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7 minutes reading time (1384 words)

The Mental Monster

Survive and Outlast. Etched into my back are three simple words that encapsulate a lifetime of struggles only unearthed four years ago. A lifetime of struggles but only discovered so recently, how does that work?

For the majority of my toddler years, anytime we would have a babysitter, I would cry until I threw up.

In first grade I was in the health office three-ish times a week with stomach aches. I never had a fever or any sort of sickness and the nurse would always send me back, annoyed with my frequent visits.

In seventh grade when I went on my first "date" at the mall, I locked myself in a Neiman Marcus bathroom crying and hyperventilating, wanting to go home, even though I really liked this boy.

On the morning of my Bat Mitzvah I was laying on the floor in my robe, paralyzed by fear for talking in front of 200 people for close to two hours.

Freshman experience day I pleaded with my dad to take me home as I hyperventilated in the carline of 1000 new high school students.

Most people start their day with some coffee and breakfast; I start mine thinking about everything that can possibly go wrong in the next 24 hours. My freshman year of high school, I was diagnosed with general anxiety, a battle I had been fighting for years prior to my diagnosis. My "tummy aches" were common, usually resulting from anytime I tried something new or did something that wasn't part of my daily routine. For an extended period of time my parents thought that I was just an overthinker and that caused nervousness, anxiety was not in our vocabulary. Not that it was something to be ashamed of or upset at, but stupidly it did not cross anyone's mind in my family of five.

Yet, after diagnosis, I was ashamed. It's not like being diagnosed made anything better. I still struggled to go out and was branded as a flake. The original therapist I went to was the type you imagine: dark room, victorian furniture, saying things like "and how does that make you feel?". It was horrendous, she was an old lady who had little to no experience with adolescent patients.

And, anxiety isn't enjoyable to have. I am ashamed because people simply do not understand. People use the term so generally it drives me crazy. I'm sorry that this upcoming exam is making you "anxious" but "nervous" may be better. I'm not trying to be exclusive or one up others with my levels of worry but anxiety is a diagnosed disease. It's not like people walk around saying "this headache is cancer." That would be hailed in society as extremely insensitive.

For the longest time I had no explanation for what I was feeling, I felt broken. My social interactions in high school were limited to my closest friends since birth and even thinking about going to a party would cause my stomach to flip. Obviously, this did not help much in the most important part of high school: your social identity. I hated high school because I lacked this seemingly important identity, but I always tried. I was consistently attempting to create friendships in the classroom so that they could transfer to outside, but people always seemed to have enough friends, I was unnecessary.

Soccer season would pick me up because I was spending three hours a day, six days a week with 20 girls. Then, I tore my meniscus in the fall of my junior year. I was unable to play for my high school team and saw their connection grow while I sat on the sidelines, literally.

High school became my largest source of anxiety. I was in therapy at least once a week and seemed to only complain about not going to school and how graduation could not come soon enough. I don't want to think that anxiety was the reason no one wanted to be my friend, but I could not think of a better answer. Why was I the one who everyone decided to alienate?

Getting into Michigan was easily the highlight of my senior year. I yelled out a "Go Blue!" sitting next to my sister on the couch in December and we shared happy tears in her Ann Arbor home when I was accepted into Ross two months later. But then I began to worry. Will college be the same as high school? Will I have crippling anxiety every time I leave the comfort of my dorm? What about rush when girls are literally judging what I say and how I look?

The biggest surprise of my life was walking into Michigan and not having a fear in the world. I instantly felt at home, my roommate quickly became my best friend, I joined the sorority I wanted, and Michigan sports were kicking butt. My classes captivated me and constantly left me starving for more content. My anxiety seemed to melt away. At first I doubted my abilities because I had started an anti-depressant in the summer before coming to school. I believed that the medication was doing everything. Then, I went home for Thanksgiving.

There was a pit in my stomach everyday I was back in La Grange. I struggled to go to the mall, I was constantly sleeping and napping, and I actively avoided people I recognized in the grocery store. In a weird twist, I was excited at this revelation. The medication was not controlling me, but I was genuinely happy for the first time in approximately six years. Sure, I hated that I was an anxious wreck yet again, but at least I knew I had a place of comfort a few hours away. My discovery of what was controlling me was not an easy one. I had low points that I shutter about when I remember those times. Mental health is just as important as any physical ailment, which thankfully society is finally realizing.

I am happy to be moving out of La Grange, giving me the power to see who I want, when and where I want. This place broke me but made me. I thank anxiety for keeping me from getting caught up in superficial experiences with people who care more about their outfit instead of their grades. I cannot redo high school but I can accept it. It helped me to discover what controlled me and gave me the ability to take that control back. While this disease is at times debilitating, it too has shaped me into the person I am today. Through my battles with my own thoughts, I have become stronger and found ways to persevere in the most difficult of challenges. It hasn't been easy, but without the obstacles I faced and conquered, I wouldn't have some of my defining characteristics and discovered a place I can finally be comfortable and at peace.

There are moments I get knocked down; anxiety plays dirty. Since it's a twisted version of myself, it knows where my vulnerabilities lie, but each time I conquer my fears, doubts, and self hatred, it shrinks--one day it'll be gone. Anxiety and I have been fighting for years, yet without it, I wouldn't have been able to mature. It shapes my persona and makes "me" uniquely "me."

Don't expect my journey to be like anyone else's. Understanding and coming to peace with your mental health is an odyssey that is no where near black and white. It is horrible shades of misunderstood grey and blue and red and the trip is as unique as the person suffering. But whatever it may be or lead you to, you'll discover yourself in the same instance.

My battle taught me more about myself than I had never known and led to an understanding of something I could not put into words for years. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of and everyone travels their journey in a different way. Medication is not always the answer, therapy may not be your thing, your prescription for your illness may not be a prescription at all but small bits and pieces of things which can make you feel normal or however you want to feel again.

Written by Mikaela Larson

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Sunday, 22 May 2022