As a kid growing up in the church, I learned early on that the solution to any problem could be found with prayer and petition, reading the Bible, and having enough faith. As a teenager struggling with anxiety, an emotionally abusive boyfriend, my parents’ divorce and a ton of school work, I struggled to see how I could be doing everything right and still feel so anxious all of the time. I was convinced I was doing something wrong.
And then came college. My anxiety waned and rose, seemed to rush in and out like tidal waves along the shore. Some months I would feel calm, and then suddenly I would feel completely out of control again. I scoured the internet for help, trying to find Bible verses or blogs that were aimed at anxiety. I checked the index in my Bible, looked up verses about anxiety. They all said to not fear, be anxious for nothing, be still and know. I knew all of these things like I knew my own name; I had studied them for so many years. And yet, somehow, they weren’t answering the questions I needed answered. I felt ashamed for not being able to get my shit together. How were all these other people managing their lives just fine while I struggled to make it to school or to the grocery store? Did I not have enough faith? Was I not trying hard enough? What was so wrong with me?
Don’t get me wrong, I have only a few hard feelings towards the Christian Church and absolutely none towards God. I realize that this story so far sounds like I’ve been done wrong by the church (and maybe I have in some ways), but that’s not what this is about. What it came down to is that I felt like I was being told I just had to have faith and everything would be fine. But in reality, that wasn’t going to work for me.
A few years ago I was in the midst of a wave of anxiety that left me 10 pounds thinner and always sick. I went into the doctor, told him I had a stomach ache, and said “I think it’s from anxiety.” He asked me why I thought that would be the cause. I explained it to him: how I had my first panic attack at 8, how it ran in my family, how I wasn’t sleeping. I was embarrassed. I was not the girl who was such a mess that she needed medical help.
He must have seen the shame on my face because he said to me, “Kaitlin, it’s 2016. You don’t have to live with anxiety anymore.” The kindness and firmness of his words washed over me like cool water. I didn’t have to live like this. I wasn’t alone in this.
We talked about medication. He put me on something mild and I took it for a year and a half, thinking it was working, but still struggling to get out of bed. I was still broken, despite my half-hearted attempt at reaching out to a doctor.
After a while, it got to be too much to bear (check out my post here to read about my breaking point), and I, desperate and out of my mind, finally reached out to a therapist that my friend recommended to me. The phone call to make the appointment was unbearable; I hung up shaking and humiliated. There are people with more problems than me, I said to myself. You’re just being a baby. Turns out Anxiety and other mental health issues don’t care about your circumstances. They’ll come for you regardless, leaving even the most put-together people paralyzed by fear.
I showed up to that first therapy session in a panic. In fact, I was in a panic attack for the entire hour I was there (I’m really good at hiding panic attacks, it’s actually a terrifying skill). Eventually I visited a psychiatrist who put me on Lorazepam twice a day for a few months. I knew I couldn’t take it forever, but I was dreading the idea that I might need to rely on a daily pill long-term to help me make it through my days. I told myself it was shameful. I shouldn’t have to do this. Worrying about what people would think turned into worrying about how I would feel. Would I feel sick all the time? Would I feel like myself, or would I be lost in a fog of sedation? Would I be able to write? To paint? To cry over books I’m reading? To connect with people on that deep emotional level that I just love so much? What if it took away that part of me that really makes me me?
I avoided what I considered “real” medication for months. I couldn’t bring myself to face the fact that I maybe needed this. Eventually, when time was running out on taking Lorazepam twice a day, I asked my psychiatrist for another medication I could be on long term. After prescribing me Zoloft, he warned me of the side effects and told me to keep an eye out for any changes I didn’t like. Worried again that I would be making things worse, I left the doctor’s office with my prescription that felt like a giant scarlet letter on my baggy t-shirt (this time 20 pounds had melted off of me when the anxiety hit). I’M A HUGE DISASTER is what I kept hearing in my head.
Weeks passed where I went to therapy and took my medication religiously. Doses were upped, new strategies were taken to train my mind to come back to reality. Breathe, everyone said to me. I kept breathing.
After a while, the weight of overwhelming anxiety lifted from my mind. It was like setting down a heavy backpack at the end of a long day, or that feeling of all your muscles relaxing when you lay flat on your bed. Things softened. Panic attacks came fewer and farer between. I could breathe again on my own. My world wasn’t covered in a fog like I thought it would be. In fact, it was like everything was clearer. Instead of my mind being distracted by the Anxiety Monster all the time, I was able to think about other things. My friends, my boyfriend, my school work. It was like I had decluttered my thoughts. A spring cleaning of the brain.
I started being honest about how I was feeling, mostly because I just couldn’t hide it anymore. Well, I could, but it was exhausting to do it all the time. At work I allowed myself to panic if I needed to and I prepared people around me that I might leave suddenly if I was about to have a panic attack. I stopped holding onto that mask of perfection that I so badly wanted to hide behind. When I let go of the mask, it was amazing to see how many people opened up in return. I was in no way the only person struggling with this. So many of my friends and co-workers were experiencing the same feelings I was. It was so refreshing to be seen and not be judged for feeling a certain way (shoutout to my boyfriend who has taught me it’s okay to not be okay and loves me through it all). It’s amazing how much just being honest has helped me.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m healed, because I’m not and that will simply never happen. But I am going to tell you that I am so grateful for therapy and medication, because without it, I would undoubtedly be wrapped up in my bed, friendless, single, and scared.
Not everything is solved with prayer and petition. Sure, it helps. But sometimes we have to take our lives into our own hands and recognize the reality of our situation. For me, that meant coming to terms with the fact that the chemicals in my brain have been designed in a way that is sometimes inconvenient. Despite that, I am still fearfully and wonderfully made.
Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. We’ve created that idea in our own minds and it’s been stigmatized by society. You are not less of a person because you need medication or because you go to therapy. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are damaged or not enough. You are a whole person, and your mental illness is part of that. Don’t let it lie to you and tell you you’re alone or not enough. You are loved.
There’s beauty in the madness, and finding that beauty will make the madness seem less scary. Hang in there.
If you have any questions for me, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’m an open book, and I’m likely going to be exploring more of this in future posts!