Mental Illnesses Are Real: Anxiety and Depression

By Rachel Smith, Co-Editor

Rachel at 19.
Rachel at 19.

Many people were stunned to learn about Robin Williams’ tragic passing and to discover that he had demons he had been fighting his whole life. How could HE be sad? He was on top of the world! He spent his entire life entertaining millions with his humor and brought joy to people who were suffering! He had a family and millions of dollars! How could someone like that ever be depressed?

I understand it completely. Demons live in all of us. Sometimes we can shoo them away on our own, other times we need outside help to overcome them. Sometimes life – and just simply, living –  feels way too complicated to understand and we get scared and feel alone. But I want you to know that you are not alone.

Anxiety and depression have a stigma. And it pisses me off. People assume that a person suffering from these issues are those who stay bed all day crying. That is false. Everyone walking among us hurts at some point or another, for a variety of reasons. If we’re being completely honest, I think it’s “normal” to feel scared and alone at times. Stigma be gone!

I have never felt suicidal, but at different times in my life, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. While I’m no star like Robin Williams, I’m known around my group of friends as the “funny, confident” one who has the world by the balls. And while most days I feel like I’m on top of the world, like millions of others, there are nights when I cry myself to sleep, wishing I was someone else. Someone more beautiful, someone smarter, someone…better. I used to seek outside validation for my happiness, but I know now that it will never make the internal struggles go away. Someone telling you that you’re beautiful will not make you feel beautiful. If you can feel good about yourself, everything else will fall into place. You can be in the best shape of your life, on top at your job, married to your soul mate, and still feel sad. Even those of us who have been lucky enough to never have had “real life problems” can at times still feel lower than low. How can that be?  Well, the mind is a tricky thing. The term “Mind over Matter” doesn’t work when you have a serious mental illness.

I was 19 when I started having anxiety issues.  By all accounts, I was a “healthy, happy” college co-ed with no problems in life. My parents were paying for my school and housing, I had amazing friends, and the whole world was at my fingertips. What could I be sad or scared about?

Here’s when I knew I had a problem:

  • My first “episode” was when I was in Las Vegas with my family, having a trip of a lifetime and suddenly had to get up from the dinner table. I couldn’t focus on anything around me and felt really scared. It wasn’t the liquor (joke all you want, people). I was short of breath. I didn’t feel like myself and felt like I needed to run away. We were supposed to see a show that night, but the idea of being locked in a room sitting in the middle of a row, trapped, made me nervous. I went to the hotel room, feeling scared even though I didn’t go to the show, and sat in my bed and cried. My family was with me in the room, understandably concerned about me. (they too, have suffered from anxiety)
  • Soon after my first episode, I strategically started planning my class schedules to be in buildings right next to each other. I’d show up hours early to get the closest parking space.
  • I stopped drinking for nearly a year because I was afraid that I’d have a panic attack and not be able to calm myself down (that’s more of a good thing!)
  • I wouldn’t go into a mall or a crowded area.
  • When I’d get on a plane, I’d pull my bra from away from my chest because I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Sometimes I would cry (and didn’t care who was staring) when they closed the cabin door.
  • I wouldn’t go anywhere I’d never been before. If I did go in public and couldn’t find a parking spot close to the entrance or exit, I would go home.
  • I found a specific route to school which allowed me to pull over safely at any given time. I avoided freeways and left-turn lanes. (Random, but true)
  • If I was stopped at a red light or behind a train, I would panic and call one of my friends or family members to talk to me to calm me down.

What was happening? I was totally “normal” last semester!

My anxiety would hit me the worst at night. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I felt like I would stop breathing and not wake up. There were many times I stayed up all night curled up on my couch crying, wishing I could be “normal.” I mean, I used to have no issues with anything! I could go anywhere! Talk to anyone! Sleep anywhere! What happened?

I finally opened up to my parents and they flew me home from Arizona immediately to go see our family doctor (I was not excited about getting on a plane). He diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder (you don’t say!) and suggested medication.

Here’s the kicker with anxiety – it was so bad for me that I was actually afraid to take the medicine. I thought it would make me worse, or even kill me. Seriously. But I started on a small dose and within a few weeks my panic attacks were completely gone. I didn’t feel like I was in a “cloud” at all – it made me feel like I used to and I was so grateful. Hell, I could go to the mall again!

Now, medicine isn’t for everyone. Remember Tom Cruise saying there’s no such thing as a chemical imbalance? “You’re glib, Matt!” Well, I respect people who want to find holistic remedies. But in my case – fuck you – Tom Cruise. There is such a thing as a chemical imbalance and I have it – and running isn’t going to help. Sure, I was told to try yoga, meditation, or jogging before turning to pills, but I was too afraid to leave my house to do such activities. It may work for some, but it wasn’t for me at that time. In my case, medication saved my soul and my mind. But like many people, I didn’t want to become a slave to drugs and thought that after a while I’d be OK on my own.

So once I graduated college and moved back to Sacramento, I decided I didn’t want to take meds anymore and worked with my doctor to wean me off.

A few months after I stopped the medication, the panic attacks came back. I remember one like it was yesterday. I was living on 17th and I streets – again, living a seemingly perfect life. I had an amazing job, great friends, cute boys that I was hanging out with. Family was near by. But at times, for no reason at all, I would flip out.

One night I jumped out of bed and my heart was racing. I literally thought I was having a heart attack. People who haven’t had real anxiety don’t understand it.  It’s a sub-conscious trigger in your brain, chemical imbalance if you will, that can be brought on at any time, for no reason at all.

It was 2 AM, and I got even more panicky when I realized everyone I knew was probably asleep and no one could “help me.” I went around my complex and knocked on people’s doors. People I didn’t even know. I didn’t care if I was acting like a lunatic. I just wanted to see another human face to bring me back to reality and help me calm down.

I finally got a hold of my neighbor and friend, Emily, who brought me into her home. I asked her to start telling me stories-any stories. Anything that would get my mind off of my own (mind). I was shaking, sweating, and nearly crying. For no reason that I could explain or comprehend. She helped me in more ways than she’ll ever know – by simply being there.

I literally went to the doctor next day to tell him what was going on. I no longer cared if I was “weird” for having to take a daily medication to help me. I couldn’t live like that anymore. Not knowing when my next “episode” would happen freaked me out more than an episode itself. In a meeting? At a wedding? I was scared to be scared.

Today, I continue to take medication to help with this issue. I’m not saying medication is the answer for everyone, but it has helped me.

Aside from my anxiety, which is now under control, I have experienced deep depression which I was able to overcome without medication. But it took me nearly a year to realize and accept it, and change my circumstances.

In 2011, I made the decision to move to So Cal. I wasn’t feeling great about my life in Sacramento, and had the whole “who am I and where am I going in life” breakdown. I saw the amazing opportunity to further my career by making the jump and taking on new responsibilities. I was very excited at first, but as months passed I realized that I was alone and very, very sad. I didn’t feel panicky like I did with my anxiety, but I had no friends and felt so far from home. What was I doing there? I felt like I was wasting away. This wasn’t helping. I was kicking ass at work, but for what? I didn’t have any friends to talk to or celebrate with. I drank at least a bottle of wine a night by myself. I cried almost every night. I watched far too much TV. Bad, bad TV. I never went out. I never talked to anyone unless it was about work. And the problem was that no one knew. I never told anyone.  It was no one’s fault, I chose this. But it was the wrong decision. One that I was afraid to admit because I thought it would make me a failure.

After a year went by of me feeling like this and not thinking there was a solution, I snapped. One afternoon, I hung up in the middle of a very important work conference call, crawled under my desk, and wept like a small child. It had nothing to do with work at all. After a few minutes of crying, I left the office and went to my apartment. I called my parents and my boss crying (breaking every single rule of the employer-employee relationship) and told them I was unhappy and needed to move home immediately. I have never felt so sad and alone in my life and I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until I hit my breaking point. I flew home that night and never went back.

But I was lucky. There was a solution. I have an amazing family who nurtured me in the weeks that followed and friends who made me feel like myself again. My employer never asked questions and moved me back to Sacramento immediately. They had no idea that I was unhappy and when I told them, they did everything – including giving me a ton of time off and taking care of my workload – to give me the space I needed to get healthy. I knew how to make myself happy and everyone around me supported it and helped me get better. I was lucky.

If something is making you sad and you can change it- do it. Because not everyone can. No problem is too small. Don’t worry about anything else other than your health. Don’t worry about who will abandon you or where you’ll land. Follow your heart, if you’re lucky enough to know where it’s telling you to go. For those who don’t have the answer, there is help. I promise.

Now whenever I get sad that I’m not the prettiest or smartest girl in the room, I look back at that 19-year-old girl who was suffering and realize that that’s not what it’s about. Anxiety and depression are not that simple so there’s no point in wishing you were Angelina Jolie – or Robin Williams – or anyone else because no matter how “together” you may look to others or even feel, every human suffers in some way. Be you and be happy.

Even though my panic attacks and depression have been “cured” and I consider myself to be a very happy girl, I, like most other people, still have little demons whispering in my ear at times. Demons telling me that I’m not good enough. Demons telling me that I’m ugly and stupid. Listen, we all feel down on ourselves sometimes. But once you’ve experienced real pain, you realize that superficial worries are a waste of energy. I choose to laugh at my demons. You can say I mask my issues with my comedy.  That’s fair. Truthfully, it makes me feel better to put on a happy face for others (and for myself) to make me forget about the sadness that sometimes plagues me. It helps me find my happiness. It’s something I struggle with every single day. But I fight. And I want you to fight for your own happiness, too.

I hope everyone can find their internal happiness. From a doctor, from a family member, from a friend, from meditation…whatever works for you.  And for those instances where you feel like you don’t have anyone, I am here for you. Whoever you are.

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