Most children grow up trembling beneath the thought of a monster underneath their bed, but my twin mattress kissed the floor for many years. There was no room for a monster to fester beneath my slumber. Instead it chose to burrow in my head.
I was never a small child, with a personality that bolstered numerous friends and boasted a friendly demeanor radiating confidence off the charts, a true fashionista to the very last. Sassy, stylish, simply enamored with life. I let cute hats cover up my stomach cramps and easy humor smooth over what I now know was reflux (although my ten year old self believed I was having mini heart attacks and was absolutely terrified about the chest pain and breathing difficulties that seemingly randomly hit me). Pretty dresses were my favorite summertime attire, especially since it allowed my intense fear of choking to float away like dandelion fluff. To this day, restrictive clothing and anything on my face gives a flare of anxiety.
The original pinpoint of my anxiety? There is no such thing. It’s a conglomeration of a variety of factors that attempted to steal the joy and affection from my middle and then high school years.
Freshman year hit and suddenly I became dunked in a world of new ideals, expectations and personal growth. Freshman year also brought my first real encounter with chronic illness and a brush with death, which later spiraled into ARFID and other health repercussions. Let’s just say that, while I had always struggled with bouts of anxiety and nightmares, high school hit hard. Too hard.
It became anxiety provoking to drink water. Water. Because that meant that I could potentially put myself in pain (thanks unnamed chronic illness for the reflux and intense gastrointestinal pain when literally any and everything hit my stomach) and then I wouldn’t feel well and that’s selfish because I have to be a perfect daughter and student and not do, say or be anything but impeccably selfless. I could not burden anyone with my thoughts or issues. I could not be loud and draw attention or make too much noise or goodness forbid displease anyone in any sort of manner.
I’m far from being the only student to struggle with a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
I deeply understand the much more harrowing situations within our city, the kids who go home to words harsher than any physical abuse, physical abuse harsher than any punishment and hollow feelings of despair at any word equating to homelife. There is a very fine line between acknowledging and respecting your own difficulties, but also knowing and understanding that there is so much worse out there.
Truth be told there is a righteously solid place for more distressing positions, but one doesn’t dispel the other. Some situations may be more immediate than others, but that also doesn’t mean situations shouldn’t be addressed at all or demeaned in any manner due to being “lesser” on the scale. Utilizing the fallacy of relative privation does absolutely nothing to enact beneficial change within our society. One student recalled how she felt like she couldn’t speak up about or have valid feelings about her own anxiety due to another individual in her life who had it much more severe.
“For a while I was dealing with it [anxiety] alone which was hard,” Madison Beard (9, J&C) said. “I wouldn’t get out of my bed and I was pushing everyone away and hardly eating…the stress and anxiety of not being the perfect daughter or the perfect student or just perfect in general was a lot.”
You’re not invalidated just because what you’re facing isn’t “high up” enough on some imaginary scale of suffering. So many students from a plethora of backgrounds face mental illness every day and around 32 percent of adolescents are estimated to have an anxiety disorder.
Several Manual students have shared their stories and offered positive advice for tackling anxiety.
“I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. It seemed to build up over the years as I got older. I first acknowledged it when talking to friends and realizing that my way of thinking was not like others. I overthought everything, causing stress in my life,” Malcolm Gault (11, HSU) said. “Things get better but they will only get better if you are proactive about it. Find something that makes you happy and keep at it. It will improve your mental health a lot.”
“If you avoid your anxiety it will only get worse, so everyday I would wake up and think to myself, ‘Alright, you only have to get through today then you get to be home,” Grayson Beverly (9, YPAS) said.
Beverly also recommends chunking your time, taking school block by block and weeks day by day.
“Honestly, taking my days as they came and praising myself for the small accomplishments was the best thing I could do for myself,” Beverly said.
Try focusing on a micro and not macro level, that way you’re not agitating your anxiety by overthinking the future or overwhelming yourself with long run to-dos. Focus on shorter to-do lists and center in on what you can control by grounding.
“I’m very open and communicative with my teachers about my struggle and signs that something could be wrong. Most if not all of my teachers are very helpful and have been accommodating. Whether it be music or letting me go sit somewhere else when I get overwhelmed/anxious, I’ve had lots of guidance,” Emily Cook (9, MST) said.
“I remind myself that breaks are very important and that it is okay to not have perfect grades or be the perfect person and I feel everyone that struggles with anxiety should know that you should always put your mental health first,” Beard said.
Proactive tips include taking B complex vitamins and magnesium glycinate, identifying and managing triggers, therapy, proper lifestyle maintenance and building resilience. Reactive tips include grounding methods, removing yourself from a situation and getting still when possible, meditation, music and either writing down/speaking to yourself the steps of how you’re going to get through something.
The beautifully horrific thing about humans is that we are all somewhere different on the journey of life. That also means we understand things at different levels of complexity. What I’ve experienced in the last four years has radically changed my world/social perspective and given me coping skills most of my peers have yet to fully develop. However, when another student begins to shake or over apologizes for a simple mistake, I don’t roll my eyes or think of them as weak. I remember being in their shoes and the thoughts that would explode in my head, certain actions that arose from anxiety. I take a minute to reflect on their thought process and where they’re coming from.
I challenge you to come from a place of compassion and attempt to elevate those around you by example or guidance, to give encouragement where it’s due. Someone with anxiety isn’t going to stop being anxious just because you tell them to relax or argue that some kid halfway across the city is more valid than them because of this reason or that.
I will not coddle someone through everything because sometimes we need to fall in order to get stronger. Sometimes we need to hit rock bottom, to have a revelation or life changing event to show us what to do and where we need to go. To gain the tools or mindset necessary to manage what’s on the inside.
“It made me realize that I am in control, it [anxiety] doesn’t control me,” Cook said, reflecting on a time she had to give a presentation alone in front of class.
Everyone has the potential within themselves, be patient with yourself and your journey forward. You have strength, it’s a matter of reaching for and wielding it.
“…not everyday is going to be perfect, if you are going steadily on the decline with your anxiety and all the sudden one day the anxiety beats you, it’s ok. The best thing for you today is to get back and keep facing your anxiety because it will make you much stronger,” Beverly said.
Find purpose within your life, maybe even make a commitment to do one new or scary thing a day, such as asking a stranger a question. The stronger you are mentally and the more little victories you accumulate, the stronger you will be against a fight with anxiety.
“…in the end when you’re sitting on the couch at a family gathering you will be able to look back and laugh at these moments. I know it’s not pretty, everyday isn’t gonna be perfect but you gotta keep pushing,” Beverly said.
Eventually I had to look that monster in the eye and tell it that I was not a burden, that I should not feel guilty and that I will not shrink myself to appease any demon. There is no clear cut explanation, nor am I simply rid of my anxiety. It’s a concept I still grapple with most days but have just gotten better at knowing myself and how to overcome it. My health journey, combined with being put in positions of leadership and surrounded by positive individuals, created a mixture that strengthened my character over time. I used to look to everyone but myself for help before realizing that if I was going to get better, I had to do some hard work that no one else could do for me. You have to put yourself into the storm and say it’s either survive or succumb. And you can survive.
Mental illness is just as valid as physical illness. You go to physical therapy in order to heal something and it’s not easy: no physical therapist will tell you it’s a quick process. It requires dedication and hard-work, focus and finding inner strength. Your mental illness is not an extension or critical part of your identity. It is a part of but does not define you.
It is not me. It is not you.