I like counselors. They give me a sense of perspective. They put a label on my problems, have me read books, have me talk about my struggles and tell me I’m going to be okay. They don’t make me justify why I’m not okay. They don’t tell me an easy solution. And most of all, they don’t tell me to “just relax”.
My anxiety started in fourth grade. At first, it manifested itself into OCD. Every night, I’d have to organize my pillows a certain way, completing all these rituals that would take about an hour. Soon after, I started getting anxious in other areas of my life. I would get anxious at sleepovers and have to leave early. I’d get overwhelmed at school, so much so that during tests sometimes I would spend the majority of the allotted time just telling myself not to have a panic attack. I’d get anxious when my environment changed, when plans changed, when anything did not go exactly how I imagined it would.
The problem was that we—my family and I—had no idea where the anxiety was coming from. At first, we thought it was just my immaturity. Then, we reasoned it was my insecurity. Later, we figured just my Type-A, driven personality traits coming on too strong. Finally, we came to the scariest conclusion: it wasn’t coming from anywhere. It just happened. All the time.
I remember overhearing some of the faculty at my school all talking after I started crying one day randomly during class. They were saying how I just need to calm down, how I am such a perfectionist, how I need to take some deep breaths and “just relax”.
You know what two words I hate the most?
Don’t you think I’d relax if I could?
Do you think I enjoy being anxious?
Do you think I WANT to be this way?
I used to get angry. So angry at my teachers for telling me to calm down, so angry at my friends for not understanding that I can’t help the way I am, so angry that I had to deal with this, so angry that something serious was wrong with me, so angry about the lack of understanding everywhere around me.
We have awareness everywhere, now. People KNOW about anxiety disorders. They know they exist, they know what they are. We do these campaigns to raise awareness, we stand around and say we are with the mentally ill.
But awareness is different than understanding.
“Anxiety” has become such a colloquial term that when I tell you I’m anxious, you say, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”
But you don’t.
I have come to accept that no one will ever fully understand, except those who suffer from anxiety, too.
The anger sometimes manifests itself as jealousy. Since going on medication, I have experienced what it’s like NOT to feel anxious. What it’s like to wake up and not feel immediately overwhelmed by the day ahead, what it’s like NOT to be so distracted by worries and fears that productivity is minimal, what it’s like to be fully present in the moment. I get jealous of people who can live life naturally with this amazing sense of freedom.
I fight my anxiety every day, and I try my best not to let it take over. On the good days, I feel this sense of freedom. I feel joyful, capable, empowered. On the bad days, well, I look stressed.
Much of my anger is gone now, because I know the people who matter love me for me, the me that includes the anxiety, the me that includes the stress and the Type-A. I am okay because I know I am not alone.
In fact, much of the jealousy is gone, too, because, as much as I hate my anxiety, without it I probably wouldn’t have started this blog. Anxious people are incessantly encouraged to write out their anxieties. Freshman year of college, when my anxiety significantly flared, my worries became so overwhelming that I took to writing all the time, in a public space. Hence the blog.
Writing helps so much, as does getting enough sleep, working out, staying on top of my work, putting my life in perspective, taking a step back, calling my parents, writing, praying… It all helps. On good days, I’ve taken care of myself. But I don’t take care of myself every day, and so some days are better than others.
Because I wear my emotions so clearly, people can frequently spot when I’m having a not so great day. Every time someone says I look stressed, I immediately apologize or justify it.
I never tell them what’s actually wrong, because what would I say?
“Yeah, I probably do look stressed! Because I have a disorder! And today I’m just not covering it up as well!” That’s definitely not what people want to hear.
But what I’ve come to realize is that being able to be honest and open about how my day is actually going, how my LIFE is actually going, allows me to release so much of my anxiety. Hearing how other people struggle in their own intense ways, too, makes me feel less overwhelmed because I am reminded that I am not alone, that I can pick myself back up, and that I can be strong, because other people are, too.
That’s why I preach the power of vulnerability. That’s why I encourage authenticity. That’s why I crave real conversations. Because I know full well that they are incredibly therapeutic.
And that’s why I am terrified for college students everywhere. Every day college students are becoming less and less authentic, and every day more and more college students are being diagnosed with anxiety. It’s not a coincidence. Without authenticity and vulnerability, honesty and perspective, anxiety builds. Your struggles become so overwhelming because no opportunities exist for an honest release of what plagues your mind.
Increasing awareness on college campuses about mental illness is incredibly important. But awareness doesn’t mean anything if we aren’t engaging in authentic conversation. Awareness doesn’t mean anything if we don’t fight to make college a safer place to be vulnerable and real.
Instead of telling your friends to “just relax,” I encourage you to tell your friends to “just be”. Just be themselves, just be honest, just be real, just be open. Because that’s how they’ll relax. That’s how they’ll connect with you, and that’s how you’ll start to understand them. That’s how we’ll be okay.