24.

I recently turned 24 and was once again reminded of all the beautiful people and blessings I have in my life. In this season, I clearly see the progress I am making in academics, I am aware of the continual strengthening of my family, I am reminded that I am loved and cherished, I wake up knowing that regardless of the obstacles I face, I am strong enough to face them. But I wasn’t always like this.

Minutes before midnight, when I would celebrate another year, a friend asked me what I had learned about life in my 23 years. I stated things like, “I understand now that many heartbreaks are blessings in disguise” and “Friends will come and go, but in trying times, few will stay” and “Not everyone knows how to love you in the way you need to be loved, but someone will” and the cliche, “It goes on”. All of these things were true and even spiritual to me. Each statement represented countless stories and journeys that I had traveled, and thankfully, learned from. But with all these romanticized sayings, there was still a nagging in my brain to share what I had really learned after all these years– I needed help.

The past year or so of my life was a challenging one. I graduated from college, and like so many others, moved back to my small town, worked a job I tolerated, and had an existential crisis. Thousands of dollars spent on courses and books, hours of blood, sweat, and tears over late night papers, and the dizzying amount of pressure I placed on my shoulders seemed to only follow me, getting me nowhere. Nights were spent in conversation with Worry and Doubt propped on the end of my bed. “Can I please just sleep?”, I would beg. “No, no,” they cooed, “just a few more hours of disaster preparedness planning. Would you like to cover ‘possible stock market crash’ or ‘dead-end job opportunities’?”

Then, I moved. This was absolutely a necessary step in my life, and I was wild about packing my life up and beginning again across the country, starting graduate school, and moving forward. However, Worry and Doubt were not entirely on board with this venture. In fact, for two weeks before I left they kept me up talking all night long. Sometimes when I refused to listen Worry would sit on my chest and crush me, while Doubt paced the room, at times even unpacking some of my moving boxes.

But I pushed through. Sleep deprived and aching I pushed through. And one day I received a strange phone call from home. Worry and Doubt hovered over my shoulder in the most suffocating way listening in on the conversation. The phone call ended and I closed my eyes waiting for their comments. They came in rips and tears, slashes and wallops, a pounding head and a heavy chest. The only thing worse than preparing for a disaster with these two, is experiencing the disaster itself. I spent days and weeks feeling like a shell of a human propped up by my personal crutches, Worry and Doubt.

This is not the part of the story where I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and moved on. This is not the point of the story where someone picked me up, brushed me off, and sent me in the right direction. And this is not the moment where I found my inner strength and let go of all this heaviness. This is the part of the story where I gave up.

I have struggled with anxiety my entire life. I have woken up with stomach aches, being sickly nervous over something I could not even name. I have hosted debates in my mind that lasted for years at a time and would not let me sleep. I have worried I had heart defects that I found were actually esophageal spasms (common symptom of PTSD). In 23 years of life, I wished, hoped, and prayed for it, but never understood how anyone could wake up–happy. That was a foreign concept to me! I had been told I did not know how to relax, that I had fear of commitment, that I worked too hard, that I was compulsive, that I was a perfectionist.  I tried to reconcile all these messages from my body, my brain, and others and spent so much time trying to figure out what I was– when really all I was, was sick.

Not ‘sick’ in the stigmatized way everyone thinks about it. But I was sick, as in my lumbar system was continually and excessively firing off neurons to my brain–fight or flight messages. I had anxiety. My body was providing too much of something and therefore I was not able to function to the best of my ability.

When a person has allergies, doctors suggest a medicine that will combat a reaction. When someone breaks an arm, we cover and protect the arm with pretty colored casts and even sign it in homage. When someone suffers from migraines there are many treatments offered including medicines, oils, procedures, etc. But as soon as someone admits to having a mental health issue, the treatments stop. I have heard people say that if you are a true Christian you should never be depressed, that it’s not something wrong with you it’s just that you’re not trying hard enough. I have seen people be alienated from friend groups for admitting that they are struggling with their mental health. I have had friends of my own warn me of the dangers of even seeking a doctor regarding anxiety because those drugs ‘make you someone else’. Good thing I didn’t listen to them.

The most valuable step I took in my 23rd year was seeking help through my doctor and being prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

My friends were right about one thing. These drugs have ‘made me someone else’. They’ve made me someone whose stomach is not constantly in knots. They’ve made me someone who sleeps through the night, and wakes up feeling, if not happy, at least capable of facing each day. They’ve made me someone who enjoys going out more, who is more willing to try new things, who doesn’t feel like any move she makes could be a social downfall. They’ve made me someone with a clearer mind–one with only a few tasks and conversations bouncing around instead of an antagonizing buzz of worries. They’ve made me someone who is capable of stopping, having a conversation with a friend, and laughing at a joke in the midst of a stressful day. They have made me someone who does not drag through each day because I am debilitated by fear and stress, and frazzled by the worry and doubt, and crippled by imagined guilt and shame, and hurting from the a bar that I feel I will never measure up to. I am a new person. I am a whole person. I am the best version of myself.

This post turned into something much bigger than I intended. But I feel so thankful for those who reached out to me to offer a celebratory ‘happy birthday’, that I wanted to reach back and maybe help someone have more ‘happy everydays’. Mental health issues are often shoved under the rug; I was the queen of sweeping them under there for 23 years! But most of my life, I thought people were liars when they said they  woke up happy. As a person who woke up with a cloud looming over (or in, I suppose) their skull, I did not believe it would ever be possible for me to wake up happy. But it is. And I am.

I thought that my anxiety was a personality trait. That I would simply have to deal with the health hazards my whole life because I wasn’t strong enough to fix my anxiety on my own. But the truth was, all those years, my body was just asking me for help. Now, I feel stronger, and healthier than ever. If your body is sending you messages like these, you are not alone, you are not weak, your body is functioning properly in the sense that it is asking for help.

Seek help. Be strong. Be brave. Be healthy. Be the best you, you can be. And don’t give a damn what other people have to say about it.

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