Something isn’t right. I’m fine, but I’m not fine. Why can’t I catch my breath? Why do I feel nauseated? What’s wrong with me? I feel like I’m losing my mind. I must be losing my mind.
Those were just some of the thoughts that went through my head in March of 2007 while sitting in the hallway outside of the theatre at my high school. I could hear my friends and classmates inside talking and laughing and singing and I was crouched in a corner, knees tucked in tight, waiting for a moment of peace. But it never came. I grabbed my cell phone and immediately called my mom. She would know. She would have answers.
“Mom, something’s wrong. I can’t breathe; I’m shaking; my heart is pounding. I feel like I’m going crazy.”
She didn’t have all the answers, but she did help me breathe again and she promised me we would see a doctor as soon as possible. And I went back to rehearsal and survived that day.
Soon after, I went to see several doctors. I saw my general physician. I saw a therapist. I saw a psychiatrist. I saw a neurologist. And then I had my diagnosis.
I was terrified. Weren’t people with Bipolar Disorder like certifiably nuts? At the time, I truly believed that yes, they were, and now, so was I. But I had my answer and I had medication and I had my family and my friends. I would overcome this even if it killed me.
But I didn’t have Bipolar Disorder.
I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And that is quite different. It took another psychiatrist and another general physician to confirm that. Oh, and an entire year of believing I had Bipolar Disorder. With the new diagnosis came new medication - better medication - and a new outlook on how I could live my life. In a strange way, I was excited to finally be diagnosed properly. I liked the attention. I liked having a routine of taking medication every day. I liked being different.
I was put on two different medications and remained on those meds for roughly five years. Effexor and Xanax. Effexor for battling the day-to-day and Xanax for my anxiety attacks. I was on a very manageable dosage for anyone who wants to feel better but not feel like a zombie. But with every passing year came a higher dosage until I was finally maxed out on Effexor and kept running out of Xanax because I couldn’t stop having attacks.
Stress is my trigger. It always has been. I’ve always been the over-achiever – taking a double course-load, working multiple jobs, having a dozen side projects – and that works for me in short bursts. I look like I’m sailing through life like a pro. And then it all comes crashing down. In college, for example, I would skip dozens of classes and call out of work. The same started happening once I entered the working world. I remember missing several days of work in a row because I was afraid of what my boss would say to me once I came back. And I kept letting the people around me down.
In addition to being triggered by stress, I am now triggered by fear. I have trouble sleeping because I’m convinced someone is going to break in. I don’t go to any social events because I’m genuinely terrified to interact with large groups of people. I don’t sing in public anymore because I’m afraid of being criticized. I have stopped doing a lot of the things that make me feel like myself.
I’ve been forced to take jobs that don’t cause me stress, which has meant jobs that don’t pay as well or offer any upward mobility. And as much as it kills me to sell myself short in this manner, I need to remember that I’m doing it for my health. I’m doing it to stay alive.
I’ve had to stop putting myself in situations where I may have an anxiety attack or a panic attack (yes, they’re different). I don’t drink alcohol. I decided after college that there are so few times during a regular week where I truly feel like I am in control and I didn’t want a few hours tipsy or drunk to limit that time even more. And I try to do more things that make me feel normal, like sticking to a daily routine, eating healthier, and writing.
Writing has helped the most. I am slowly getting back in touch with the fearless, confident, badass girl I used to be, but maybe this time I can be a better version of her.
I’m not on medication anymore. I went cold turkey about 2 years ago (that was a mistake – I can’t recommend that) and I recently started seeing a therapist again. She challenges me in ways no therapist ever has and has helped me identify past trauma that caused my fear and she has given me the tools to move past it. Those closest to me have seen the change in how I approach everyday situations and that gives me hope for the future.
If you don’t have a mental illness, I can understand why it would be so easy for you to dismiss those of us that do. My husband had a very difficult time coming to terms with my illness. He couldn’t relate in the slightest. He eventually understood and is so much more compassionate about it now, but he still struggles. So, I get it. We seem insane and irrational and melodramatic and hyperbolic. But we’re not. Every single day is a struggle for us and we just try to live one step at a time. We strive to survive.
So, don’t dismiss us.
In being diagnosed with anxiety, I have found a strength within myself that I could never have had without it. That feeling you get when actually accomplishing your goals despite being your own biggest obstacle? That’s the best high I could ever get. And in writing about my mental illness, I have been able to connect with a new group of individuals who understand me better than most.
I’m proud to be able to write this all down and see the growth and progress I’ve made in the eleven years since my diagnosis.
#dontcallmecrazy. My name is Hannah and I have #generalizedanxietydisorder, but it does NOT have me.
- Hannah Holmgren, 2018