This week’s blog comes from Gráinne Murphy. Gráinne is an 18 year old student who is passionate about drama and baking. After her Leaving Cert she hopes to study psychology as her own experiences have left her fascinated with the human mind.
Anxiety is something that I struggle with every single day of my life. It’s not something I like to publicise about myself, because I am increasingly aware of the stigma that mental illness still has, despite our best efforts as a society to banish it. However, as the statistics rise and the number of victims increases, I feel obliged to speak up. I don’t have an extensive knowledge of mental illness, nor do I fully understand the causes or solutions to them. I’m just a kid. But I’m a kid who has had almost 8 years of personal experience with this issue. I can’t give you all the medical facts, statistics and treatments, but I can tell you how it affects people like me, and what someone like me would like people to understand.
I wasn’t always like this. In fact, for the people who knew me as a child I would probably be the last person they would expect to have these issues. Anxiety was not something I was born with. For most people it is something that develops over time. It can also be caused by traumatic or high pressured experiences. These experiences could be anything. They don’t have to involve near-fatal incidents or ground-breaking events. It could be something seemingly basic like bullying, increased academic pressure, moving to a new school or falling out with friends. For me, it was a bit of everything. It all seemed to pile up at once and before I knew it, I was drowning, unable to cope.
One of the major misconceptions about anxiety disorders – and most mental illnesses for that matter – is that people with this issue fit into a specific category. In order to be classified with an anxiety disorder you must fit a number of criteria. This could not be more false. I don’t claim to be an expert on mental health. All I know is what I have experienced. But from my years of experience I can tell you that anxiety affects everyone in completely different ways. That is often what makes it so difficult to treat. In my case, my anxiety caused a domino effect to my physical health. What started off as panic-attacks before exams became intense physical sickness that took over my entire body. Anxiety can take hold of so much more than your social life. Having an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean that you spend ten minutes in the bathroom breathing deeply before a maths test, it means sleepless nights of crying and vomiting and feeling utterly helpless. And this doesn’t just happen the night before an exam. Anxiety is not rational. People with anxiety disorders are not over-dramatic. I could study for hours and hours for a test, be able to recite the textbook by heart backwards and still have a panic-attack before a test. It could be my best subject, it could be a meaningless test but that doesn’t matter. Just like any physical illness, mental illness isn’t rational. A person with diabetes couldn’t decide to not have diabetes for a day because it was their best friend’s birthday and they really wanted extra sugar because the cake looks amazing. Anxiety doesn’t have an off-switch. You can’t tell it to “chill out” or “put things into perspective”. Asking someone with an anxiety disorder to chill is like asking someone with a broken foot to just walk it off. It doesn’t work like that.
Even though my anxiety plays a major part in my life, it is something that most people would not know about me. It’s not exactly something that you could drop into everyday conversations and so for me, and a lot of people like me, anxiety becomes like a separate part of yourself that you feel obliged to keep hidden, for fear of making someone else feel uncomfortable. When I first wrote this, I didn’t want to put my name to it. But how can I hope to end the stigma and embarrassment attached to mental illness if people think I’m ashamed. It can only be by educating ourselves about mental illness that we can end the stigma attached to it and help people feel comfortable enough to talk about it openly. My anxiety disorder may never be cured. Like most mental illnesses there isn’t a magical solution. But for those of you who may be dealing with similar issues, there is help out there. I completely understand how patronising it is when people tell you to “talk to someone you trust” and “don’t suffer in silence” but speaking from experience, it really is the only way. Maybe you’re going through a rough patch, but it could be something more.
As a stubborn, independent teenager, pouring out my soul to a complete stranger was the last thing in the world I wanted to do on a weekly basis. I fought it. And when I eventually gave in and tried to make it work, things didn’t seem quite so bad. I got to the point where I didn’t need those weekly sessions, and when I felt myself falling back into negative ways, I was brave enough to ask for help again. Personally, being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder weirdly enough made me feel sane. I knew then that I wasn’t being over-dramatic or looking for attention. An anxiety disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain. For some people, medication is the solution. For others it’s not always that simple. It’s not something you can choose to have and it does not make you crazy. It’s just an illness.
Mental illness is nothing to ashamed of. It cannot be compared to one illness or another. Every person is different. Anxiety is not something that should be taken lightly or joked about. With the increase pressure of school and exams we can all get a bit stressed out. The important thing is to realise when that stress becomes excessive and starts taking hold of your life that there is help out there. My only advice: be mindful and live in the moment, and if you’re dealing with anxiety, please know that you’re not alone. Hakuna Matata!