The year is 2005. I’ve just started high school. I was accepted into an accelerated program at a school in a different neighborhood than my own. I don’t know anyone there. I have no friends. I eat lunch alone, and talk to hardly anyone. For a thirteen year old, this is scary. My hands shake in class. My heart races. Sometimes, wracked with fear at the prospect of going to school and being alone all day, I become sick. I go to school anyway. I’m more scared about missing opportunities, missing education. If I don’t do well in school, something terrible might happen. Eventually, I make friends, and my symptoms abate for some time.
I begin having trouble again sometime around my senior year in high school. College application season is upon me and I am feeling so overwhelmed. I sometimes struggle to breathe, I often feel nauseated, and have agonizing stomachaches. I have trouble sleeping, and suffer from chronic headaches. I sometimes feel like I am dying. I struggle to make decisions about where to apply, what major to apply under. I feel like if I make a mistake, it will ruin the rest of my life. I wake up from nightmares with a racing heart. I schedule an appointment to talk to my doctor about these symptoms. My doctor tells me there’s nothing wrong with me. I need to stop worrying, and to stop complaining about symptoms she can’t find a cause for. I am overwrought. I need to calm down. Also, because she is an adolescent pediatrician, she tells me I cannot come back to her next year, when I am eighteen. So I leave the doctor’s office worse than I came in. I still feel sick all the time, and now I also think my doctor hates me. I am nauseous and skinny and exhausted and somehow I power through.
I start college the next fall and again am terrified about not knowing anyone. I take on too many responsibilities, take too many units, start a new job and work all the time. For the first time, I have night terrors. I don’t talk to anyone about it. There doesn’t seem to be any point. I eventually make some friends, work fewer hours, and take fewer units, and the night terrors go away. I’m in control again.
The year is 2014. I have just graduated from college. Things aren’t going the way I expected them to. I struggle to get a job, and when I get one, it doesn’t pay me enough to cover student loan payments as well as rent. I move back home with my parents. I rarely see my friends. I am again experiencing persistent nausea, stomachaches, insomnia, exhaustion. My heart races while I lie in bed and think about every mistake I’ve ever made, every dumb thing I’ve ever said, every way that all my peers are doing better than me in every respect. Things aren’t going great. I go to see my doctor. For the first time, I’m offered a possible diagnosis: my doctor tells me my symptoms seem to indicate generalized anxiety disorder. I ask what I can do. She tells me it would take a long time, and a lot of work, to get me into group therapy. She’s not sure it would be covered by my insurance. I’m not in danger, I’m just uncomfortable. She recommends some podcasts, and tells me they should help. They don’t. I spend most of that year in my bed or at work. I don’t socialize. I cry a lot. I lay in bed shaking and convinced I’ve ruined my life forever somehow.
I decide I need to fix everything I’ve done wrong in my life. I majored in the arts and that was stupid so now I need to do something to make myself financially safe again. I apply to law school. I’m accepted. I start in the fall. Funnily enough, law school doesn’t do a lot to help my anxiety. It actually makes it worse. Who would have guessed? One day, while driving to school, sweaty and anxious and stressed, I feel abruptly nauseous and pull over. I vomit in the street. And for some reason, that’s the moment I decide that my anxiety is not normal. There’s something wrong. The vomit confirmed it. I need to do something about it.
I start to look at myself, at the way I think, at where my life is. I don’t think I had good reasons to go to law school. I drop out after one semester with no regrets. With help from a friend, I start looking for a therapist. Luckily for me, I have a new insurance provider now, and a new doctor. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of patience, and a lot of crying to my best friend on the phone but I find a therapist who I love, who takes my insurance. Therapy is hard. Sometimes it is overwhelming. For a while, my anxiety gets worse. But then it gets better. My therapist teaches me to look at my thought patterns, to look for my triggers. It helps.
I want to make it clear that therapy didn’t make my anxiety go away. I started therapy a year ago and I’m still working. It’s a long process. I don’t think I’ll ever stop experiencing anxiety entirely, but therapy allowed me to live a life that’s not ruled by anxiety. My decisions need not always be determined by my fears and anxieties. When I have bad periods, I have self care strategies. I have someone to check in with me, to remind me of those self care strategies when I need them. I have worksheets printed out with helpful flow charts, and lists of maladaptive thought patterns. I have someone to remind me to argue with my anxieties, and to challenge my fears, and to take care of myself because practicing self care is not weak or indulgent, but simply prudent. I’m back in control, and I’m making my own decisions now. And it feels good, usually.