So, how did I get here? Part Two of my anxiety journey in 2020
Content Warning: This post discusses anxiety and mental illness, including mentions of anxiety-induced eating difficulties
If you've been wondering about the epic conclusion to my last post, which ended with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, then luckily for you, the wait is over.
During spring 2020, quarantine seemed like the solution to my anxiety. I didn’t have to leave my house, and I could stay locked away in my room. As I’ve now learned, this was not a permanent or healthy fix. In the long run, COVID-19 increased my anxiety, and I finally had to confront these issues, instead of avoiding them. I could no longer pretend that my anxiety would just go away one day, no matter how much I wished it would.
Coming out of lockdown was an easier adjustment than I expected. I took my senior year of high school by storm, excelling at school, preparing for college, and ending toxic relationships. To the outsider, everything seemed to be going great for me.
At this point during the year, I was also convinced that everything was fine. After my tumultuous anxiety period in January 2020, I felt more at peace. By January 2021, the year mark since my anxiety breakdown, I really thought I had mastered my anxiety. I had learned to drive and confronted the massive anxiety that came with it, and in general, was moving forward through my senior year.
The issue was that I hadn’t conquered my anxiety, it had simply subsided for the time being. I think this is a concept people who do not struggle with mental illness do not understand as well. There is no “cure” for mental illness, and tools like therapy and medicine can definitely help, but it won’t make it go away.
The fact is that I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. Pair that with a history of anxiety in my family and stressful situations, and I have the perfect recipe for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Coping with anxiety is about learning how to not let the bad, anxiety-inducing days overshadow the rest of my week or control my enjoyment of life. But the bad days are never going to disappear permanently, like *poof* my wish is granted.
I like to think of anxiety sometimes as a snowball rolling down a hill. A small fear will trigger my anxiety, and it builds and builds until, gradually, my anxiety becomes all-consuming. Just like how once the snowball has gained so much mass, it can't be stopped, once my anxiety is out of control, I can’t quiet the fears anymore.
In May 2021, I was starting to spiral again. Graduation was approaching, and more ominous on my mind’s horizons was college and my uncertain future beyond. So obviously, my stress levels were rising.
It started with small worries, like the fact that I was going to trip and fall at the graduation ceremony.
Next, I started to fixate on food. I don’t know why, but when I am very anxious, I struggle with eating. This issue began around my sophomore year of high school during a separate anxiety episode. No matter how much I wanted to, trying to eat made me want to gag, and this became very stressful for me.
I worried that since my stress levels were elevated, this would happen again, and I hated it the first time around. However, this time, instead of worrying about gagging at every meal, I worried I would develop a sudden allergic reaction. This fear didn’t logically make sense as I have never had any food allergies, but I sat at every meal shaking and taking deep breaths, trying to convince myself that my throat wouldn’t swell up with each bite.
Mealtimes became a very stressful occasion, and I would dread sitting there and taking a very long time to work up the courage to eat foods I have devoured and loved before.
A lot of my anxieties during this time pointed to one fear: dying. With regards to food, I had convinced myself I would develop a severe allergic reaction to something I had eaten before, and die. I knew it didn't make sense, but my brain was convinced it would happen.
Graduating didn’t put my anxiety to rest. I found it harder and harder to leave my house, to go to grad parties and celebrate. The constant worry of dying was always on my mind, whether it was in a car crash or some other freak accident.
Then came our family vacation in June. What was supposed to be a trip to the most magical place on Earth became a constant battle with the nightmares my brain conjured up.
First, there was the flight to Florida. I sat awake the entire night on the plane praying we wouldn’t crash and die. It didn’t matter to me that thousands, probably millions of people flew every day, in my mind, this was surely the end.
Despite landing safely in Orlando, my brain would not be silenced.
Unfortunately, being constantly exposed to the news does not help my anxiety either. Seeing reports of mass shootings and gun violence increased my fear of leaving the house and possibly dying.
While in Disney World, I wanted to have a good time. However, every time I got on a ride, I sat in fear and braced myself for gunshots. The worst would be if the rides stopped while I was in the dark. Then my heart would pound, my hands would shake, and I could barely calm myself down. My brain was so convinced that somehow I would die during this vacation, either from a gunshot or allergic reaction, and therefore it would not shut up.
If you look at pictures from my family vacation, I look perfectly happy. However, this was a facade I maintained in an attempt to convince my family and myself that I was okay. Inside, I was miserable, my anxiety nagging at me every second of the day.
My anxiety was ruining my life. Up until this point, I had been afraid to go on anxiety meds because I felt that anxiety was an integral part of me. If I didn’t have the constant nerves throughout my day, who would I be? However, it was starting to become too much for me to handle. I've always found it a bit ironic that despite how some days I would hate my life and want it to end, I was deeply, deeply afraid of dying.
Evidently, seeing a therapist wasn’t helping enough anymore. My anxiety spiral was occurring while I was actively in therapy, and yet I still barely functioned from day to day. Obviously, something had to change.
My mom says she realized this as well when I told her, “I just don’t enjoy anything.” And I agree. Following our family vacation, I was so miserable, living each day worrying about all the things that could happen to me, things I couldn't even control. I couldn’t live in the moment or enjoy any positive experiences because I was too worried about what could happen if I let my guard down.
So, I talked to my doctor and therapist in order to, as my mom would put it, add another tool to my toolbox. The toolbox is my mother’s favorite analogy for my healthy anxiety coping mechanisms.
In July 2021, I started taking an SSRI, also known as a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Although I am not a doctor, from my understanding SSRIs slow down the reabsorption of serotonin, also known as inhibiting its reuptake into the neurons. This allows more serotonin to be available to improve the transmission of messages between neurons.
It’s been almost a year since I started taking an SSRI, and I can definitely see and feel the improvements in my life. Adjusting to the medicine during the first couple of weeks was difficult, and I felt like my anxiety was even more amplified. However, once my body adjusted to it, I gradually began to feel better.
Now, I find it easier to leave my house and go out with friends than I did before. More of my anxious thoughts are quieted, so it is a bit easier for me to do things that might have triggered my anxiety in the past. Overall, I feel calmer and less like a jittering ball of nerves that might explode at any minute.
Taking an SSRI did not cure me though. For some people, only having therapy or only taking an SSRI helps them. Everyone is different, and therefore struggles with and handles mental illnesses differently.
For me, I need both an SSRI and therapy. And even with both, I still have bad days. I’ve come to learn that it is okay to have bad days, it doesn’t mean I have failed at “mastering” my anxiety, and it doesn’t necessarily mean I am heading down another anxiety spiral.
I guess what I’m trying to say after this long post is that I did get better. I am content with my life now, and I think I have more perspective on who I am and how I can live the life I want. So, it is possible to get better, even when everything seems bleak and hopeless. I believe in you, and please reach out for help if you are struggling. We are all worthy and valid.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help. A wide range of mental health hotlines and sources can be found here. The Trevor Project also provides mental health support for LGBTQ+ youth, which can be found here.