Disclaimer: I'll be traveling a lot this summer for retreats and workshops. We did a writer call-out to help out on the blog while I'm away. There is so much talent in the YBC Community, and we've filled our spots for guest posts this summer, but will do another writer call-out in the fall soon. Until then, here's our next guest post. XO, Candace
The other night, as I wearily pulled the covers back from my bed, I caught a glimpse of something waiting for me beneath the blankets. The mystery intruder was small, brown, and shaped terrifyingly like a wolf spider looking to escape the summer heat in the comfort of my sheets. Adrenaline coursed through my body and prepared me to face Threat Level Arachnid once again. I leaned down, eyes never leaving my prey, and hastily grabbed for one of my thick-soled tennis shoes. I swung my weapon down upon the mattress and crushed—a hair tie. It was my own hair tie that I had carelessly discarded just that morning as I rushed to get out the door. Just like that, I realized that I had been the architect of my own terror. My mind recognized that the threat was gone, albeit with the tiniest bit of shame. I mean, who manages to scare herself like that? My body, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so quick to catch up. The adrenaline just kept surging. My heart rate pumped double time, my breathing was wild and erratic, my hands shook and began to lose feeling. In short, I was in the early throes of a full-fledged panic attack...
There was a time when I would have been helpless against this onslaught. I would have breathlessly paced my room, begging my body to just behave itself. I would not even have the vocabulary to describe what was wrong with me. I theoretically knew the words “generalized anxiety disorder” or “clinical depression,” but I would never have applied them to myself. I had studied them in my senior AP Psychology class, and I certainly had not recognized myself in those textbook definitions. Ironically, it was that same year I aced my mental disorders exam that hindsight tells me I first began my slide into mental illness. I say slide because there was no one ordeal, no origin story that I can point to explain how I became anxious and depressed. It happened in the quiet moments. Mental illness slipped insidiously into my life so that I could not recognize its shadowy form following me around. As it silently stole pieces of me one by one, I became masterful at explaining away the little chinks it left behind. My withdrawal from people I transformed into a hatred of socializing with my generation. I deemed everyone else annoying and a distraction from the pursuit of my goals (Yup, I was that girl). My feelings of being overwhelmed and my inability to sleep I attributed to stress. After all, I was also that girl who made overachievers look lazy. I felt incapable of falling short of a mark, no matter how insignificant. Getting a “B” on a paper, constituted a failure in my eyes. I just held myself to very high standards, I reasoned. I did lots of reasoning that year and hiding my illness behind a veil of self-made lies. By the time of my graduation in 2011, I had a routine down pat.
Through the next few years, I continued this vicious cycle. On the outside, I had everything going for me. I had a full ride scholarship to college. I lived in a great place on campus. My 4.0 GPA made my parents incredibly proud. On the inside, my life was becoming a hot mess. The anxiety would overwhelm me and magnify my fears and stress. If I took an exam, I felt sure that I had failed it. The depression would badger me with horrible things about myself until I believed them to be true. If silence fell during a group conversation, I felt sure it was because I was boring. Little by little I slipped through the cracks. I laughed less frequently. I felt exhausted, even after a full night of sleep. The things that used to inspire me no longer made the faintest impression. I even stopped reading for fun. My primary degree is in English, and I stopped reading for fun. Did this monumental change in my personality tip me off that things were off-kilter? Of course not. I embodied denial. My life resembled the Titanic precariously tipping into the ocean as I daintily sipped tea and mumbled “Everything is fine…everything is just fine.” Spoiler alert: everything was definitely not fine. I had stopped living and started gutting my way through life. I continued to put one foot in front of the other out of a sense of duty, not joy or hope through the future. I trudged for a while, not really thinking about why until I finally found an obstacle that I could not will myself to battle through: my senior honors thesis.
Instead of graduating in 2015, I took on a fifth year to complete a requirement of my honors scholarship. We had to propose and defend an original thesis before we could successfully graduate. By this time I had finished all my course work and writing my thesis down was all that stood between me and my diploma. What should have motivated me to finish my final lap instead filled me with the worst kind of dread. I felt as though my entire future hinged upon this one paper and it paralyzed me. Every time I opened my notes, reread my research, saw a blank Word document, I stopped breathing. If anyone so much as said the word “thesis” invisible rubber bands constricted around my throat. Though blaming these symptoms on a newly developed allergy to success was tempting, I knew something was wrong with me. Panic attacks are pretty difficult to ignore, what with the feeling as though I might legitimately die and all. Call me stubborn, but I still felt as though I could handle myself. I told myself that every day, month after month, as though my pitiful mantra would eventually banish the panic and the pain. I went to work, visited with friends, paid my rent as though everything was completely normal. I am very willing to bet my meager millennial salary that no one knew that the same morning I had flashed a smile behind my desk, I had blacked out in my shower during an epic panic attack. No one would have known that before we went out to dinner I had spent hours staring at my ceiling, not realizing how much time had passed before my catatonic eyes. I never wanted anyone to know…until April 7, 2016. Once again, I had a Word document open with three lines written and shaky hands attempting a fourth. I tried to ignore the nerves, the nagging voice in my head telling me to stop spewing so much garbage onto that poor page. My phone pinged and delivered to me a fateful, yet innocuous message. The director of my honors program innocently asked me if I felt ready to defend my thesis yet…and I broke. The burden of my illness, the isolation it caused, the pain I felt all came flooding out in ragged sobs that truly alarmed my boss in the office next door. As she silently handed me the number for the counseling center on campus, I had one of those rare light-bulb moments in life. I could not keep fighting this myself. I was done. I would not make it any longer if I went at it alone. My resources had depleted themselves long ago and I forced myself to run on fumes. Once I trusted my voice to work, I made a call that probably saved my life.
I made that first step just over a year ago. I finally sought the help I needed. I cannot say that it worked like a magic pill and took all my struggles away, but walking through the doors of the counseling center lifted a rock off my chest that I had carried for quite some time. As it turns out, they don’t call them mental health professionals for nothing! Talking to a therapist about my feelings in a way gave me permission to truly acknowledge my mental illness for the first time in my life. Instead of trying desperately to stuff it into some small corner of my mind, I’ve accepted the idea that it is a part of me. Learning how to embrace my new normal without letting it in the driver’s seat is an ongoing process, but I get better and better at it every day. Now, when confronted with the spider or hair tie quandary, I know exactly what to do. I lay with my legs flowing up the wall, begin a grounding exercise, and give thanks that it will all be over soon.
Kathryn Koop is a coffee guzzling, literature loving twenty-four year old from North Texas. Her favorite pastimes include stress baking, yoga, and learning to love herself again. She can usually be found with her nose in a book and her wildly curly hair hopelessly tangled in some new mess. You can find her on instagram.