“It’s just stomach pain.” I told my boyfriend at the time. “I probably ate something I shouldn’t have.” I had never had food poisoning, but I told myself maybe it could be that.
After the pain grew immensely over the next day and a half, I finally told my Mom I think I should go get it checked out.
The entire 20-minute ride to the hospital was unbearable. Every bump, every turn, I felt and cried not knowing what else to do.
Not 15 minutes after checking in, I was rushed into surgery for an emergency appendectomy.
Needless to say, I survived. I was in surgery for over three hours because of how close my appendix was to rupture.
I mean, I’d never had a problem with my appendix before. How was I supposed to know that was what behind my pain? I’m a strong [17-year-old] woman, I knew how to move through pain.
Why do I share this with you?
This wasn't the first, and wouldn't be the last, time that I played down symptoms and put off receiving care I desperately needed.
I start off this conversation with an example of a physical affliction. It’s something tangible, that people can physically see. There was no grey area when it came to observing my physical pain.
But when it comes to our mental health, and mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, it’s not always easy to see the signs.
In fact, it's even harder when they impact someone like me.
Someone who doesn't like to ask for help.
Someone who doesn't want to be a bother.
Someone who says, well others have it worse.
Someone who thinks their struggle is not that bad.
If any of those sound like you, stick with me. I am here to tell you that no matter how big or how small you perceive your struggle to be, it is valid.
When it comes to your overall wellness, and specifically your mental health, there is no threshold [feeling bad enough].
If you are not feeling like yourself... Something as simple as that can be an indicator of a larger problem under the surface.
You don't have to be so depressed you're unable to get out of bed.
You don't have to feel so anxious that you're paralyzed by fear.
You don't have to feel like you're so lost and in such a dark place that you'll never be able to climb back out.
You don't have to reach a place of self-harm or suicidal ideation to ask for help.
Society often has us playing a comparison game: Who has it worst?
As I mentioned at the beginning, I felt like my physical pain wasn't severe enough to get treated until it became unbearable.
Throughout the next decade, I would find myself repeating this pattern over and over again...But not just with instances of physical pain. I tried to outrun, out-exercise, and flat-out ignore symptoms of an anxiety disorder and depression until they started manifesting themselves in physical symptoms.
Y’all know me and my story telling—here comes another one.
I became fully aware that anxiety was running my life in the Fall of 2017. Before this, I knew something wasn’t quite right, but symptoms ebbed and flowed as they had throughout my entire adolescence and early adulthood.
When I was in high school and college, I chalked it up to something everyone experienced. We were figuring out who we were and not totally sure about what was in our future.
Sometimes though, I did wonder — did everyone else feel things as intensely as I did?
I don’t mean being overly sensitive, but sometimes I felt as though I was more worried than I should be. Even about things that should be little cause for concern. Like when I didn’t get a message back from my boyfriend, I would instantly question, why? What could have happened that he couldn’t find time to respond?
I would go through 102 different scenarios in my mind about what could have happened, what might have caused the delay.
Had he gotten into a car accident? Was he slowly dying on the side of the road alone?
Every single scenario, while minimally possible, was not probable, nor even likely.
I can’t count the number of times he would call me after one of those spiraling episodes fearing there was something wrong with me since he had received 43 new messages pleading for a response within a twenty-five-minute time frame.
Feeling ashamed that I had overreacted, yet again, about nothing. Maybe had I shared with him what was running through my mind, we would have come to discover my anxiety sooner.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2017. I had spent over a decade sort-of, kind-of managing this debilitating feeling, which by this time had started to manifest itself physically.
I found that even though I had taken up jogging in an attempt to release my stress and clear my mind (and was in the best physical shape of my life) I was unable to take a deep breath.
Like one of those abdomen expanding, lung filling, prelude to a yawn, kind of deep breaths. Day after day, hour after hour, I could not take a deep breath.
These episodes tended to happen most often at work. Anyone walking past my office would often see me pacing back and forth like a mad-woman muttering to myself... JUST BREATHE.
I finally decided it was time to see someone about this. I couldn’t continue living this way. When I first went into my doctor's office, we talked about the symptom. The main reason I had made the call, not being able to breathe deeply.
Of course, she asked me about how else I was feeling outside of the physical symptoms.
I sugar-coated things, saying things could be stressful at times, but that I had plenty of strategies to cope.
I should have known, by the look she gave me, she didn’t quite believe my story. I was prescribed an inhaler. Perhaps I had some type of asthma or seasonal allergy that was causing this shortness of breath. She scheduled a follow-up one week later to see if things had improved. To neither of our shock or surprise, I returned the next week, not feeling any better.
During my follow-up appointment, I was officially diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression, and while I wasn’t surprised by this, I felt embarrassed and ashamed like I had back when I first realized my thinking could sometimes be irrational.
It took about 6 months of biweekly follow-up appointments and adjustments to medications to get to a place where I felt like myself again. Not just being able to breathe, but no longer being overwhelmed by the anxiety that something terrible not only could but would happen any moment.
The purpose of sharing my story is this, things can and will get better, but it all starts with asking for help. Even when you don’t want to. Even when it’s hard.
You matter. Your experience matters. Your quality of life matters. Your struggles are valid.
Don't wait until it gets so bad that you feel hopelessly overwhelmed. There are resources you can use, and people in your life who love you, and are there to listen.
This is the community I hope to build here. One that is accepting and embracing of all its members. A community that empowers, supports, and raises each other up.
I promise you, you are never alone.
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