Generalized Anxiety Disorder feels like swimming.
You dunk your head underwater and become obsessed with the serenity and quiet of your own thoughts. For a moment, retreating within yourself feels like that sweet, ethereal peace at the bottom of a swimming pool—until you realize you can't breathe.
You're eye level to the sea, and you watch your friends on sailboats in the distance: tanning, laughing, some drawing circles in the water with their toes. And some days you can keep your head proudly above the waves and feel the sun on your face, but others it feels like there are invisible weights tied to your ankles. Some days it feels like you're barely floating by.
It becomes exhausting. Some people suffer for years on end without realizing the depth of their problems.
I used to call my panic attacks my "moments." Like "I'm just having a moment, I just need a second to collect myself." I started having these during my mid-teens, but I didn't quite realize what they were. The third-floor bathroom of my high school became my designated "moment" spot and an essential getaway from pressure-filled days. First, I would set my bag down on the windowsill and make sure I was alone. I'd then walk the length of the bathroom a few times, read the graffiti in the last stall (it was just a known thing that this was the graffiti stall), and fix my hair in the mirror while I adjusted my breathing. If someone walked in, I smiled and made small talk until they left. Once I deemed myself acceptable again to enter the public, I would joke to myself about how dramatic I was.
I wasn't being dramatic. There was something seriously wrong.
Honestly, if you get to know anyone - like truly get to know them - you'll find that they've been unstable at some point or another. They'll tell you about the time they went to therapy as a kid, about their close brush with depression, about that tragic memory that triggers them every time. Some people will even tell you about the time they almost lost a loved one in a battle with depression. These things are so unbelievably common.
The signs are so easy to miss. It could be something as simple as smudged mascara or an unmade bed. It could be someone playing with their hair (guilty), missing assignments (guilty), or an "I don't feel like going out tonight" text (guilty, guilty, guilty). Anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand. It's a lethal combination to be somehow worried about everything, yet too low-energy to change anything at the same time.
The longer a person suffers in silence, the worse it often becomes. "I just need a moment" turns into more. They turn into being afraid of parking lots and movie theaters and the grocery store. They turn into this creepy, unexplainable gut-feeling that something awful is about to happen. They turn into sleepless nights, shaking fits, and maybe even a trip to the emergency room. Perhaps one of the most petrifying side effects of G.A.D. is the physical side effects that manifest themselves: chest pains that are proven to mimic heart attacks, muscle spasms, blurry vision, shaking, sweating, and nausea. It tricks you.
Remember that mental illness is not artistic—it literally just sucks.
This is super important. Often, anxiety and depression are used as a trope by lazy Hollywood writers because they think it's a "quirky" personality trait for a character to have. This couldn't be further than the truth. One of the most important lessons that trained therapists focus on is the separation of the person and the disorder. Anxiety is not part of someone's personality—it is simply an unwelcome visitor.
Life is not "500 Days of Summer." Life is not "Silver Linings Playbook." I do not need a Clay Jenson to wallow in my beautifully tragic mind. I would not like a swelling indie song in the background of my breakdowns. Save it for the writers that can't discern between the mood swings of a manic pixie dream girl and a human being that needs psychiatric help.
I will also never feel sorry for myself. I know that having anxiety doesn't make me special. Having anxiety is as much as a personality trait as "liking dogs" or "being interested in travel"—meaning that half the population does too. While I wouldn't wish G.A.D. on anyone, I do take comfort in knowing I fight the same battle as family members, friends, and classmates. I fight the same battles as grocery store clerks, as my professors, as the Kardashians.
Though sometimes it's hard to keep your head up, remember that we never swim alone. We are like a jittery but powerful school of fish just trucking along in the big scary ocean of life.
This might sound crazy, but I've found that the best way to soothe my anxiety is to simply love it for what it is. Because it's made me realize so much about myself. It's made me a more compassionate person toward everyone I meet because I now know the hardest things we go through often happen right in our own minds. It's made me realize I can be strong in the face of adversity—like if I can go through this, I can pretty much deal with anything that comes my way.
I'm a true believer that something good always comes from the bad things we are prone to experience as humans. When anxiety grabbed me right by the hands and wouldn't let go, I simply let it take me on the journey I needed to be on all along. It's been a time of reflection, doubt, and self-love. It's given me the opportunity to learn amazing new things about myself every day.
I have full confidence that it will take me exactly where I need to go.