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#MHYALit: How to Manage, reflections on anxiety by Ally Watkins

Today for #MHYALit co-coordinator Ally Watkins shares some personal reflections.

You can read all the #MHYALit posts here.

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I’m one of the organizers of this project, though you may not know it. Karen has been writing about her experiences since January. Amanda has been knocking out amazing book reviews. But I’ve found it harder to talk about this issue because it’s so close to me.

My mental health is in a lot of ways, deeply private. There’s stigma and misunderstanding wrapped up into it, and I never know how people are going to react, so I tend to keep it pretty close until I know how it’s going to be received. It’s a chronic illness. I’ll always have it, and explaining that over and over again can be exhausting. Some days it’s easy to talk about, and some days I never want to talk about it again. But I I’m ready now.

I’m Ally and I live with severe anxiety.

“There is difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder,” Laura Turner writes in this great essay, and it’s true. I find a hard time putting words to the difference between feelings of anxiety and what I experience. What is true is that I have three anxiety disorders and I have at least two secondary depressive disorders.

My anxiety is managed by medication and therapy. Managed is an important word. Because here’s the thing no one wants to talk about: I’m never going to be cured of my mental illnesses. It’s a hard truth. And it’s a grief process of sorts–coming to terms with the fact that the life that I want, a life free from mental illness, isn’t possible.

And it’s an even harder truth, at times, for other people than for me. I live in my head and I mostly understand my reality. Others don’t have that luxury and they are faced with my illnesses afresh and repeatedly. I have incredibly supportive family and friends, and in their great love and affection for me, they don’t like to see me suffer. So while they would never tell me to buck up and get over it, it’s still tough for them to watch me struggle. And for those of them less familiar with mental illness, it’s hard for them to understand that despite my strict adherence to my medication and therapy regime, you can’t medicate out every symptom. There are some things you just have to work through or grit your teeth and bear. My behavior to them may seem erratic or hostile when I’m in survival mode. So it’s hard for me, and it’s hard for the people in my life to watch. My mental illness makes me more difficult to love. And that is not easy an easy thing to know.

I’ve had two relationships fall apart due to my mental health. One because the other person couldn’t bear the strain that my symptoms were putting on our friendship. And one because the steps that I need to take to protect myself from own brain weren’t compatible with the other person’s needs. These things deeply hurt and I grieved the loss of both of these friendships. But also: I understand. My needs are no more important than anyone else’s. But one of the things that I’ve also had to learn is that my needs are no LESS important than anyone else’s. My very best friend in the world has her own mental health struggles and she understands. We have our own language surrounding symptoms and attacks and episodes. I know what words to say to her to make her understand that my days are bleak and shrunk down with fear. I know what text to send when I’m tunneled so deeply into panic that I can barely move. She knows what to ask to find out if my brain is destroying itself. The comfort I take from her support is immeasurable. I’ve surrounded myself by an immediate group of friends who push me to take care of myself and that’s the best support system I could ever ask for.

My therapist says I’m really good at self-care. Self-care, to me, is an ongoing process of small decisions. It’s knowing that I can’t handle that party because of my social anxiety. It’s having my own car so I can escape when the panic attack comes. It’s spending weekends hibernating in my bedroom, banking quiet and peace and rest. It’s deciding which phone calls to take and which texts and emails to answer after work. If it sounds like my life is small, that’s because it is. Anxiety shrinks my world. Terror is very draining. But seven years into my diagnosis, I’ve learned what I have to do to live my life. I can go to a conference and see my friends if I understand that I’ll crash into letdown anxiety for several days when I get back. I can have a fun weekend with friends or family if I’m willing to explain to them why I can attend this one event only if I conserve my energy by skipping another. Spontaneity is nearly impossible for me. I have contingency plans for sudden attacks. I carry chocolate and Xanax with me. I worry about worry. I monitor and check myself constantly. And sometimes it all exhausts me. But it’s my life. And the alternative is much worse.

I was diagnosed when I was 22, though my symptoms started manifesting as early as 5th grade. My mom tried to get me help when I was a teen, but I was a punk kid with anxiety so I refused, despite her best efforts. When I was diagnosed, I began to cling to stories of  teens and young adults that were like me, whose adolescences were also plagued by anxiety and sadness and fear. My relationship with books, always a strong one, shifted. I searched for characters like me, that had lived my experiences, that understood. I desperately wanted to see myself on the page.

I found Jade in THE NATURE OF JADE by Deb Caletti, who panicked like I did, and who had a name for it, besides “those times in the bathroom between classes i cried for no reason and couldn’t breathe.”

And I found Megan in MIRACLE by Elisabeth Scott–her symptoms and problems were different, but I understood how she could have felt so deeply alone when everyone around her was saying she should be fine and glad to be alive.

And I found Kiri in WILD AWAKE by Hilary T. Smith, who is spiraling out of control before her very eyes, a feeling I am so familiar with.

And I found sweet Finley in SOME KIND OF HAPPINESS by Claire Legrand, whose childhood feelings and inner life so mirrored mine.

And I found Briony in CHIME by Franny Billingsley, who is learning to tread new paths.

And I felt a little less alone. A little less like a broken freak.

And I want that so desperately for the kids we serve. Don’t you?

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