It wasn’t until I’d had an MRI and seen a neurologist, three eye doctors, and several physicians that I began to consider the notion that the problem wasn’t physical.
“I’m not saying that your symptoms aren’t real,” my therapist repeated, to my increasing agitation. “I’m just saying that I think the cause may be anxiety and this is how your body is reacting.”
Whatever, I thought. Like I’m going to listen to this hack who thinks auras are real and hypnosis is a valid therapy method. I definitely had MS. Or hyperthyroidism. Or something else that made your hands shake, your vision double, your head hurt, and a whole host of other problems that made it nearly impossible to live my life.
After going to an appointment and coming home without a diagnosis, I’d crawl into my bed and cry. I’d look at my shaking hands and will them to still themselves. I’d inhale and exhale and eventually hiccup into sleep. I was a mess. There were days I was sure I was dying.
My best friend from college visited me in July. We were playing mancala, taking turns dropping the smooth marbles into their assigned places.
“Are you okay?” she finally asked.
“I’m trying to be.”
She studied me with that careful, probing gaze that was always able to read me too well.
“You’re coming back to school in the fall?” She continued to drop the marbles, purposefully keeping her eyes on her hands.
I swallowed. “I don’t know.”
Sometimes I'll be sprawled out on the couch, reading a book, and I'll feel my heart stop for a moment, and I have to remind myself that 23-year-olds don't usually get heart attacks.
I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t know if I wanted to either. When I came home from studying abroad in London, everything had changed for the worse, from the people to the single college bar to the overzealous security. London was gorgeous and empowering and home. College was…not.
Things got so bad that whenever I went out with my old friends that summer they’d hold their shot glasses high and cheers to “mental health” to make me laugh.
I’m not sure what changed. I don’t know if it was the anxiety medication my doctor finally coerced me into taking “just to see,” the therapy, the distraction that a full course of classes provided, or the safety I felt going back to college with roommates who turned out to be less friends, and more family. But somehow, I took control of my anxiety.
Still, when I see bubble-gum articles with titles like, “3 Easy Ways to Fix Your Anxiety,” or “This Sneaky Trick Will Take Away Your Worries,” I remember that time in my life.
It’s still a part of me. Sometimes I’ll be sprawled out on the couch, reading a book, and I’ll feel my heart stop for a moment and I have to remind myself that 23-year-olds don’t usually get heart attacks. Or I’ll lay awake at night, gut clenched at the thought of my own mortality. Or I’ll lose the ability to breathe altogether for something as insignificant as a job interview.
So, again: “3 Ways to Fix Your Anxiety.”
I always end up clicking on them. "Maybe it's right, maybe this will fix everything," a small voice tells me, even though the post appears next to a dissection of Rob and Chyna's relationship. They never help; more than that, they scarcely try.
While I think it is wonderful and irrefutably positive that anxiety has become somewhat less stigmatized in recent years, trivializing it is not useful. Acknowledging the prevalence of anxiety by writing about it is important, but writing about flippant ways to “fix” it when you have never suffered from it is harmful.
When you tell me that “breathing” a certain way will fix me, I remember the tremors. When you tell me to download a “life-changing” app, I remember the therapy sessions. When you tell me to try pilates or using a coloring book, I remember the tears, the waiting rooms, the journaling, the praying.
I think I speak for everyone with anxiety, regardless of the degree, when I say: Don’t tell me to "just calm down.” Don’t tell me it’s in my head. Don’t tell me to try yoga, or to just breathe, or to meditate. Don’t say you understand because you were nervous for a date once. Don’t minimize my life.
My anxiety is manageable, yes. It is also real, and it takes an active effort to fight. Sometimes I forget it’s there altogether.
Sometimes it takes everything in me to keep moving forward.