I Grew Up Struggling With Anxiety But I Wouldn't Change A Thing

I Grew Up Struggling With Anxiety But I Wouldn't Change A Thing

Learning how to overcome your struggles is the greatest lesson in life.

A few nights ago, I was laying in bed on FaceTime with my long distance boyfriend.

"If you could go back to a certain point in your life knowing what you know now, when would it be and would you change anything?" he asked.

I thought for a moment about the mistakes I had made and the hard times I had gone through.

"4th grade," I answered.

He asked why and I tried to gather my thoughts to explain.

4th grade was when I started exhibiting signs of anxiety but had no idea what it was. I was in the nurse's office almost every day with a stomachache or would have to leave class because I was having a panic attack and couldn't breathe.

Back then, I couldn't understand what was wrong and neither could anyone else. I remember having tests done on my heart, scans taken of my stomach and bloodwork done to try and figure out what was wrong with me. Being only 9 years old, it made me feel like a freak. None of my friends had these issues and though they tried to understand, I don't think they really did.

I remember my 4th grade teacher calling me out and making fun of me in front of the entire class, not hiding the fact that there was something wrong with me.

"Can you breathe alright over there, Megan?" she'd ask, a smirk on her face.

Everyone in the class would look at me and I couldn't help but know that they were judging me. I was accused of being a lazy, attention-seeking student even though I was in an advanced reading program, did well in school and was generally a shy, nervous person in front of others.

As the years went on, I got better at controlling my anxiety, but I still had breakthroughs where I couldn't. In 5th grade, my best friend and I went to see Ratatouille and we had to leave because something triggered me into a panic attack.

"At least I wasn't afraid of a movie about a stupid rat," she later threw in my face during a fight.

I couldn't explain to her that the movie probably wasn't the problem.

All through middle school, I did my best to control the feelings I had, and it worked. I found a group of friends and felt normal. When I hit high school, I finally felt under control. My anxiety wasn't a visible thing anymore; I could hide it well enough for people to think I was normal.

Going into my junior year, I had a panic attack the weekend before school and had crippling anxiety the first few weeks for reasons I still don't understand. At the beginning of August my senior year, I had something similar happen. I dropped out of my last class of the day and took an off-block because I literally couldn't handle being at school. I would go to my mom's office at her job and sit there to watch her work, blankly staring at the wall and wondering what was wrong with me.

It wasn't until my sophomore year of college that I finally forced myself to fix it. I had taken enough psychology classes (it's my minor) by then to have an idea that I probably had an anxiety disorder. I saw a psychiatrist at the student health center who later diagnosed me with a smattering of things, one of which happened to be anxiety.

"Did you experience stomachaches a lot as a kid?" she asked during my first appointment.

I stared at her. How on earth did she know?

"Did you ever have to leave class because you couldn't handle being there?"

As she went through the list of questions, I realized that everything that I had gone through was because of my anxiety.

Looking back, I realize how much easier it would've been for me if someone would've known that what I was dealing with was actually a problem, not something I was making up to get out of schoolwork or to get attention.

Growing up having to deal with something that you don't understand is one of the most difficult things out there. When my boyfriend asked me what I would go back and change, I said something that even surprised me.

I would go back to 4th grade but I wouldn't take my anxiety away. I would simply give myself the ability to understand what it was and how to cope with it. I would stand up to the people who made fun of me and made me feel like a pariah. I would explain to them what it actually was. Despite having anxiety, it's a part of who I am and who I have become.

If someone would've told 4th grade me that I would have moved 6 hours away and pursued a degree where I have to conduct interviews almost every day, get up and share pitches in front of newsrooms and have my writing published for many people to critique, that alone probably would've given me a panic attack.

Changing something about yourself might make your life easier, but it also erases everything you struggled through to get to where you are. Because of what I went through, I can now help other people cope with the same difficulties. On top of that, it gave me an unwavering strength to get through anything I set my mind to.

I hate that I had to go through something on the most difficult path, but let me tell you, it really feels rewarding when you reach the peak of the mountain and get to look back and see everything you overcame to get there.

Cover Image Credit: Megan Crabb

Popular Right Now

Kevin Love's Essay About Mental Illness As An Athlete Is Groundbreaking

"I just never thought it was for me."

On March 6th, basketball player Kevin Love's essay Everyone Is Going Through Something was published on The Players' Tribune website. I'm not someone who really cares much for sports, but I'm a huge supporter of mental health.

Love talks about mental health, but also the stigma around it; especially for boys and men. "You learn what it takes to "be a man." it's like a playbook: Be strong. Don't talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own." Mental health doesn't discriminate. Whether you're white, black, a Muslim, a man or woman 43.8 million adults experience mental illness.

The way Kevin Love explains what his panic attack felt like, and how "I thought about mental health as someone else's problem...I just never thought it was for me." This whole essay is relatable and important for everyone to read. People who have mental health problems, and people who don't. It's not someone else's problem.

"It's hard to describe, but everything was spinning like my brain was trying to climb out of my head."

"You're about to die. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe."

Both of those descriptions about his panic attack reminds me of when I first had my panic attacks. I was in high school and we thought it was severe back pain. I would lie on my wooden bedroom floor and stare at the ceiling trying to regulate my breathing.

This is an essay that can help change people's perspectives on the mental health stigma. More celebrities and big figures need to talk about their personal battles with mental health. Young people look up to these people, like Kevin Love, and need to know they're not alone battling this battle.

People think other people are going to look down on you because of your mental illness. Because you have panic attacks and/or anxiety attacks. Kevin Love is human. He thinks just like we do. Just because he is a professional basketball player doesn't make him any different than we are.

"Mental health isn't just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn't have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing."

I think one of the most important parts of this essay is how Love handled the aftermath of this panic attack. He didn't act as if it wouldn't happen again, and as if it was nothing. Kevin Love's team helped him find a therapist to talk about his problems. He faced them.

"...creating a better environment for talking about mental health..that's where we need to get to."

Kevin Love might be a professional basketball player yet he is also human who deals with mental health like the rest of us. Like he said in the essay being public about personal mental health is a person's choice to be public about it -- but how we need to make our surroundings a place to talk about mental health.

If you haven't read his essay, give it a read.

Mental health doesn't care if you're a student, have a 9-to-5 job, or a professional basketball player. This is an essay everyone needs to read.

Cover Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Exposure Therapy Works

How I became a Champion.

To Be a Champion

It was the summer after my freshman year of college, or as I like to call it the summer after rock-bottom. The whole year was pretty traumatizing, but second semester was where everything changed. I still don’t know why it happened, but it did. Every night was a sleepless one. Eventually, I became numb; I just remember not feeling anything, not being sad, not being happy–just being nothing.

Right now, I’m about to get on a plane, pretty much forced by my therapist. I dreaded this for days on end, but here I was, and I had no choice but to do it. Everything felt like a challenge today: get to the airport, go through security, wait at the gate, and face the fear of going back to where it all went bad.

I sat at the gate for what felt like an eternity and a half. I ripped off parts of my nails, went on my phone to check Facebook and Instagram. I took the time to think about what my dad says whenever he goes on a plane. He says he thinks of the time as a period to relax. I slid off my shoes, each one with the other foot and felt them breathe. I was flying to Michigan from New York (a.k.a. the only place I want to live for the rest of my life) as an exposure task just for the weekend.

Dr. Clark Goldstein, my therapist, has been assigning me exposure tasks each week for the last 3 months. Exposure tasks are basically things I have to do that make me so freaking anxious. Then, Dr. Clark makes me sit there and deal with it. He’s a sweet man always with a Kippot on his head. The first few meetings we did small things like shaking my head back and forth really fast.

“Now I want you to sit in your chair and put your head in between your legs. Let it hang, and when I say go you are going to lift your head up as fast as you can.”

“Ok, I’m ready.”

I sat with my torso and head down, it wasn’t that bad. I did feel my head getting heavier though. After what I think was about a minute I heard, “Go!” I flung my body up as fast as I could.

“Good, sit there for a few seconds…now, what symptoms do you feel?”

“Dizzy, nauseous, a little out of breath.”

“Okay, good and now on a scale from 1-8 how anxious did this make you and how close was it to a panic attack?”

“Um, 6 and 4.”

After rating it, he would give me more exercises and I would have to do them 3 times a day.

After a month of that, which at the time I felt was nonsense, he made me recall where many of my panic attacks took place over the past year, and we wrote them down even if I had no idea why I panicked there. I have generalized anxiety disorder, as well as panic disorder which means its completely random, and I don’t know what causes it, it actually sucks.

He made me do things like going to a fancy restaurant, to watching a scary movie, to going on a rollercoaster, to taking a train to the city by myself, to this. The biggest exposure task I’ve done. Going back to Michigan and staying by myself, sitting with my anxiety by myself and have panic attacks by myself. This was the last exposure before the start of my sophomore year.

My thoughts start to overflow my mind; it’s hot in here. The beat of my chest picks up. I unclip my bra and slyly stick it in my backpack. I remember mom visiting me last year and yelling at me for doing this at a restaurant. Something in my head told me it would make breathing easier if there was nothing squeezing my ribs together.

My family was used to me acting up in places. Flapping my arms, panting, finding something cold to rub on my chest, basically making a complete fool out of myself. Neither of my parents REALLY understood my anxiety. Sometimes, it felt like they thought I was just overreacting. I have been this way since I was 9, but it has never been as bad as it was last January.

I wonder why it had to happen that way. A way that made everything in the world seem like a thing, it was just there. Nothing appeared to have a purpose. I was scarred, and it made me terrified to go back. It’s time to board.

I find my seat. The loudspeaker comes on and starts talking about all the procedures that we need to know in case of an emergency. I have probably been on over 100 planes and heard that schpiel a billion times, but if something ever happened, I doubt I would know what to do.

My feet go numb from hanging off the seat, and they get that pins and needle feeling, which at this point I don’t really mind as it’s something to keep my mind focused on. It’s something to distract me from the fact that I was going back. Back to the place where I was at my lowest.

I put in my headphones and tried to choreograph a dance for 3 girls on a stage in my mind. I have watched the show “Dance Moms,” as well as dance videos on YouTube for years and I love it. Sadly, I’m not so coordinated, but I love to dance for fun anyway. By that, I mean in my room in front of the mirror.

I imagine the three girls each in a white dress doing pirouettes and leaps all across the floor. At the same time, I’m thinking about my breathing and make sure it’s steady.

My mind drifts; I pick up my backpack, reach into the front pocket, take out a pack of gum, bite half of it and stick the other half back into the pack. I told myself that I was only allowed one more piece on the flight. It’s not that I like the taste of it; it is more of a safety thing. I had convinced myself that it helped, but Dr. Clark has made it perfectly clear that it doesn’t.

I think about one of the many times I had to leave a party last year, because I didn’t have a piece of gum. I would ask the girls I was with and then the few boys around me if they had a piece, and when they didn’t, I would Uber home.

I remember one time we were at a party with a fraternity we didn’t usually mix with. A boy was holding something that looked weird, so I asked what it was and he put it to my nose. It was smelling salts. I walked around asking for gum– well more like begging. I told people what had happened, looking for some comfort; I got the same response from 3 boys. A laugh.

“Someone put smelling salts to my nose.”

The kid laughed.

“Who cares? You can literally buy smelling salts from Walgreens.”

I didn’t care where you could buy them. I didn’t have any gum, and to me, that meant I was not safe.

We take off and I think the hardest part is done. The anticipation is what gets to me the most. I made it onto the plane, so I was going to be okay. But this time is different, because I’m going to be alone all weekend.

I am on this plane alone.

I will land and be alone for three days.

I will be anxious. I will panic. I will throw up.

I will embarrass myself.

I won’t be able to go back to school, I will have to stay home with Mom and Dad, and I will have failed.

I know I have to fight my anxious thoughts.

“Nothing bad is going to happen, I can do this.”

I can do this because I’ve done it before; I’ve sat through a thousand panic attacks. I worked my ass off to get where I am now. I’m not going back. Once I get there and finish what I have been dreading all summer, I’ll know. I’ll know I’ll be able to go back to school. I’ll be able to be a champion, because only “Those who stay will be champions.”

I know what’s coming, and I know there is no going back. I feel the fear that I have no control, I know I am going to panic. The heat in my blood triggers the rubber band around my lungs. I put my hair up to feel the quick satisfaction of air on the back of my neck. I reach out of my seat and twist the three fans to face me. I put my hand under my shirt and rub my chest with one hand and my stomach with the other.

I pull the breathing app up on my phone and watch the colors change as it tells me to inhale for 5 seconds. Hold. Then out for 5 seconds. I think about how it can’t last long. I know this because Dr. Clark says that the maximum amount of time a panic attack can last is 15 minutes.

I give up on the breathing app. I pull up candy crush and move two pieces until I give up on that. I suck in my breath as hard as I can. I pinch my pointer finger with my thumb, breathing loudly. Thank G-d the girl next to me has her earphones in, even though I desperately want to turn to her and say, “Can you tell me I’ll be okay?”

I can’t breathe. I press the button above me to ask for assistance. A lady comes by and leans down.

“Hi, sorry. Can I have a bottle of water?”

“Yes, 3 dollars.”

I wait 2 minutes and she comes by. I pray that it’s cold. It’s a tiny bit colder than room temperature, but I put it to my cheeks anyway, then to the back of my neck, then to the veins on my wrists before taking a sip.

I think of the night in the hotel this past January when I went weeks with constant anxiety, so my parents flew up. I stayed with them in that hotel room for weeks. I remember my mom and dad staring at me then each other, as I paced around the room with a plastic bag of ice cubes on my face.

I remember hysterically crying, “I can’t do this anymore.” I hunched over and dry-heaved as my dad rubbed my back. I screamed wanting to remove whatever was inside my head, inside my body. My parents looked scared. My dad held me in a way he never has and my mom’s teeth were clenched. I could tell, because the extra skin on her neck was now gone. I don’t think they ever really understood until that night. I don’t think I understood until that night how bad it really was.

I take the little orange bottle out of the small pocket of my backpack from under the seat in front of me. I read the label and make sure it's my Xanax and not my Prozac or Trazadone. I put the little yellow pill on the back of my tongue and take 4 big swigs just to make sure it went down.

I imagined the medication swimming through my blood and slowing my heart and thoughts down. I think about how that was as terrible as it was going to get. It’s going to go away now. I closed my eyes and imagined what I was going to do when I got to the hotel. I could lie in bed, relax, order in some good food, and watch a happy movie.

Thirty-four minutes have gone by since we took off. We were almost there. I wondered if this was actually going to help. I knew why Dr. Clark thought it would; it would make going back to school less scary. But I knew I would be scared either way. I did not want to go back to that state. The state where if I wasn’t panicking, I was anxious, and if I wasn’t anxious, I was emotionless.

I looked over to the girl next to me. Her nails were painted a dark blue, and she read a book that rested on the tray table in front of her. I thought of taking out my “Riding the Wave” workbook but didn’t. Maybe it would spark an anxiety attack.

I ordered it for therapy and had homework every day. It helped me rearrange my thoughts. When I panic, I am supposed to think, “I have panicked over 100 times and I have gotten through each and every one.” I have written those types of thoughts down in that book a million times, but in the moment, I don’t care. I feel like I’m in danger or I’m dying during every single one.

I started to relax, I thought about the past few months and how I was better than I’ve ever been. I had done things I never knew I could. Four months ago I had never been on a rollercoaster, I had never watched a scary movie, I hadn’t sat through a panic attack all by myself and I hadn’t had an attack in two years without taking a Xanax. But I can do these things now.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing soon.”

I slide my shoes on, and the rubber band around my chest has slowly loosened. What I had been working up to all summer had begun, but unlike before, I knew I could do it. I was forced to be anxious this summer, so many times that I knew I would be okay. Every bad day was worth every good one. Last year had led me to Dr. Clark who was “The best of the best” and now I knew I would not feel this way forever. As hard as it was, I was thankful for rock bottom.

Cover Image Credit: Sarah Richman

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