When you look at your friends and classmates, you might see the tall, lanky nerd who always gets straight As, the popular senior who is always laughing and smiling, or that classmate who seems to have everything under control. Sometimes this is all they will allow you to see.
And that's a shame.
Because what you may have heard before is trite but true: Nobody's perfect. In a world where people may seem perfect — or at least in control and normal — we often see ourselves as abnormal or not good enough. Whether they show it or not, though, everybody has problems of one kind or another.
The First Signs
It was the spring of my junior year of high school — a particularly stressful time for many students. I had schoolwork to do, APs to study for, nightly soccer practice, and pit band rehearsal for the school musical. To put it lightly, I was overloaded.
One night while I was sitting in my final dress rehearsal for the school play, I started thinking about my boyfriend. We'd been dating since the beginning of the school year, and because he was my first boyfriend, I was very inexperienced when it came to relationships. As I was sitting in rehearsal that night, thoughts about our relationship just kept popping up in my head. Where was our relationship going? Was it a good, healthy relationship? What was it really based on?
While these were normal questions for anyone to ask, my reactions to them were both mentally and physically overwhelming. I couldn't focus on playing my music, and I started breathing too quickly and trembling, convinced that my boyfriend would dump me and my world would fall apart. I kept imagining only the worst outcomes from this situation, until finally I couldn't sit with the band anymore. I had to leave the auditorium during the last full dress rehearsal and run to the bathroom, where I began retching in one of the stalls.
After that night, things began to worsen sharply. I missed the next 3 days of school because I told my mom I was too sick to go. And while this was true — I couldn't keep any food down for 3 days — I knew it was more because of my fears than because of any physical illness.
During those 3 days I lay in bed and constantly worried. I tried thinking through what was bothering me, and decided that any relationship that bothered me that much couldn't be good. I broke up with my boyfriend, figuring that would help, but once I had done that I still felt worried. I figured something else was wrong with my life, maybe that I was too stressed. I quit the soccer team and hoped that would help.
It didn't, and now I felt even worse. There was even more to worry about — what did my now ex-boyfriend think of me? Did he hate me? How could he still want to get back together with someone as messed up as me? Would my soccer coach think that I was just a quitter? Was I a quitter?
I started to notice that I became easily distracted from my work. In classes I would zone out of discussions completely, constantly worrying about my friends and my life, and wondering if I was normal. My psychology class was especially hard to sit through. I was sure that once we started learning new material, people would find out that I was weird or maybe even insane. What if everything I was experiencing was due to schizophrenia? I was sure I'd end up in an institution, crazy, lonely, and forgotten by all.
Over the next few weeks things improved, only to worsen again during summer vacation. My heart would race, and with all my worries I'd be too jittery to sit still. At my worst I was so nervous that anything I'd eat I'd just throw up again because I was so worried.
My parents started to worry that I was anorexic, and I only felt more misunderstood. I wanted to eat, I wanted to feel full and healthy, but my body wasn't letting me. "Just stop worrying," my parents would tell me. "You're not trying hard enough. If you just try harder you can make this stop."
But I had been trying so hard — did they think I wanted to be like this? This wasn't me at all. The me I knew was happy, fun, and lighthearted if not carefree. Now I just cried and worried, steadily lost weight, and withdrew from my friends so they couldn't find out what was happening to me. My parents knew something was very wrong and that they had to intervene. And so, for the first time ever, I ended up seeing a psychologist.
I begged my parents not to make me go, and when they refused, screamed at them for forcing me to go against my will. When we showed up I was ready to hate my psychologist and show my parents how pointless this was.
And then I actually met the psychologist and found out he wasn't such a bad guy. He was there to help me — not to report back to my parents, not to have me committed to an institution, not to force any action at all — just to talk.
So we talked. Over the next few months he told me that I had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and we worked on techniques to help me overcome my worries, such as breathing, not jumping to catastrophic conclusions, and thinking rationally. But as hard as I tried to fight this, I just couldn't kick the worrying habit. My psychologist suggested I see a psychiatrist who would be able to prescribe medication to help me. Although when we first met I said I would not go on medication, I was so ready to be myself again that I willingly agreed.
With my psychiatrist's recommendation and prescription I began taking an anti-anxiety medication that's approved for teens. I also continued therapy with my psychologist. And gradually over the next few weeks my overwhelming anxiety became manageable. Nobody's life is ever completely worry-free, but my concerns were now realistic and didn't control my whole life. My parents had me back, my friends had me back — but most important, I had me back. I was me again.
So I'm not perfect, and I would never claim to be — but I'm not crazy either. Around 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder in any given year, which doesn't take into account people under age 18 or those who may have had an anxiety disorder in the past! Knowing this helps me feel less alone; other people are going through the same thing I did.
Dealing with my anxiety has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, but I am a better, stronger, and more confident person for everything I have gone through. I learned that living a life of fear is not living at all, and while obstacles may arise more than I'd like, there is no problem that I can't handle. I've learned to take some risks and face my challenges head on. The rewards of trying, whether I succeed or not, are always better than letting my worries run my life or wondering what would have happened if I'd only had the courage to try.