I live with diagnosed anxiety. I wear it like a second skin because I can’t remove or escape it. It’s with me all day every day and, oftentimes, at night when it keeps me from sleeping. It sits right in the center of my chest like a 30-pound weight when it’s not increasing my heart rate and respiration, nausea, or cyclical thoughts.
I inherited anxiety along with my blue eyes, height, and skin color. As a young child, I remember feeling worried a lot. I kept an actual “worry list” and, if the list was blank, I worried about that too. My anxiety came with sensitivity and these two together could really keep a person spun-up about the world around them. The anxiety was at least somewhat manageable until my parents’ divorce during my adolescent years, and then it kicked into overdrive. The sustained level of anxiety took a major toll on my nervous system—which to this day, I work to heal.
The anxiety, at the time undiagnosed, eventually led to an eating disorder at the age of 18. Everything in my life felt so out of control that I became laser-focused on eating and exercise—two things that I could control. I began to exercise at a local gym. As I lost weight, I was receiving compliments from everyone around me. As a girl who suffered from low self-esteem, it was medicinal to hear all the “You look great” compliments. It was the reassurance that I desperately needed.
I began to restrict my calories as I increased my exercise to an unhealthy level. I shrank to 96 pounds, and suffered from hair loss, cardiac issues, and other physical changes. I was unaware, at the time, how deep the psychological scars were that were driving my desire to disappear. I was diagnosed with exercise bulimia and anorexia. By age 25, I was ready to face the eating disorder. I completed a partial hospital program and started the healing that I so desperately needed.
I am still anxious. I am the woman who leaves a party and spends the next 24 to 48 hours worrying that I offended someone; I am the woman who is chatty and overshares, not because I love to chat, but because my anxiety doesn’t allow for awkward silences; I am the woman who chokes on words like “no” or “none of your business” to avoid offending or embarrassing someone else. My anxiety affects all aspects of my life, but I continue to do the work with my trauma therapist.
So many of us and our children are dealing with mental health issues and mental illness. Making an appointment with a mental health professional is nearly impossible, because so many of us are struggling. There is much work to be done.
I share this small piece of my story because I want to challenge the stigma that exists in our communities and society in general surrounding mental health and mental illness. I wear my anxiety like a badge of honor, seeing my sensitivity as a superpower, and I hope that my story will mean something to someone who needs to know they are not alone.
Do you have a mental health journey to share? One that includes working with Outreach? We’d like to hear from you. Please contact Maggie Zangara, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth ages 5 to 21, parents and families in a welcoming environment.
www.outreachteen.org. 412-561-5405. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.