It happened today, actually. First thing this morning, as usual.
I woke up, and before I could even climb out of bed to brush my teeth, felt the all-too-familiar pang in my chest. Within a moment I’d dissolved into tears that I couldn’t stop for the next hour. The longer I cried, the more I started to spiral: Why can’t I stop crying? I want to have a good day today. Why haven’t I been able to get over this already? What if I never heal? Before too long, I’d ramped up from a sobbing fest to a full-on panic attack. My heart beat so fast and hard it hurt, I couldn’t catch my breath, I was gripped with nausea and dizziness, and I could feel myself slipping into depersonalization and derealization. My understanding of reality and my place within it both began to fade. Nothing around me looked solid, stable, or three-dimensional anymore. It felt as if the world were on the brink of splitting in two and tearing me apart with it.
What sparked it? I couldn’t tell you. I’m diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder (PD) as well as resulting mild depression, but some of the factors that influence them on a day-to-day basis still escape me. My conscious mind is constantly occupied, too overloaded to consider anything too far below the surface. This summer, I’ve got two internships and four classes on my plate—and that’s intentional. Anxiety often manifests as over-scheduling oneself to create distractions from the toxic thought processes that lead to reactions like panic attacks, and the inclination to do that is even stronger when depression whispers that to be idle is to waste time, to fail, to disappoint everyone around me.
But, as you can imagine, these high expectations for myself only contribute to my anxiety. If I’m not working “hard enough,” I’ll get depressed, but if I work too much, I’ll get stressed. If I get depressed, I get anxious about it. If I get anxious, I’ll spend the day numb and unable to process a single thought. I get silent and resistant or blunt and oppositional. I won’t leave my apartment, or even my bed on the worst days. Everything bubbles up to the front of my mind at once, from my daily worries to the long-term traumas and triggers. It’s a cycle, and I’m still working to strike the balance I need—and more importantly, to find and deconstruct the underlying ideas that fuel the cycle in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Depression and anxiety don’t always look like that, even for me. As a kid, my anxiety felt very different than how it did this morning. It used to manifest as nausea and vomiting, insomnia, and hypochondria. I didn’t feel nervous often, despite the stereotype associated with anxiety disorders. But I did read more books than I could even understand, just to keep my mind busy. In a way, reading helped me learn to talk myself down from some of my worst paranoid thoughts: that our house would tumble into the creek behind it and drown us, that an escaped prisoner would climb through my window one night to kill and bury me alive, or that my mom wouldn’t pick me up from school and I’d have to live there (she never forgot me, not even once). These childhood worries are almost funny to me now, but I used replay those scenarios over and over in my head through the darkest hours of the night.
I developed coping rituals to try and trick myself out of the anxiety. I have vivid memories of sitting in the car at night on the way home, staring at the dashboard clock and repeating an internal mantra over and over: I’m going to feel better at 9:43. I’m going to feel better at 9:43. I’m going to feel better at 9:43. When setting an arbitrary time a few minutes in the future started to actually work, I began to comprehend that what I was experiencing had a lot to do with my own ways of thinking and how comfortable I was in my physical location. It was a first step.
My depressive episodes came about as a result of my anxiety and blocked a lot of my progress. I just couldn’t think of anything sadder than being too anxious to enjoy my childhood, even though I didn’t have the language to identify what I was feeling as panic attacks or depression. In fact, I didn’t until I was 14, when the practices I’d used no longer worked and I experienced my first brush with derealization. I spoke to some adults I trusted about it but didn’t find as much information or help as I needed. I never even heard the term “derealization” until a month or two ago when I stumbled across this article in a panicked Google wormhole.
And it’s not for lack of trying that I didn’t understand my mental state. I remember frantically Googling am I going to die on the house computer at the age of nine during a panic attack. As I learned how to actually navigate the Internet for resources, I spent hours learning more about specific mental health conditions and how to treat them. I entered therapy for the first time at 15, despite the stigma I faced from several people in my life. I’ve worked with four different professionals between then and today but have yet to find a therapy setting that’s beneficial to me. I even tried medication in my sophomore year of college, but after a brief stint with escitalopram that only seemed to worsen my depression, I threw away the pills (but don’t do that! If you’re unhappy with any of your current medications, please talk to a doctor to design a plan for weaning off of them. Your brain chemistry is too important to risk). Of course, this made me feel anxious and depressed. I’m not even good at getting better. What hope is there for me?
Too many stories about mental illness end with the writer achieving a full recovery. When I’m feeling too bad to get out of bed, reading all those wonderful tales of healing leaves me feeling worse than when I started. For that reason, I didn’t want to save my story until I’m better to share it. The point I’m at now is just as important, just as real, and just as human.
But that doesn’t mean recovery isn’t in my future; on the flip side, I think writing about it before that point has been instrumental in getting me there. And I’m sure you saw this coming, but I’ve been able to find ways to manage my anxiety and depression as I go along. One of the best I’ve found in the past few months is The Anxiety Workbook by Arlin Cuncic, which guides you independently through the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy over seven weeks. I’m figuring out more consistent treatment, too, as I look forward to working in public radio this summer, starting my junior year of college in the fall, and celebrating my 20th birthday shortly after.
My journey is still just beginning, but if you’re dealing with anxiety and depression, go forth this Mental Health Awareness Month knowing at the very least that you are not, and never have been, alone.
Emily Rose Thorne is a junior at Mercer University and an aspiring multimedia journalist. She’s been involved with Step Up Magazine since 2017 and is now helping guide the editorial team as Senior Editor. Previously, she interned as a journalist for both Atlanta Magazine and Girls Rock Athens. She’s also served as Staff Writer, Lead News Writer and News Editor of her campus publication, The Cluster. She is currently the Digital Editor of The Cluster and a 2019 John M. Couric Fellow at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. This summer, she'll start producing audio and writing copy for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon.