For almost as long as I can remember, mental health has in some way or form (either directly or indirectly) influenced the lives of my entire family. I grew up alongside my sister, who woke up every day to face an anxiety disorder. I often wonder if the challenges she experienced were a result of her ongoing battle with herself, or the fact that her anxiety was not something that we spoke of, ever. When her official diagnosis occurred, I was too young to really understand the explicit (and sometimes implicit) stigma surrounding her mental health; however, from a young age I was socialized to believe that mental health = that thing by which we did not speak. As far as I knew, mental illness did not exist – it was a socially constructed entity (an ‘excuse’ people used to avoid their responsibilities). Based on the destructive attitudes still commonly associated with mental health today (although, as a nation we are starting to progressively move beyond this…), I can only imagine that every child who grew up with narratives similar to that of my sister and myself, are now adults who struggle with willingly and openly discussing our mental health.
I think that deep down I always knew that I was battling my own demons, but because my sister’s anxiety caused such immense strain on our family I knew that there was little to no room for said demons to be addressed. Instead, I channeled my mental and emotional energy into my schooling. I worked hard, but in turn I was very hard on myself and… alas perfectionist tendencies were born (at the age of twelve, nonetheless!) and my “non-existent, I do not want to acknowledge” anxiety started to seep through the walls I had built to protect myself from the world’s judgment. Meagan: good person, great student. (Phew, no one had noticed… yet.)
I did, what I considered to be, a fairly decent job at concealing my anxiety until I pursued post-secondary education. I had continued to place unrealistic expectations on myself as a student, which made it nearly impossible to feel successful. Writing exams, term papers and assignments resulted in extreme emotional turmoil; semester after semester, I went through the vicious cycle of knowing something was wrong with me, but having too much pride to admit it to anyone other than myself (or to even openly admit it to myself, I was in denial). My mom routinely asked how I was doing, as she could see my spirit dwindling; my reply was always, “I am fine”. Fine – a word used too frequently to protect oneself from judgment, ridicule, and social isolation; or, to cover up what is really going on. Semester after semester, at the expense of my health (both mental, and the associated physical repercussions), I got by. I was not thriving in my life; I was merely surviving.
Last year was by far the most challenging in comparison to previous years in my undergraduate program. I found myself falling behind as a result of continuously feeling overwhelmed; as soon as I felt anxious, my (realistically, achievable) to-do list seemed to become an unbearable task. I gave up, way too easily, and began to lack passion for things I had once loved. I isolated myself from my friends and family; I avoided social interaction at all costs. I felt as though I had dug myself a hole, jumped into it, and was looking up to watch the rest of the world continuing on with their daily lives. I was terrified; every single time I ‘let my anxiety win’, it was as though that monster was standing at the top of the hole, victoriously laughing. (Photo: Artist, Toby Allen, created mental illnesses to depict real life monsters)
Despite the multiplicity of self-induced barriers that arose throughout last year, and the feeling of having just barely crawled over the finish line, I received the wake-up call I so desperately needed. I think for so long, I was scared of how and if people’s perception of me (and capability to be successful as an educator) would be altered had they known about my anxiety. I was scared that my accomplishments and abilities would be compromised – worried that I would be viewed as less of a person. I was scared that I would lose friendships; worried that I would not get hired for certain jobs. I was scared that openly discussing my anxiety would cause individuals to view me as being incapable, or disabled even… I was willing to conceal my anxiety from the public in order to maintain my ‘identity’ – but at what cost? My happiness? My life?
Looking back on the past year, I am thankful that I am here, writing this post for you to read. I am proud of the fact that I able to share my story. If anything, I believe that my anxiety has not been a hinderance; rather, I am now able to see it as an asset – because of my anxiety, I am strong. Although the journey has not been easy, I am now able to say that I accept the fact that I struggle with my mental health – every, single, day. I accept the fact that I had to seek professional help in order to cope and move forward positively and productively.
The most important thing I have learned as a result of my journey this far: anxiety is more common than one might think, and it is okay to ask for help from time to time. Throughout my career as an educator, I know that my path will cross with students who are fighting similar battles – facing the demons of mental health. I am hoping that by sharing my story (my challenges, struggles; my strengths, my perseverances), students will be able to see me as their ally – our journey alongside mental illness is not something we will ever simply choose to ‘get over’, but we can walk this road together. I know that everyone is fighting a different battle, unique to their own life experiences. I acknowledge the fact that just because I have struggled with my anxiety, in no way makes me an ‘expert’ or advocate for mental health. However, I can make myself available (in my classroom, in my school, in the community) to listen, support, and love those who, just simply, need it. Ultimately if there is one thing that I can share, and thus help my students understand, it is as follows: just know that sometimes, it is okay to not be okay.
My name is Meagan and I have anxiety. Judge me, support me; hate me, accept me; disregard me, follow me; but most importantly, please converse with me, share with me, and walk alongside me. Let us navigate through our complex world together, with the anxiety monster riding on our backs. All while working to end the stigma surrounding mental health – one conversation at a time.