It started at the beginning of my junior year of high school in a warm, loud classroom. It was at that notorious point in our high school careers when it was clear that our days were numbered and the question “What are your plans for the future?” kept banging on our doors. Like many others, I usually avoided answering that question. I thought I was doing so because I didn’t know what I wanted, but that wasn’t really true. Truthfully, I felt in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong. Something about the future unsettled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And then one day, I suddenly figured out what it was. I was fighting the prospect of change. I had attended the same school and lived in the same house for 12 years: I didn’t know what real change felt like. Could I handle moving away? Could I live on my own? What was I going to do? Once the seeds of doubt entered my mind, something inside me changed. The questions began repeating endlessly in my head.
I tried to ignore the uncertainty as much as I could. I shoved the negative thoughts to the back of my mind and tried to focus on good things, like my friends and hobbies. As the months went by, I thought I was slowly getting over it, that the questions weren’t bothering me anymore. But once the winter holidays came around and our school break began, there weren’t enough distractions to keep me from thinking about bad things — things that were completely destroying my confidence. Only when my regular distractions disappeared did I realize how deep the roots of my self-doubt had become.
I was diagnosed with depression that winter, but I tried not to let it affect me. I attempted to avoid thinking about my diagnosis by diverting my attention from it. I went to therapy, started a new relationship, and did well in school. Things were rough, but, then again, I was only 17. How bad could it possibly be? I asked myself.
A couple months later, I was sexually assaulted by someone I once cared for. Because it happened right before summer break, I thought I would have space to heal. I thought a month and a half would be enough time for me to find closure and muster the energy to get through my last year of high school. But then, when I went back to school in the fall, I saw him. I saw him on the very first day — and every day of my senior year that followed. The month and a half I had spent healing turned to dust. My mind began to lose the fight.
Anxiety took over my life. Every second felt like all my nerves were being pinched, and panic attacks began marching through my body like a harrowing parade. I would be sitting in class completely content, and then suddenly my vision would go black — a dark space that would be punctured by images depicting everything from me being thrown against a wall to my mom dying. These images would send me into a frenzy and cause me to burst into tears.
“Are you ... are you OK?” my teachers would ask.
“I’m sorry — I don’t know what’s happening,” I would reply.
Especially at the onset of these attacks, I really didn’t know what was happening. I had witnessed my mom having panic attacks before, but I never imagined she could have been experiencing the amount of strain and heaviness I felt ensue in just a matter of seconds. I couldn’t imagine her enduring the feeling that everything was crashing down, even though nothing was actually moving. It was an indescribable fear of nothing.
When I managed to leave the classroom to get some air, I often found myself on the bathroom floor. My school was quite small, so that seemed to be the only place where I could be alone, at least for a little while. I would sit and rest my head against the wall, hoping that things would eventually fix themselves and that I would be OK again. But the more pressure I put on myself to force the panic attacks to stop, the more frequent and severe they became. I spent more time in the bathroom than I did in actual classrooms my senior year, tangled in a never-ending cycle of unnecessary anguish, which was, ironically, driven by my intense desire to get better.
After the panic attacks became more frequent, I was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). I already felt like the school’s nutcase — BDD was just another thing to add to the list. My therapist and counselors believed that, at that point, I should pursue medication and a psychiatrist who could help with the anxiety part of BDD, namely the all-consuming panic attacks.
At first I thought the antidepressants were a blessing. The crying stopped, the frequency of the panic attacks decreased, and I felt unbelievably chilled. But I wasn’t relaxed so much as involuntarily calm. It seemed as if my body wasn’t even listening to me anymore — complete chaos still spun inside of me, but I couldn’t physically show it because my body wouldn’t let me. I felt like a zombie: I couldn’t think straight, everything was fuzzy, and my memory began to disappear. Conversations with my counselors began to start with, “Yay, you made it to school!” to which I could only reply, “I have no idea how I got here.”
I remember how much I wanted the pills to work, how many expectations I placed on something with which I had no prior experience. Even as my consciousness continued to fade, I believed the medication would still help me, one way or another. But after trying two different types of antidepressants with no positive outcomes or improvements, I couldn’t do it anymore. I decided, once again, to try living with my disorders without the assistance of medication.
I learned several things throughout this experience. First, other people and medication can’t sort your life out for you. Working through any issue, including mental illness, is something that you have to ultimately do yourself, even when it hurts. Trying to ignore a disorder — whether BDD, depression, anxiety, PTSD from sexual assault, or anything else — will not solve it. It has to be acknowledged and confronted head-on.
I should have faced my fears and asked for help as soon as I felt the first inkling that something was wrong, back during my junior year. Instead, I ignored and further internalized the problems. I put more pressure on myself to fix my issues instead of stepping back and reflecting about their broader sources, and doing so only lengthened my suffering. The subject of mental health was not something that frequently came up at home or in school; it felt like a myth that only existed in romantic movies. Our school had months-long courses about sex education every year, but things like depression and anxiety were never discussed. If I’d known these problems were so common around the world, especially among teenagers, I don’t think I would have kept mine to myself for so long.
I have now learned to replace denial with acceptance. I guide myself through my panic attacks by accepting them. Every time an attack occurs, I tell myself that it’s only temporary and will pass. I ride it like a wave and don’t try to intervene, but rather focus on simply breathing. I still experience bad days and the unnerving feeling of not having control over my disorders, but at least I’m not ignoring those feelings anymore. I finally feel strong enough to not only take care of myself but to speak out about my struggles and hopefully help others like me, too.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, visit Half of Us for resources and ways to get help.
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