Interview Three: Business as Usual (While Drowning Inside)
“I thought I was having a heart attack. The doctors told me there was nothing wrong, but I was so anxious that no rational thought made sense. I had them do more tests. They told me, ‘Cardiac arrest is rare in a 20-year-old. You’re fine.’ None of them ever mentioned stress or anxiety as a possibility for how I was feeling.”
Reading Time – 5 minutes
From the Beginning
I started to feel really bad anxiety after high school. And now… looking back… there were a lot of precursors to the anxiety, but I didn’t realize it yet. It really started when I was getting ready to move to the US… I was actually waiting for my visa for nine months after high school. I had all kinds of time to just sit around… think about things… I told myself… moving to a new country, of course you’d be stressed. So I tried to push it out of my mind.
But then I started to have all these issues with my stomach. I couldn’t eat anything, and I always felt like I was going to throw up. I felt dizzy a lot and had really bad heartburn all day long. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me physically. And it got to the point where I was always thinking, “I’m going to throw up. I don’t want to go anywhere, because I’m going to throw up.”
Meanwhile, I never threw up once because of this. But I had it in my head, and I was so deep into it. I started going out less and less. And on top of it all, I was living at my parents’ house. I didn’t have a car, money, or a job… so I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I feel like that made it worse, and I was already building a wall.
Anxiety feels like drowning the entire day… drowning in your own head. You can’t get out of your head… you’re confined there… and there’s wave after wave of it. While I was in undergrad, I didn’t really want to step out of my comfort zone by joining a club or going to social events where I didn’t know everyone. I didn’t want to do anything that could potentially make me feel uncomfortable or trigger a panic attack… which can be a lot of stuff when you’re dealing with anxiety. You start making your world very small. I felt like I was barely managing to get through a normal day, and I was afraid of anything that could exacerbate my anxiety. I kept thinking, “What’s my brain going to do to me next?”
Also, I had this weird thing where I always felt trapped when I was in a room. I loved it when the professor kept the door open in class. It’s such a small thing, but when it was closed I immediately got this panicky fight-or-flight feeling rising inside of me. I loved it when the door was in the back of the room, so I could sit in the back and be close to the door… it helped make me feel safer, like I could just escape… After a year or two I managed to calm myself down more and more with rational thoughts and deep breathing. Years later I can now say that this is never an issue anymore.
Paranoia and the Emergency Room
Another thing is… I become paranoid and a bit of a hypochondriac. Through a particularly tough time with my anxiety, I’ve actually had the thought, “I’ve got a blood clot that’s going up to my brain!” When I’m calm and collected, and anxiety feels almost far away, I think, “Wow, this is almost funny… because of how strongly I believe this in these moments… how I’m so sure I’m dying.”
Once, I went to the emergency room directly from work. I had this really weird pressure in my chest… like it was going to explode… it was making me extremely dizzy. I thought I was having a heart attack. The doctors told me there was nothing wrong, but I was so anxious that no rational thought made sense. I had them do more tests. They told me, “Cardiac arrest is rare in a 20-year-old. You’re fine.” None of them ever mentioned stress or anxiety as a possibility for how I was feeling.
Stigma was this general cultural thing… maybe even more so in Europe than in the US. I don’t remember people ever talking about even common things like anxiety. The only time I heard about mental illness was when I was in middle school. One of our classmate’s mom was depressed and tried to kill herself. The daughter got pulled out of school… it was this big drama-thing… So that’s how I thought of mental illness… this big, serious, dramatic issue that a few unlucky people encounter. I think they do a much better job in America with combating stigma… I mean, not as much as they should, but better.
On Staying Healthy
I have to get a lot of sleep… good, regular sleep… or it exacerbates my anxiety. Also, exercising. If I don’t go to the gym for a few days, I feel the restlessness. I have to constantly be conscious of how far I extend myself… I want to take on everything… I don’t want anxiety to limit me anymore… work, school, friends… it’s easy to get caught up in all the social invitations and school events… extra things at work. Even social calls… it starts to be a stressful routine. I generally like it, but it has to be managed.
For the past three years, I have finally been medicated. At the time I decided to seek help, I had been dealing with anxiety for six years or so, but the last two to three years I had been managing much better… some days I could even forget about anxiety altogether. After dealing with a particularly tough emotional event, anxiety rushed back into my life, and I felt completely overwhelmed. I was so miserable at the time, I thought… “I’m fine taking a little pill if it’ll make all of this go away!”
The good thing was, I was more mature then and I also had a friend who pushed me to seek help. I am so glad I did! I truly feel more like myself when I am on medication and not influenced by the anxious thoughts all day long. The only downfall of the medication is that it brings the fear that if I get pregnant, I would have to get off my medications, and I am not sure how I could handle something so big while dealing with anxiety. I’m thinking about adoption in the future for that reason.
Some Final Advice
I want people to know that anxiety can affect anyone… it can be chemical, situational, environmental… Regardless of whatever form you have, talk about it… acknowledge it… you don’t have to call it “mental illness” if you really don’t want to. Don’t be embarrassed or too proud to seek help. I didn’t see a therapist and psychiatrist until much later. I guess I was fighting going to a doctor and recognizing that my anxiety was an actual issue. I thought… as soon as I talk to a doctor, it makes it real… I have a mental illness. But it was probably the best decision I made, and I should have made it sooner.
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