And the caption reads: “new husband, new job, new hair, new memories to be made at the best party ever.”
All true. I was crazy in love with my new husband. I was feeling v boss bitch about the major promotion I had just landed. I had a cute haircut and could say “short hair, don’t care” all the time. And the party—f*ck, what a night.
To the world, I had everything.
What I conveniently left out of that caption was “new meds,” which I would be starting after the weekend. Meds that would ensure I could continue to have everything—because without them, I don’t think I would be where I’m at today.
What has become such an integral part of my daily experience is invisible to almost everyone who meets me. I have a severe anxiety disorder, which doctors and psychologists have struggled to precisely diagnose. Panic disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder. Social anxiety. Agoraphobia. They aren’t sure, and I don’t care. This nameless force has infiltrated every facet of my life, shaped every major and minor decision I’ve ever made, caused pain to myself and others I love, and, ultimately, it has transformed me into a person I’m not always sure I truly am at my core.
The simplest way to explain my anxiety disorder is that going places makes me anxious. Too broad? I completely agree, but try telling my brain that (actually, don’t waste your time—I’ve been trying for years now).
Somewhere between my teens and early 20s, my brain started to interpret certain situations as dangerous. More specifically, whenever I was somewhere I could feel potentially trapped—say, a friend’s place for the night or school for the day —my brain would detect danger that didn’t exist.
Over time, my brain began to associate getting sick with going certain places. It would set off my anxiety, then I would feel sick, and oftentimes I would leave—the desired result from my brain’s perspective, but not from a trying-to-live-one’s-life perspective. This pattern of going somewhere, getting anxious, feeling sick, leaving—it reinforces itself, solidifying this reaction in my brain. It took me 14 years—half of my life—to understand these patterns and to see what was happening. But rational thought and logic don’t just trump 14 years of brain wiring gone awry.
When I wrote that post last year, I was revisiting my lowest lows. Places that used to be safe for me—being at work, going out with my husband, trips to the grocery store—were starting to feel dangerous. I had days where I would walk to work, and as soon as I saw my building, my stomach would turn—and I would turn around and walk home, feeling defeated. And because I hated feeling that way, I just started to avoid things. I wouldn’t see my friends. I wouldn’t go out. Anxiety, and the fear of that anxiety, permeated so much of my life, leaving almost nothing untouched.
Unsurprising to anyone who suffers from severe anxiety, depression is anxiety’s bestie, and the two are inseparable. My life was becoming increasingly small—a wide horizon of dreams and schemes narrowed and then fragmented. I was living by the day, the hour, the minute. Survival. My life had become a series of seemingly unsurmountable tasks to overcome, one by one. There was no future beyond the immediate task: get out of bed. Walk to work. Sit at my desk. Survive a meeting. Get through that drink I never should have agreed to with a friend. Make it back home. Repeat.
One of the most challenging things about living with anxiety like that is the isolation it breeds. I wanted to live up to the ideas I assumed others were ascribing to my life: a happy newlywed overwhelmed with love; a determined millennial badass enough to already have a career I loved and excelled at; a social butterfly with all the friends. The dissonance between those labels—and so desperately wanting them to be true, and knowing they were within reach—and my reality was deafening.
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It’s hard to admit, but I had reached a point where I could understand why some people chose to end their lives amid a period of deep depression. A life without hope and without dreams—especially when you know you’re capable, smart, filled with ideas, and able to make a difference in the world—is not worth living. I was trapped inside my home, a prisoner of my mind but unable to physically escape. For the first time in a long time, I was ready to accept that I needed help.
My doctor prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication, which I would begin the week following my wedding party. I had one previous experience with SSRIs during my master’s program (after hitting a new low when I skipped a final exam). I only lasted a few months on it, and I hated every second. I made sure I stopped taking them before I started my first job in government. How ironic that two years later I felt I couldn’t start my next job without the help of medication.
It’s been one year this week since I started that medication. A lot has changed. I’ve spent the last year of my life choosing to set aside career ambitions, personal relationships, and plans to take over the world to simply take care of myself. I eat three meals a day (usually) and take vitamins. I sleep as much as my body needs me to, even though that means keeping grandma-esque hours. I spend less time putting pressure on myself to be the best at everything, and a lot more time chilling in the moment, generally with my dog, husband, and a baked good. I even started going to the gym to work off (some of) those baked goods.
I’m halfway through a cognitive behavioral therapy program, which jives with my analytical mind and need for structure. I’m also halfway through a rough transition off my medication. I hope to be completely medication free by next month. Most importantly though, I have plans again—dreams and schemes to be the best version of myself I can possibly be. Nothing more. It’s a happier, healthier, and more balanced life I need. And I’m becoming more and more OK with that.
I will likely never know why exactly anxiety has come to play this defining role in my life. I have a blood disorder that has been linked to higher incidences of depression and anxiety. I’m intelligent and highly analytical, which is convenient when you make a living analyzing things, but anxiety tends to be linked to these traits. It could be genetic—I really don’t know, but knowing won’t change anything.
What I do know after spending years talking with people about mental health is this: It afflicts so, so many of us. I’ve often looked at others—a group of friends enjoying a lively dinner, boss bitches running meetings, those people who manage to get out of bed every single morning without ever skipping a beat—and wondered why it seems like I’m the only person in the world who seems to find life this challenging. I’ve never hesitated to make myself feel worthless, broken, and defeated, wondering why i can’t be like everyone else.
But as I’ve opened up and shared this piece of myself with others—from my parents to colleagues, close friends to neighbors—almost every single time the other person will exclaim, “But you’re so… happy, successful, extroverted, at ease wherever you go.” And I realize that I’m a person they’ve watched before, drawing comparisons between my life and their own, wondering why they can’t do what I do—maybe even wishing they could have what I have.
Besides a desire to out myself as one of millions that struggles with an anxiety disorder, I want to challenge what anxiety looks like to so many of us. And I want to reassure at least a few of those millions of anxious people who are wondering what’s wrong with them that they aren’t alone. That even happy people have anxiety. That even successful people have anxiety. That even extroverted, funny, outgoing people who seem at ease wherever they go and thrive being the center of attention have anxiety.
The more that we strive to build places in which we work, play, and live that are open and compassionate, the more others will share their stories—and the less all of us will need to feel alone. Maybe we’ll even start believing that the people who seem to “have everything” usually do—a great partner, incredible job, cute hair, epic memories immortalized on Instagram, and an anxiety disorder that underlies it all.
This post originally appeared on Medium.com and was republished with the author’s permission. Mercedes Mueller is an animal enthusiast, dessert connoisseur, and Oxford comma lover living in Ottawa, Ontario. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.