Behind Every Smile: My Life with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

For an hour and a half, I stared at the floor. My knee bounced up and down. When my eyes weren’t fixed on the carpet in front of me, they darted back and forth to the door, measuring my distance from it. My notebook was open in front of me, scribbled notes covering the page and intricately drawn lines in the border. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay” coursed through my head. I was sweaty and clammy, my blood rushing to my extremities. It took all my power to not run from that room. I flipped absently through the pages we were discussing, feigning like I was paying attention. I wasn’t very convincing though, as my professor looked at me across the room, subtly asking if I needed to leave. I shook my head. I knew if I left the room, I wouldn’t come back. My hands shook and I felt like I was going to throw up. This was the first time I had a full-blown panic attack in college.

For a week all I ate was rice, saltines, and dry life cereal. I lost 7 pounds. My phobia of throwing up was worse than it had ever been, and sitting down to meals in the dining hall was harder than every test I’ve ever taken. I spent hours laying in bed, trying not to panic. By ten o’clock every night I was exhausted.

I went to a counselor once a week, if not more. I made emergency appointments. I called my parents four or five times a day and I texted them nonstop. They dropped everything anytime I called – sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for an hour. I cried a lot. I depended on my friends more than ever before and I couldn’t give them anything in return.

For over a month, my heart beat faster than normal. My thoughts raced uncontrollably. I woke up in a panic every morning, unable to function properly. I went on a lot of walks around campus. I couldn’t be alone. I considered taking a leave of absence from school, but I knew if I left, I’d never come back. Sometime during that month I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health condition in which a person is often worried or anxious about many things and finds it hard to control this anxiety.”

While the definition is relatively straight-forward, GAD is not. It has characteristic symptoms and causes, but it is different for every single person. We all experience it differently, have different triggers, and deal with our anxiety in different ways. If you know someone with GAD, you may understand how complicated it is. With GAD, anxiety can be all-encompassing and all-consuming. No matter how prepared you are for anxiety and panic, every time is just as terrifying. The more it happens, the more confusing it can become, and the more you think you know about it, the less you truly understand.

I’ve been dealing with diagnosed GAD for over two years, but it is still the hardest thing I have to deal with every day. My anxiety is nowhere near as bad as it was two years ago, but it sometimes flares up and puts me right back in the place I was before. The things I’ve learned over the past two years, though, are things I can only truly understand because I have experienced them. For me, anxiety is scary. Every single time. It takes over my mind and my body and no matter how rational I am, I cannot rationalize my anxiety and panic attacks. It makes me feel insecure and uncertain. It takes away all my confidence and forces me to reach out to others for help. I feel needy and incompetent, burdensome and useless. I become scared of everything. Panic shows up out of nowhere, triggered by seemingly nothing, and all of a sudden it is there. My body turns against me and I can’t think straight. And as quickly as it came, it goes away. Sometimes. The problem with anxiety is it’s always different, and yet always the same. It breaks you down. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. For the past two years it has continually been the hardest thing I have had to deal with. I am proud of myself for being in the place I am today, but mostly I am thankful for the people who helped me get here.

Thank you to the friends who cooked me rice, went on long walks around campus with me, sat with me while I ate dry cereal, encouraged me to eat real food, walked with me through the snow as I cried, told me to buck up and get on the airplane, talked with me about my feelings, and told me that everything would be okay. I probably didn’t believe you then, but you were right. Most importantly, thank you to my parents for always dropping everything for me, even to this very day.

This post may seem out of the blue, but I want people to know that behind every smiling face there is a story. People are good at acting like everything is okay; be empathetic and sympathetic – you never know what may be going on under the surface. This is just my story. It is one of billions.

And to everyone who is suffering from GAD or another anxiety disorder, it does get better. You will eventually feel like you again and you will be a stronger person. What you are feeling is okay. It’s fine to lean on your friends and your family – you would do the same for them. You’re only human, but you can get through this. You made it through yesterday, you made it through today, and you can make it through tomorrow. Be brave. I believe in you.

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