Salutations, dear readers. Katie here. Because our fearless leader here at Millennial Girl, Interrupted is a generous human who strives for inclusivity and a variety of perspectives, I will be guest writing on this fine blog (hopefully more than once). Below, I hope to shed some light on my personal experience with anxiety and to even minutely shift perception of those who might be outwardly smiling but inwardly struggling.
I have not been one to keep silent about my mental health struggles, especially in the past couple of years. I see no shame, only strength, in seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, regulating emotions with medication (both of which I do), and especially sharing experiences with family and friends (and the interwebs now, apparently). This is the first time, however, that I have shared my experience so fully on a public forum, so here goes, folks.
The paradoxical nature of how my mind and personality work is a puzzle I consider often. I am loud and unrestrained, yet crave my quiet time. I am candid and communicative, yet only a handful of people know my story. I find people exhausting and, frankly, annoying, but I am an undeniable extrovert.
I am ambitious, driven, and eager, but my anxieties have limited my life.
I am an only child, and very close with both my parents, clingy and overly attached even as a toddler (so I hear). Midway through elementary school, though, I had my first major bout of school refusal, which rapidly extended to social activities, and I was soon diagnosed with separation anxiety. It was around then that I first started seeing a psychiatrist and my school psychologist, developed coping mechanisms, and slowly but surely resumed living the life I knew as “normal”. Looking back, this was such a hard time because I was so young and I had never dealt with emotions this severe before, and did not know how to express them and react accordingly – but I learned.
The thing about anxiety though, is that it’s like a volcano: sometimes dormant, but always bubbling beneath the surface. Surprisingly, my next rough patch came not at the beginning of middle school, when I moved to a new town, but instead halfway through– and it was the first time I began to see a marked impact on my social life. I’ve never been one to conform or fit in with the crowd (possibly because of my unique interests or quirkiness), so I never had a huge friend group to begin with. And when you’re in a preteen, school is the main place to make and secure friendships, so when it was a struggle to even get up in the morning and go, finding the right crowd was hardly at the forefront of my mind. However, with a team of people in my corner yet again, I overcame this hump, and left middle school with minimal damage.
Then came high school.
I had gone to public school since kindergarten, and since we saw no signs of trouble leading up to the transition, it was full speed ahead to Greenwich High, which turned out to be the turning point in my experience. Not even halfway through orientation day, I was overwhelmed and panicking, and I knew all was not right in Whoville. I still cannot pinpoint exactly what went wrong – maybe there is no discernible cause, but this proved to be a hump I could not overcome. This seemingly everyday occurrence would leave me tearful, terrified, and unable to cope, and it flowed into many aspects of my life. I bounced around between a few therapists, put certain friendships on hold, and looked forward to almost nothing. The thing was, though, it was not constant and unyielding – there were days where I made it to class, ate lunch with other students, participated in discussions. It’s in my nature to actively be a part of it all- when I’m at my best, anyway– but I often could not even get to the point where I was able to even be there. (Boom. Paradox.) After months of give and take, pushing and pulling, I was sliding fast down a rabbit hole. My parents pulled me out sometime in December and I ended up in a small, alternative, therapeutic school at which I was able to manage my anxiety and still perform well academically.
To illustrate that progress in my life is best attained in baby steps, I transferred yet again my junior year to a school within that educational system – just as small and quirky (a graduating class with a grand total of 6), but sans therapeutic component. I remember these two years as some of the most fun and carefree times of my life, which is saying something, considering that this was junior and senior year of high school. I was, for the most part, thriving academically and socially, and but I failed to see that this was all happening in a little bubble. Most of my high school experience was positive, but was all taking place inside this safe, contained system that shielded me from the real world in almost every way – which is probably why I crashed so hard on day 1 of college.
It was almost a no-brainer that I would be commuting to campus, since staying away from home is one of my biggest triggers. I ended up selecting Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, which, on paper, seemed perfect for me. It had the strong theatre, journalism, and psychology departments I liked, was a half hour commute, had a good-sized campus with great facilities, enthusiastic faculty and student body, and generally seemed like an inclusive, pleasant environment. I had some bumps in the road during the lead-up, but was (again) outwardly prepared. But the day before orientation, I froze up, and had one of the most terrifying nights I’ve experienced. This is where it gets hard to explain, and where mental illness can be so frustrating, because there was no threat, no danger, no logical explanation to why I was shaken to my very core about going– commuting, even – to college. The aftermath that rolled out during those next couple days was fast and furious – I knew, as did my amazing parents, what I could and could not handle after all these years, and this simply was not going to happen. From an outsider’s perspective, this may sound abrupt, flippant, and very premature, and maybe, in some ways, it was. But I had learned from my experiences, and in that moment, it was right. By combination of circumstance, string pulling, and my transcript, it was decided that I would enroll at Concordia College, where my mom is the community music school director. Yet another paradox – this opportunity was a huge asset in having a structured year, but was a huge step back in terms of academic and social-emotional progress – or so I thought.
It is now November 2018. I am a sophomore at Concordia College. I get straight As, work in the president’s office, babysit often, and reach out to my few friends as often as I can. Some days are better than others. New experiences and transitions still cause that icy hot fear in my body and mind, but I am stronger than I was a year ago, four years, ten. I take steps back and steps forward. I understand my limits more than ever before – I know what I can realistically push through and if I will come out the other side, but I also know what I can’t handle and what will ultimately hinder my progress, which I think this the best lesson of all.
I am acutely aware of myself and my triggers, as well as how I will react to them, if only I could use that awareness to control some of the things that come out of my mouth. My mind is an ever-spinning carousel, but I have managed to slow it down and take the reins, as it were. I still have a ways to go in every sense of the phrase, and my anxiety has changed the course of my growing-up life in more ways than I can count, but I cannot change the way I am, the way my brain works, and how I react to the world around me. I can cope, learn, and be proud of the strides I have made.
My final paradox is simple: I may always wish for more, but for now, I am contented with this life I am living.