Since childhood, I’ve never been alone. I never realized it, but it was always there: in the moment I woke up in elementary school from a dead sleep, paralyzed in panic over an overdue library book, in the times I found myself frenzied over being late, in the moment I left my senior celebration early because I didn’t want to be around people.
For my whole life, I’ve been followed by anxiety.
Growing up, I always thought I was normal. If you’d have asked me, I’d have described myself as “type A,” a little “high-strung,” a “perfectionist.” I would have told you it was a good thing. I would have told you I was the type of person that got things done, that over-achieved, that went the extra mile.
I would have believed myself.
In junior high and high school, the perfectionism became a problem. Worries over assignments turned into tears and long hours of stress. By the end of senior year, these episodes became almost weekly occurrences. I would come home, break down, try to talk it out with family, and end up going to bed early, hoping that sleep would finally give my mind some peace. I catastrophized constantly, believing every test grade would have a larger-than-life impact. I believed the graduation of my friends would lead to the end of my social life. I believed the worst was always around the corner.
I still never really realized that anything was wrong with me.
For some strange reason, coming to college temporarily stifled the stresses. Freshman year went surprisingly smoothly, and I chalked the stresses of high school up to the pressure of getting into college. Now that I was at my dream school, I’d be able to calm down. I believed I had moved on, that I was a different person. In an application for a campus club, I even wrote about overcoming my “worries,” as I called them. “It’s hard to break the habit of constant questioning, of worrying, stressing, and obsessing, but I’ve already come such a long way,” I wrote.
This school year was different. I realized something was wrong.
I came back to school sophomore year enthusiastic and ready for another year, but the enthusiasm quickly faded. I was going to the gym daily, but despite being tired, I couldn’t sleep at night. My moods were off, and I found myself feigning enthusiasm for things I used to enjoy. I attributed all of these things to the “sophomore slump.” The newness of college wears off after freshman year, I told myself. It’s okay to feel a little out-of-sorts. I did begin to notice, however, a growing stress over social interactions. I’d always thought of myself as outgoing, but I found myself avoiding new crowds of people and unfamiliar situations where I knew no one.
One night, I had the closest thing I’ve ever had to a panic attack. It started with something small that had upset me, but spiraled quickly out control. I was short of breath and felt sick to my stomach. It was like the world was closing in on me while my mind ran a million miles an hour, ricocheting wildly off of the walls of my skull. I felt crazy. I didn’t know which feelings were real and which weren’t. I was having bizarre thoughts, uncharacteristic thoughts, and I didn’t know how to stop them.
Finally, I realized something was really, truly wrong.
As of about two months ago, I finally came to the realization that what I’ve been dealing with all my life isn’t a case of a high-achiever mindset or of a love of perfectionism. I’ve been dealing with anxiety, and more recently, situational depression related to it.
Anxiety is all-consuming. It can affect your relationships, your work, your leisure time. It can tell you things that aren’t true, and unknowing of its power, you believe them. It’s something separate from yourself, an outside force that distorts reality.
After beginning to work through all of the triggers of my anxiety and learning how to manage it, I’ve realized that all my life, I’ve never seen clearly. If you have glasses, you know what it’s like when you look over a pot of boiling water. Your glasses fog up. You can’t see anything. Now imagine that you try to do to your calculus homework after that. Maybe you can see a little, but it’s awfully difficult to see what’s happening. Is that a five? Am I supposed to divide or multiply? And you’re constantly reminded of your glasses and the fog. It’s always there, always present, and clouding everything.
This is how I lived the first nineteen years of my life.
I’m sharing my experience because I have the strong feeling that I’m not alone. I know there are some of you who will think that I’m crazy, or you won’t be able to relate. There are others of you, more importantly, who will read this and realize that in some small or some larger way, it reminds you of yourself.
I’m writing for you.
I want you to know a few things. First, you aren’t weird, different, or the only one who feels as you do. Many people struggle with feelings of anxiety, in varying degrees. Whether people are willing or able to admit it, anxiety is a common problem, especially among college students, I suspect. You’re not alone. The issues affecting those with anxiety can range from body image to test anxiety and everything in between.
Second, you don’t have to keep living with it. Waking up frequently at night in a panic isn’t just something that happens. Feeling extreme anxiety before every exam isn’t just part of college. We all have moments of anxiety or stress, but when it begins to affect how you live your daily life, it’s not okay anymore. I didn’t realize for most of my life that what I was grappling with wasn’t a personality quirk or a given, but an outside force that I was allowing to affect me in a profound and even crippling way.
If you need to, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Sometimes it takes someone else to help us know ourselves and how we think. If you’ve let your glasses stay foggy for that long, you might not know how to make them clear again.
Finally, anxiety is an obstacle, not a limit. Learning to recognize anxious thoughts and behaviors and identify them as such is empowering. It allows me to say I am a person who sometimes has anxious thoughts, not a person who is consumed by anxiety.
I think of it as the difference between a tiny lily pad floating in a giant pool of water, and a tall, tall sunflower whose leaves collect a drop or two of water when the morning dew settles. When the night falls, and when the droplets of dew cling, I can shake them off. I’m not consumed by the anxiety, not drowned by it. It’s only a small part of how I live my life, a life that I hope will only become more rich and clear as I am finally beginning to see clearly for the first time.
If you have similar experiences or if this touched you in any way, I would love to hear about it. Please comment below.