My Mental Health Journey: What You Don’t See

I have anxiety and depression.

And standing before you, you might not guess it. You see, mental illness is often invisible to the outside world. On a good day, it’s a distant memory of my past. On a bad day, it’s attacking my mind and body on the inside while I smile and nod on the outside, acting like everything is perfectly normal, happy and chill.

Mental illness affects 43.8 million people in the U.S. (about 1 in 5 of adults) and chances are, even if you think you don’t know someone with a mental illness, you do.

My anxiety and depression have affected my entire life, and today I’m coming clean with everything.

I was always an anxious child. On the first day of school, I wouldn’t be able to eat. At camps, I would be too nervous to eat and on the verge of tears the entire time. New situations would send me spiraling. My first sleepaway camp experience I made myself sick so my mom would come to get me.Even in sports like lacrosse (at which I was very good), I would second guess every action — what if’s clouding my mind. The funny thing is, I thought that everyone was like this. 

I got low participation grades in class because raising my hand to ask a question or give an answer put such a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach that talking myself into even raising my hand took at least the entire period (if not longer) and left me hating myself once I got up the courage. Too little too late. What if I got the answer wrong or asked a stupid question? What if people laughed at me or thought I was stupid?

Senior year of high school, sleep-deprived and stressed from schoolwork, the breakdowns came. Weeping at *almost* hitting the kamikaze squirrels while driving. Spiraling thoughts every time the mail came for fear of the small envelope. Going to bed past midnight, leaving for school at 6:40 every morning.

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Flash forward to college. My high of leaving home and entering a school I loved with a lovely group of people all seeking friends and learning the ropes made me forget me anxiety for just a minute. Alcohol-fueled nights let me hide my anxieties for a while. A busy and challenging class schedule and lots of extracurriculars gave my mind something to focus on for most of the time. I still couldn’t eat that first week of orientation or the first few days of classes. But I could hide it pretty well.

After freshman year, I got sick. A paralyzed vocal cord that was repeatedly misdiagnosed as a sinus infection, laryngitis and bronchitis. I was on a cocktail of antibiotics that weren’t actually doing anything and had a camera stuck up my nose and into my throat to see what was going on. I was frustrated and angry and unhappy at all that I had gone through for something the doctors couldn’t figure out how it happened and just told me that eventually, it would get better. Or it wouldn’t. Someone with an anxious mind doesn’t really take too well to that type of news.

Driving to Davidson for sophomore year, the real breakdown came.

I couldn’t breathe or catch my breath (the paralyzed vocal cord didn’t help with that as it kept my airway constantly open). I felt simultaneously cold and hot, a cold sweat perpetually on the nape of my neck. My hands were shaky. I couldn’t swallow anything but liquid. The thought of ingesting food made me even more nauseous than I already was. I was on the verge of tears every second of the day. Smiling through the tears and the breathlessness on the outside; feeling like I was dying on the inside. The only food I could keep down was peanut butter and Gatorade. The noise of friends catching up after a summer away was an endless cacophony in my ears. My laughter was fake and hollow. There was a constant stream of adrenaline pumping through my veins as I continuously looked for ways to escape each situation I was in.

I worked up the courage to call a doctor in town. I wept on the table as I told her everything I was feeling. Relief washed over me when I found out that I wasn’t dying or going insane. I just had an anxiety disorder! She was sweet and understanding and sympathetic and encouraging and optimistic. She prescribed me Lexapro to help level out the serotonin in my brain. She recommended counseling and, for fear of never feeling normal again, I worked up the courage to call my school’s counseling services and made an appointment. She recommended I tell a friend and my roommate Mariah graciously listened to her as I told her of my diagnosis with GAD (thanks for always being there for me, even to this day).

After a while, I could breathe again, without feeling like every breath was a gasp for air.

Slowly, I could eat again. After losing about 15 pounds in a few weeks, my belt was tired of holding up my loose shorts. At first, it was just a little more peanut butter each day. Then came snacks and bread and fruit. Finally, meals.

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My mom asked me if I should take the semester off and come back when I was more functional. I genuinely thought about it. Convalescing in my own home, with no stressors and a dog sounded pretty nice. But my fear of being seen as a failure and a quitter and weak kept me in school. Probably not the smartest decision, but deep down I knew that if I could make it through that time then I could make it through anything.

Most of the rest of sophomore year was a blur — we only remember the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, amirite? I threw myself into my books; stopped drinking; started meditating and doing CBT. I felt “normalish” again (for the most part). I applied to study abroad in London and Paris and got accepted to both (nothing like running away from your problems).

I told a few more friends about my anxiety, although I’m not sure they really got it. After all, if I was still going to class and doing stuff with them, what was my anxiety than just an excuse to go to bed early or cancel plans yet again? What they didn’t see was the absolute terror that hit me at loud parties or the shame I felt when asked why I wasn’t drinking for the billionth time that night or the insomnia and spiraling thoughts that hit every time I put my head on my pillow at night for bed and cried as I wished to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep just once without having to watch Gilmore Girls. How can you understand an invisible illness if you’ve never experienced it before?

After sophomore year, I was ready to jump ship. Leave Davidson and my fears and insecurities and run off to faraway lands where no one knew me. I went off my Lexapro after 9 months, feeling confident with my mental state and too stressed at the thought of having to find another doctor abroad to give it to me. Armed with a year’s supply of Xanax for panic attacks and flights, I left Davidson for Paris and, subsequently, London

Abroad was the best time of my life. I still had my anxiety, but I became comfortable talking about my anxiety with other people, using it as a badge of honor rather than as a sign of shame. While it was the best time of my life, I was still the most comfortable in my room. My anxiety set in during class or at restaurants or in crowded or loud places. My brain never shut off, constantly analyzing every scenario or outcome. I was surviving and sometimes thriving in my own way. My actions were defined by my anxiety, but I was happy.

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Flash forward again to senior year. I moved into an apartment with friends I hadn’t seen in 1.5 years and re-inserted myself into a group that felt vaguely foreign to me. I began to feel lethargic, but I attributed that to re-adjusting to a U.S. college schedule. But the lethargy didn’t disappear and the fog in my brain became more pronounced — making me too tired to stay awake past 9 and too sleepy to wake up before 10. And in need of a lie down every possible break I had in my day.

Everything I did took all my strength. Even smiling felt like a huge chore.

One night, I decided to drink a little more than I normally do. I went home early and cried in the shower for not feeling happy enough, good enough or cool enough. A couple weeks later, I had a breakdown on the phone with my mom and made an appointment with my doctor. Turns out, I wasn’t going crazy again. I had depression! Hello again, Lexapro!

This time, despite my mind yelling at me to keep myself isolated, I reached out to friends, both close ones and acquaintances, whom I knew had been in my shoes before or had similar interests. My anxiety wasn’t going to let my depression take over my life (completely) despite the thick fog in my brain trying to bring me down.

My depression kept my brain dead until the day of a deadline when my anxiety would kick in and make me do whatever it was that needed doing. All of my essays and thesis deadlines that semester were completed this way.

I became a master Netflix binge-watcher — getting wrapped up in plot lines made me feel something and kept me awake long enough to get my work done. It was the only way I could function.

Parents weekend, I finally tried to explain to my dad what depression was. I cried a lot and still don’t know if I got through to him. It’s hard to explain to someone how it physically hurts to get out of bed every morning when every fiber of your being is yelling at you to stay horizontal or telling you that you’re no good.

But this time, I had a support system — a small group of people who would stay in with me and comfort me and talk with me. We got through the tough times together.

And slowly, the fog began to clear. Eventually, I didn’t have to fight with every ounce of my strength to go to class or to do some coursework. I had conquered my depression for the time being, but it would always be part of me.

My anxiety still kept me from living my full life the rest of senior year, but I was able to push past that little by little to learn to embrace who I am, despite the fact that anxiety and depression had stripped every sense of identity from me. Re-learning who you are at 21 is hard, especially when you’re supposed to know who you are at such a young age.

I joined a group of lovely people at school called Changing Minds. We talked about our shared struggles with mental illness as well as our coping mechanisms and hopes for more support on campus and in society. I had never felt more empowered or inspired. I worked with that group and one of its leaders to create an anonymous mental health survey and shared my struggles with hundreds of people.

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As an FU to my mental illnesses, I took 5 classes and completed my French thesis in the second semester. I graduated cum laude and said a tearful goodbye to a school that both made my life hell and, paradoxically, gave me some of the best years thus far. 

Those were the formative years of my struggle with mental illness. The bad years. The years that taught me how to be resilient. The years that taught me that it’s OK to not be OK and that the darkness will eventually pass.

I still struggle with anxiety. I still get depressed. I still take Lexapro. I’ve had some bad weeks and months, especially when I take on too much or get overwhelmed or feel alone. I shut down, don’t look at my phone, shirk my responsibilities and spend entire days watching the same show on Netflix, frozen in place on the couch. 

I have no shame in the fact that my mental illness defines me. I know what triggers to avoid. I know how to reduce my symptoms. Some days are harder than others and some days feel like they’ll never end. Some days I feel completely normal, like I was never touched by anxiety or depression. I still watch Gilmore Girls every night before bed, unless my nightly meditation puts me to sleep. I still am a master Netflix binge watcher. I still have trouble leaving my apartment some days.

And the moral of this long story?

  • Just because someone seems fine on the outside, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering on the inside.
  • Even if a friend seems distant, don’t give up on them. They need you now more than ever.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help or support, even if it seems like the scariest thing you’ve ever done.
  • If you feel alone, know that you aren’t.
  • The people who have struggled the most are the strongest.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak out about your mental health — whether to a friend or two or to the entire Internet — you never know who needs to know they’re not alone. You’ll also feel a weight lift off your chest.

Every person's story with their mental health is different. Just know that you are enough and you are not alone.

And if you still haven’t had enough of me:

I’ve told various parts of my mental health story to different people, even a couple different times on this blog. But I’ve never shared the entire story here (or to anyone, if I’m honest).

I want this blog to be a source of inspiration and support for people, no matter how few or how many people will read it. And if I haven’t shared my entire story, I can’t feel honest or true to all of you.

I want you to know that there may be some dark points in life, but that with the darkness comes the light.

And, finally, I want you to know that you are not alone, that you are strong, that you are loved.

P.S. I owe everything to those who were there for me throughout my mental health journey. You know who you are: if we’ve ever talked about mental illness or mental health, you’re someone I trust. THANK YOU.

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  • Reply
    Patricia Arduengo
    2 April 2018 at 18:50

    Alex, a beautiful and honest story. I too suffer from depression and anxiety, the latter because of PTSD. I am so glad you found people to trust and who understand. It is very difficult for people who have never experienced a mental illness to get what is going on with you. It is often just easier to fake it and hope to get out of the situation that is causing you the anxiety. I found a wonderful therapist who has helped me. I can call her and know that she understands. Therapy has worked for me and even though it can be agonizing and leave me completely drained, I have found it is worth it in order to understand a little of what makes me tick.

    Thank you for sharing. You walked into my class and I knew immediately you were very special. I am so proud of you and your accomplishments. Keep working on your goals and enjoy your life. Your pictures make me smile and you have such a glorious path ahead. Love you ?

    • Reply
      2 April 2018 at 21:55

      Thank you so, so much Mrs. A. Your kind words mean so much to me! And I couldn’t agree more with what you say. It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to people to tell them you are suffering and it’s scary to wait and see if they will believe or understand you. You were one of my favorite teachers in school and I still remember meeting you at Plant my freshman year outside your portable! I wish I could put into words how much your teaching and mentorship have meant to me.

  • Reply
    Mary Brantley
    2 April 2018 at 20:07

    I have been reading your blog for a while and am always impressed with your insight and courage. This blog is the bravest and most comprehensive description of the struggle with anxiety and depression that I have read in a long time.

    Thank you for the honesty and encouragement offered in your piece.

    Mary/ Ocala

    • Reply
      2 April 2018 at 20:44

      Thank you so much, Mary. You have no idea how much your words mean to me!

  • Reply
    Coach Jayne Chapman
    4 April 2018 at 15:22

    You are incredibly brave to share your story Alex! You have always been wise beyond your years, and you showed amazing strength and wisdom when you reached out for help! As a Golden Panther recipient (I ‘m pretty sure…and weren’t you taking a whopping 8 AP classes?), and as captain and all-star defender on the lacrosse team, you certainly masked your senior-year anxiety amazingly well. I have loved to keep up with you through your blog posts, and this one makes me especially proud to know you!

  • Reply
    Derek Ayre
    23 August 2018 at 12:32

    An excellent story which will be inspiring to many people and one which will de-stigmatize psychological and stress-related problems.

    I worked as a therapist with many people from the late 1970s to 2010 when I retired. One thing most of my clients had in common was embarrassment and fear of failure – very much as you describe so well here. Another common story I heard was about the anxiety produced when others who didn’t understand would say to them “you look OK to me, just get on with it”. That was not a very helpful thing to hear and many of them said that they would prefer to have bruises, marks or broken limbs that people could see.

    Paradoxically I would say that they all gave value to each other in helping to improve the quality of life. In fact to me to as a therapist, I was often realizing many buried conflicts within myself during my sessions with them and the groups as a result of their open sharing.

    One of the most valuable things I discovered from this is that human-begins because they are aware of being alive are naturally anxious, but many don’t get to learn experientialy the value of transcendence. And to transcend, we need to be OK to be who we are, and then the sharing of our experiences will be of value. Many a spiritual master has said that we learn more about being human from our struggles, than from our achievements.

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