of all of the stigmas and speak up for those who struggle with mental illnesses every day. It only takes one voice to do so.
And, as for me, I’ve come a long way in my journey of managing anxiety. I’ve learned to manage it — well, somewhat. I’ve learned to put myself first and not let others tell me otherwise. And I am extremely lucky. Over the past two years, I have developed a cast of characters who have been there for me as methods of support and shoulders to cry on. I thank each and every one of them.
And, for those who struggle with a mental illness, please note this: you are not alone. You can get through this. Why? Because you are strong. And, as long as I am on this earth, you will always have someone to listen.
So, while this week is Mental Illness Awareness Week, let’s try to be more aware every week.
For those who are lucky to not have to experience mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or an eating disorder, I consider you to be lucky. There are so many things that you may not know – or even understand what it’s like to have to deal with the effects of one.
I have anxiety. Having anxiety means overthinking everything – from the way that you said hello to someone, to how you worded that text message, or why the guy that you like isn’t texting you back – the thoughts circling around your mind like an endless drain. Having anxiety means having panic attacks – often over something small or nothing at all. Having anxiety means living in a constant state of worry, even though you may have nothing to worry about. Having anxiety is often being scared over things that seem small to the naked eye, and not being able to do something because of that fear. And that is only giving you the Reader’s Digest version of what is truly like to deal with anxiety.
With that being said, there are so many things that someone who doesn’t have anxiety may not get. For example, if they see someone on the street having a panic attack because they are about to go on a date with someone and they are afraid of what may happen, they may think that they are crazy or over reacting.
I can assure you that they are not. I can simply say that it’s their anxiety. And, no they are not overacting. They are not doing it to get attention. They are not saying that so you can drop whatever it is you are doing to get your attention and affection. And yes, they are doing the best they can to control it, but sometimes their very best isn’t enough.
They are saying that because their brain is telling them that there is a danger of some sort. They are feeling that way because the fear of doing whatever has taken over their body like a parasite, and sucked everything else out of them. They are doing that because they cannot help it, and if they could, do you really think that living their life in that constant state of mind?
I don’t think so.
And the same thing applies to those who have other mental illnesses, although I myself can not speak to what it’s like to deal with those on a daily basis. I can tell you this, though: every day, someone with a mental illness is doing the best that they can to float through daily life. And, you should understand that, and remind them that they are awesome, and give them a hug.
May is Mental Illness Awareness Month, and while it is great to have a whole month devoted to it, I think that every month should be. Anyways, I digress.
Mental illness has come a long way from being damning to being accepted. However, negative stigmas still exist. And, they need to not.
There are so many, myself included, that deal with the effects of a mental illness – whether it may be trauma, anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression. We struggle, and it’s much easier to throw in the towel instead of facing it. But, so many of us choose to be strong, and choose to say I’m broken, but I am not going to let it break me. And, with each passing day we get better. We repair the damage, bloom, and then we grow.
And, with all of us united as one, we too can end the stigma that comes with mental illness.
To all of those who are still struggling, please know that it is okay not to be okay. It is okay to say I need help and to accept it. It is okay to talk to a therapist, who will help you get you back on your feet again. It is okay to cry when you need to. It is also okay to talk about all of the things that are bothering you.
And, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Let’s use the month of May to educate ourselves and others about mental illness and what it is like to have one. Let’s change that stigma and talk about the issues that surround those who suffer with it day in and day out. Let us come together and bridge the gaps, so that no one is truly alone.
This will be the first post in a series throughout the month to spread awareness for mental illness, particularly anxiety. Stay tuned as we fight to #endthestigma
The following is the transcript from a sermon I delivered at Luther House Yale on Nov. 28, 2016. A special thank you to Rev. Kari Henkelmann Keyl for allowing me to come and speak about my experiences, as well as the advice to make it the best as I can. Also, thank you Paul for the feedback and advice to compose it, as well as my friends who came to support me and listen to me share my experiences.
A fun fact about me is I am a huge Elton John fan. What makes his music so legendary is the combination of beautiful piano accompaniment, along with poetic lyrics written by songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.
While I think all of the lyrics he pens have the power to stay with you, there is one lyric in particular that has always stayed with me, which are “I won’t break, I won’t bend, but someday soon we’ll sail away from innocence and the bitter end.”
The lyrics are from the song “Simple Life,” a song from 1992’s The One, and something that I always found to be inspiring and comforting while dealing with my anxiety symptoms.
I have dealt with anxiety for over a year now. While I was always the slight bit more anxious than the average person throughout my life, it had skyrocketed throughout my last two years at college. Between taking upper level classes and working two or three jobs along with online internships, I suddenly felt a crushing weight of anxiety, a reminder that I was stuck forever in a state of unhappiness.
Suddenly, my personality changed. I was crying constantly, just because I felt like I could not breathe from the weight of my ‘to-do’ lists. I had lost a ton of weight, just because my stomach was constantly tied up in nervous knots for me to eat. I was constantly on edge, and something as so small as a friend not calling me back at a certain time would lead to an argument.
I was heading down an unhealthy road, and I felt like I was powerless to stop it.
Of course, I tried to change things. I cut down my hours at one of my jobs. I became a slave to using a day by day planner in the attempts to stay organized. However, when those things didn’t work, I went to the counseling center on my campus. It was then I was formally diagnosed with anxiety.
Therapy, at first anyways, was never something that I made a priority. I would skip out on therapy as much as I could, because I was afraid that the people on my campus would judge me for seeking the help that I desperately needed. I would have a hard time scheduling a therapist appointment because I constantly had other things that needed to be done, so therapy ended up on the back of the list.
And, whenever I was in the therapist’s office, I often felt that I was on the road to failure. You see, my therapist had a specific game plan. If this did not work, try this, etc. And when all else failed, I would be given anxiety medications, something that scared me.
During this time of turmoil, my relationships had suffered as you can imagine.
However, the biggest relationship that suffered was the one that I share with God. I constantly questioned whether or not God loved me.
If he did, then why was I so anxious? Why was I constantly crying in a corner? Why couldn’t I gain control of my life? So, instead of turning to God, I turned against God.
Whenever something would go wrong in my life, I would blame God instead of asking for the strength that I needed to get through it.
Little did I know, in a strange way, God had actually given me the strength to get through it.
He gave me the strength to try a new therapist, who approached therapy in a different way, one that was more effective.
God gave me the desire to change my thoughts, to face things that I never wanted to face.
God had given me the motivation to get better, which was a year long process of self reflection, of changing how I would talk to myself, and finally learning how to say goodbye to things that were toxic to me.
God had given me the strength to figure out that writing in a journal, or listening to music is one way that I could stop a panic attack in its tracks.
So, in some way, shape or form, I guess you can say that I in fact got the strength that I desperately craved from God.
It just needed to start with me.
I wish I could sit here and tell you that I’m cured from all of my anxiety symptoms. I wish I could tell you that I beat anxiety, kicked its butt and never have to worry about it effecting it again.
That is not how anxiety works. Somedays, I have good days. Somedays, I have bad ones. And, at the end of the day, as long as I learn how to take care of myself when I need to, I think that is pretty good progress.
Anxiety will always be a part of me, although I would like to point out that it not the whole part of me.
I am a lot of things-a journalist, a classic rock affenicado, a friend, a daughter, a student, and a woman. However, I am not the panic attacks that I suffer from. I am not the anxious tears that I cry. I am not the anxious thoughts that I radiate from.
And, as I sit here tonight, I have a lot of things to thank God for.
I thank God for giving me the courage to deliver this sermon, because public speaking is something that scares the living crap out of me.
I thank God for all of my support systems cheering me on, such as my friends, my dog and family.
I thank God for getting me through four and a half years of undergraduate education, with three semesters on Dean’s List, being able to be in an English Honor society, and for the chance to take classes that helped shape me both as a journalist and a person.
I thank God for being able to have a therapist that truly cares about me, and points me to the right track.
I thank God for learning how to self care, and realizing that I am worth it.
I thank God for my ex-boyfriend, who despite all that went wrong between us, supported me through every panic attack I had, and helped encourage me to become stronger and to branch out to new experiences.
I thank God for my mother, for her countless sacrifices as a single parent, both personal and economical. Thank you God for teaching me to be strong like her. Thank you Mom for paying for my undergraduate education, so I can graduate debt free, for reading every mediocre article I have ever written, and being a pillar of support throughout my life.
But, most of all, I thank God for being able to say that it has been over four months since my last panic attack, and to be able to quote my favorite singer in saying “I’m still standing, better than I ever did, feeling like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.”