I remember jumping into the nine–foot–deep pool one hot summer afternoon. The cool, chlorinated water rushed against my face as I submerged before pulling myself up to the surface once more to catch my breath. The sticky summer wind hit my face as I smiled, completely immersed in the almost dreamlike relaxation of swimming in a pool. Simple moments like this defined the naive happiness of our childhoods, when worry was not a part of our vocabulary.
This sensation is not always a pleasant one, though. I feel this immersion on a daily basis, but the serenity of jumping into a pool is long gone. Instead, the heavy weights of anguish, fear, and self–loathing all shackle my ankles, pulling me down to the bottom of what feels like an inescapable trench—the overwhelming pressure of anxiety.
Anxiety is not an unfamiliar feeling to everyone, especially in college. You can recall that moment of feeling dehydrated, nauseous, tense beyond belief—as if you’re going to throw up—all at the same time. But it’s not an around–the–clock experience, at least for most people. It is for me though.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, at a very young age. GAD is characterized by chronic anxiety and heightened worry, whether or not there is something present to worry about. This holds true for me on a daily basis—the constant restlessness, the feeling of being on edge, the difficulty with controlling my worry; not a day goes by where it isn’t on my mind.
I’ve experienced it all—I've seen how anxiety can affect every part of my life. I've experienced chronic fear before an important midterm exam, even though I’ve been studying intensely for it for the past week, because of worry that my performance will define my academic success in college. I've experienced deafening anxiety before a club meeting because I fear my friends may not be ecstatic to see me this time, even though their faces always seem to glow whenever I enter the room and announce my presence. I've even experienced the tremblingly nightmarish thoughts of what might go wrong as I sit in the aisle seat of my five–hour flight back home to Los Angeles during school breaks, even though I know my family and friends have missed me. It can come up at any time, and can make anything and everything a challenge.
Days come up where getting out of bed is my greatest challenge beyond all others. Tossing and turning under my duvet after the three alarms I set the night before go off, my mind and body both know it’s time to get up, but my legs won’t budge. The tension in my body increases as the anxiety controls even the simplest of functions, such as standing up and walking. In these moments, I feel weak and powerless. I see the person I am most of the time, one who is full of energy and always smiling, become a foreign figure. I see the person I am to my family, one full of love and support, disappear as well. Those moments of feeling like a burden to those I cherish most hurt worse than any other.
But I don’t let my anxiety disorder stop me from trying to lead the best life I possibly can. Over the years, I have learned how to gain somewhat of a harness of control over my anxiety disorder, channeling my energy into centering my mind. I have learned to calm down when it spikes to levels that interfere with my ability to complete simple, rudimentary tasks. The struggle will never completely disappear, though. An anxiety disorder is something that can be managed and monitored, but never cured.
That being said, I believe something else closely related to this can be cured: the stigma surrounding people with chronic anxiety and anxiety–related disorders.
One thing I have learned through my experience living with an anxiety disorder is knowing what phrases are not okay to say to someone who has GAD. The comments like “just try to calm down” and “there’s really nothing to worry about,” among others, come from a genuine place of concern and love—not malice intent. But it doesn’t matter. Telling a person with an anxiety disorder to calm down is like telling a recovering alcoholic to just stop drinking. It doesn’t work. It’s a learning process I’ve gone through with people like my parents, helping them understand what not to say and do when my anxiety leaves me in a temporary state of rigid paralysis. The best thing you can do to help a loved one who suffers from anxiety is be there—to be comforting in your physical presence. It may not seem like much, but it can go a long way.
People should not be afraid to open up about problems they have with anxiety. Collegiate society, in particular, has nurtured a culture where it is said that it is not okay to be open and honest about personal struggles with mental health, which is beyond harsh and reductive. I still struggle with this, feeling uncomfortable to open up about these problems even to my closest friends. But I now choose to be vulnerable, not just for myself, but for everyone. It’s okay to have these struggles and imperfections. People should know that you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable. It’s okay to have these flaws, even though it can feel that they are the ugliest scars that you possess. Wear them with pride as battle wounds. Be proud of what you’ve overcome and continue to triumph over every day.
As I reflect on that day where I fearlessly jumped into the cold waters of that pool on a hot summer day many years ago, I know what I would say to that kid: You don’t need to try so hard—people will love you for who you really are. Never let fear stop you from achieving your goals. Let fear be the thing that pushes you to go out there and make even your wildest dreams come true. And while you may see your anxiety disorder as a scar, as you get older, it will become a lethal battle wound that you will be proud to look at every day.