By Kelly Wynne
Anxiety is a natural force, a tool in our expansive supply of defenses. It’s innate. It’s historic. It’s the tiny little voice in between your stomach and your ribs that tells you not to touch a hot stove, not to trust that new friend. It’s normal; but for some of us, anxiety is stomach-turning, sickness-invoking, over-dramatic manifestations of some unwarranted dread, leading back to an unidentifiable cause or a timeless confrontation. It knocks us down and puts us in bed, unable to breathe or think or move. It causes us to lose a part of ourselves instead of protecting it.
A year ago, I released a piece of writing titled Anxiety Is An Invalid Excuse. I wrote the piece of prose in a moment of extreme panic. It was the first time I was able to channel my anxiety into something productive rather than curl up in a ball and wait for my lack of breath to pass. It was a piece I was, and still am, incredibly proud of. It’s cliche, but a lot can change in a year, and I believe writing that piece was foreshadowing a lot. To all that read it, shared it, found your own voice in it, thank you. I think it’s time to catch you up.
The past year has been filled with some of my most trying moments, and ultimately, some of the best. Spoiler: I’m living well with a hold on my anxiety and panic disorder I never imagined I’d have. But it’s taken an incredible amount of work to get there. From therapy to outrageous amounts of self-reflection, I’ve become a new person, one who can find calm in most triggering situations and one who constantly forgets to bring her pill-stash with in case of emergency. That Xanax in my bag hasn’t been touched in nearly six months. It’s still unbelievable to me.
Clearly, while writing Anxiety Is An Invalid Excuse my mental health wasn’t in the best place; but my day to day life was in order. I was having panic attacks monthly, and still in a headspace to combat them consciously. I was fulfilling my schoolwork to the best of my potential (despite commonly missing class, which my teachers understood), and had just landed my dream internship at Rolling Stone. After publishing the article and receiving thousands of direct responses, I felt less alone: I felt on top of the world. That feeling lasted a few weeks before the weight of it all kicked in.
Putting my story into the world was ballsy. I have, for a long time now, been seen as the internet’s “anxiety girl.” It’s something I’ve been alright with because I do feel the platform I created was able to help a large amount of people. The messages I received explained estranged family members reconnecting over a new understanding of mental illness and tips on how to combat daily jitters. I felt a community forming, one that wasn’t afraid to speak out about their struggles. It ultimately inspired me to try talk therapy, which has been life-changing in the most therapeutic way. (I know, I know. But what better word is there to explain therapy than therapeutic?) But there were also messages that spoke of suicide, lost friends and lost minds. There were powerful stories that stuck with me and made me evaluate the mild conditions of my own circumstances. While the community was growing, so was my recognition that the severity of anxiety for its victims expanded far past my own understanding. My case, while poetically severe, was just a small pinch of the possibilities.
When I came home to Chicago for winter break, I was worn down. I had recently found a section of the internet that wasn’t as supportive of my point of view. Comments on my piece like “This is why parents should hit their kids,” poked at my heart and made me doubt my own understanding. Around the same time, the piece was plagiarized by two sources, and I realized how deflating the feeling of stolen work can be. I made a conscious choice to forget these events and pretend they didn’t happen. Meanwhile, my anxiety was growing. I reached a point where I was unable to drive, full-on panicking at nearly every red light. When it came time to return to New York, I knew in my gut I shouldn’t go. I postponed my flight twice before finally getting on a plane and resuming classes.
Between my time spent at my internship and in classes, I was dedicating the majority of my week to work. It was a schedule that didn’t allow for much self-care. Well, it probably could have. But I didn’t acknowledge that possibility. I was up at six and home by eight. I’d get into bed, watch Netflix, go to sleep and do it all over again. I wasn’t writing aside from work and school. I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t even participating in my cherished skincare routines. I was simply getting by, slowly losing pieces of myself. I kept giving: to work, to my internship, to my friends. I was applying my energy everywhere except where it needed to be: on myself.
Without my self-care routines in place, I started to fall apart. A physical health issue was the last straw. I was in pain. I was tired. I was alone in New York and I just needed support. I was unable to leave my dorm room for a week. I tried to walk three blocks to get a cupcake, a last minute attempt at doing something nice for myself, but only a block away from home, I fell on the ground outside of a Duane Reade, took a Xanax, and waited until I could walk the two minutes back to my bed. I called my parents that night, embarrassed of giving up my independence and ashamed of admitting I needed help. My mom was on a plane out two days later, and by the weekend I was back in Chicago, somehow convincing my teachers to let me work remotely and figure out my mental health.
I never knew the definition of a “mental breakdown.” I guess I still don’t. But what I experienced was indescribable to anyone who has not felt it themselves. I felt a physical energy building in my body. It eventually reached my head. I felt like shaking, jumping, running. I tried, but the energy would not release. It was stacked so tightly, I felt I might explode. I couldn’t breathe right. I couldn’t stop crying. I seriously considered the cost of hospitalization and what that would mean for the end of my school year. I have never felt so hopeless, so alone and small at the foot of something so extreme. Admitting I needed help was the best thing I could have done, because I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t.
The steps I took from there were immediate. I met with my therapist for the first time that Monday and kept up with weekly sessions. The success I found wasn’t necessarily overnight, but it came quickly because of my willingness to externalize my deep, unconscious thoughts. I unlocked a part of myself, and my therapist was able to connect the dots I couldn’t see. We came to realizations together, from triggering events in my early life to what kinds of things make me panic now. I impulsively stopped taking my medication (something you’re not supposed to do…talk to your doctor before attempting, please) and felt better than I did on it. I began to envision my anxiety as a physical presence, from color to shape to feel. I identified the ones I’d felt before, immediately invalidating their power and coming to a peaceful state of mind with the idea that they wouldn’t hurt me. I started to do this in every situation and instead of panicking, I now simply feel the anxiety, acknowledge it, and watch it leave.
With this new mindset, I went back to New York, finished my semester, and enjoyed my time there. I spent more time exploring and more time on public transportation. I pushed my comfort zone to the best of my ability and finally felt comfortable. I returned to Chicago, proud of my comeback, but craving some of the self-attention I’d been lacking in the prior year. I decided on taking a semester off to write, which I’ve been doing successfully now for the past three months. Day by day I feel more like myself. I’ve gained a new level of self-respect, a new understanding for my conditions, and a confidence in my ability to take care of myself.
I believe one of the most important parts of my recovery was coming to terms with my anxiety and understanding where it came from. Being able to take steps back in my life in order to identify causes of current triggers was eye-opening. It was difficult: seeing it clearly from my adult perspective makes me wish I could go back and fix it all. But being honest with myself has been enough to help me develop a stronger mindset and negate many of the instances that have caused me hardships.
Learning to love yourself is hard. It’s never been something I felt I needed – for most of my life I’ve felt alright with who I am as a person, but in the past months I’ve learned we all need to work on it, to learn to cherish ourselves and every bump in the road, no matter how minuscule or pointless the struggle may seem. In doing this, I’ve gained some of the best aspects of my life. From a boyfriend who plays with my hair when those rare glimpses of unstable mind come to light, to losing the friends that never understood it at all, I’m now surrounded by a team that supports me and how far I’ve come. I’m dedicated to my path, no matter how difficult it may be at times. Of course, I’m expecting waves in my stability, though now more than ever, I’m confident I can handle any day or hour, and succeed to my full ability through any discomfort.
To all of my readers who relate, I hope you find this too. It can be done. Just focus on yourself.
Kelly Wynne Kelly is a 20-year-old writer from Chicago, IL who specializes in entertainment reviews.