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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to spread the message that no one is alone in their mental health struggles. So, what better way to end the month of May than to talk about my own mental health?!
When I was a kid, I used to get “stomach aches” a lot. I put that in quotes because what I was actually experiencing was anxiety – I just didn’t know to call it that. I would frequently sit in my 2nd grade class with a stomach ache and/or nausea. I remember at one point, one of my teachers sat me down and asked me what was going on because it started to become an almost everyday occurrence. I wasn’t really sure what to tell her because I was 6 years old and didn’t have the words to describe what was happening. What I could tell her, though, was that there was a boy in the home of my babysitter, where I spent every afternoon after school, who I was afraid of. He was no more than 2 years older than me but when you’re that young, 2 years makes a big difference. He was bigger than me, mean and the son of my babysitter. Sometimes he’d be perfectly nice to me but at other times that was not the case. Now, in hindsight, I realize that the anxiety I was experiencing was fear and uncertainty of what I would encounter after school.
Luckily, we moved when I was 9 but unfortunately, the anxiety has stayed with me to varying degrees my entire life. It definitely got better after we moved and I came out of my shell more. In fact, the anxiety wouldn’t be a major issue again until college. Soon after moving into my freshman dorm, I started to experience anxiety so severe that it became almost debilitating. I could sit with a group of friends, just chatting and laughing, and all of a sudden I’d feel pure fear well up inside my chest. I couldn’t focus on the present moment. I almost dissociated a bit because at various points I felt like I wasn’t real. If you’ve never experienced this, this surely sounds strange but if you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. It was a few months into my first semester that I decided to visit the Counseling Center. This was the first time I’d ever been to therapy. We talked about my anxiety and my general unhappiness at that time. He hypothesized that I had General Anxiety Disorder because I was just anxious all of the time, no matter the setting. When he said those words and gave me a packet to take home to read more about it, I finally felt seen. I finally felt heard. Everything that was in the piece of literature he gave me spoke to me on a deeper level. Because I’ll be honest, I was starting to feel like I was going crazy!
I saw him for the remainder of my first year and went into my sophomore year a much more confident person. I didn’t experience that level of anxiety again until graduate school. (You might start noticing a pattern here – big life transitions tend to throw me off course). In grad school, though, it wasn’t just anxiety anymore. It was depression and low self-esteem. I had applied for several grad assistant positions and gotten none of them. It wasn’t until a month before classes started when I got an email saying that an additional position had been opened and that they’d like me to fill it. I was ecstatic! But the excitement soon turned into major imposter syndrome. I felt that I didn’t deserve to be there, especially since I was their second choice or maybe worse, their last resort. I got it into my head that I was doing everything wrong and that I was just a stupid person. The self-berating got so bad that I’d get anxious every time I got off work because my routine would be to go over everything I could’ve done better that day. I knew it was high time for therapy again and I sought out a counselor in the area. One of the first things she said to me was, “You are horrible to yourself!”. We worked on it and bit by bit, I got better. I stayed with her for one year and “graduated” therapy the week I graduated from my master’s program.
I felt great! Self-assured and confident. I learned to love myself and treat myself with the same compassion with which I treat my peers. This was in 2018. Now, in 2021, I am back in therapy but not due to anything severe. I recently got a new job and moved cities. I knew from the past that big life transitions tend to throw me for a loop. So, I reached out to my previous therapist so that she could help me through the transition – preventative care if you will. Right now, I’m pretty content. Seeking out therapy this time around was more for maintenance. I see it this way: we go to our primary care physicians at least once a year for a physical check-up. Shouldn’t we do the same for our mind too? I used to think that I only deserved to see a therapist if I was having a crisis but that’s not at all how that works. Regardless of how “severe” or “mild” one’s mental health struggle is (in quotes because it’s all relative), everyone deserves help!
I’m a huge advocate for counseling and have been for years. And for any of you who know me personally, you know I talk openly about my mental health because I don’t want anyone feeling like they’re alone. Or that going to therapy means they’re “crazy”. Or that they don’t deserve help. Or that they don’t deserve to be happy! Mental health is much like physical health – you have to work to maintain it and you’ll have good days and more difficult days. It’s all part of being human. Another part of being human is seeking out help when you need it because no one is meant to walk through life alone!