I have an anxiety disorder. This manifests in numerous ways: insomnia, hyperventilating, loss of appetite, panic attacks, a hand tremor, and a frequent sense of dread. Nearly every morning, I wake up with a racing heart as I remember all the items on the day’s to-do list. The COVID-19 pandemic has done little to help this problem: situations I normally handled without issue, such as sitting in a crowded audience, now make me feel shaky and claustrophobic. I have some coping mechanisms, such as breathing exercises, but in general, my anxiety is a shadow that dogs my every step.
Understanding Mental Illness
It’s hard to admit this, because many people mistake mental illness for weakness or fragility.
Members of older generations — for whom the topic of mental illness was more taboo — often remark that people my age are “too sensitive” and “easily triggered” because they reveal our distress in the face of overwhelming circumstances. We assume there is something fundamentally wrong with young people rather than something fundamentally wrong with the world they inhabit.
I believe mental illness is on the rise because as society advances, it becomes increasingly more out-of-sync with human nature. Human beings were not made for a five-day work week, nor the stresses of money, nor the constant intrusion of social media in our daily lives. These pressures lead to fatigue, burn-out, and yes — mental health disorders.
While some may judge me for admitting I have an anxiety disorder, others do something far worse: they don’t believe me. I have been told on multiple occasions that there’s “no way” I have an anxiety disorder. “But you always seem so calm!” they tell me. “But you’re so warm and friendly! You make friends so easily! You’ve moved across the world twice — how could someone with an anxiety disorder do that?”
Taking the Plunge
During a recent re-watch of The Princess Diaries, a movie I’ve loved since childhood, I felt validated by this line: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
This is how I have chosen to live. My days are a constant battle between my life-preserving instincts and my life-affirming ambitions. One voice in my head shouts, “No, don’t do that! It’s scary! It will end horribly!” while another, louder voice declares, “I’m doing it anyway.” And I have never once regretted any of the plunges I’ve taken — even those that did, in fact, end horribly.
I wasn’t always so daring. When I applied to colleges, I didn’t send a single application outside of Ohio because leaving the state seemed entirely out of the question. Even my final choice — Kenyon College, a whopping hour and a half drive from my hometown — produced a vast and petrifying distance: I had a panic attack the day my parents dropped me off for orientation week. Those who came to Kenyon from the other side of the country were inspiring and intimidating to me; I could never be that brave.
Until I embarked upon the study abroad program that led me to England in 2017, and two years later, when I moved to Ireland with little more than the clothes on my back.
Triumphing over Anxiety
While I had various mentors guiding me through my study abroad year in England, my move to Ireland was fraught with worry. I arrived without a job or apartment, and only two weeks in an AirBnB to obtain both. I remember a conversation I had with my boyfriend of the time, who moved with me. After our fourteen days were nearly up, and neither of us had secured a job or place to live, he said to me, “We should consider the very real possibility that we might have to go home.” I knew he was right, but my heart broke in my chest. The whole thing was my idea, and if it were a colossal failure, it would feel like my fault. I wondered how our relationship would survive this, if we both moved back to our respective countries. I fretted about all the money I’d lose. I called my mom and cried on the phone. My anxiety hit an all-time, screeching high.
But, through one miracle or another, it worked out. We found jobs and a beautiful apartment within our budget in the perfect location. I made phenomenal Irish friends. I had some thrilling adventures. It wasn’t all perfect: I went home six months early, and my relationship didn’t survive after all, but I was able to overcome my initial fears because I harbored something stronger: a little bugger called hope.
I will always consider my time living in Ireland as a triumph. Now that I am back in my American hometown, reunited with my family, I look back on that period of my life with admiration for the girl I was: someone who was brave enough to risk everything for her impossible dreams, and against all odds, obtained them. On the days when my anxiety gets the better of me, when my hands shake and my knees grow weak and I feel on the verge of falling apart, I remind myself: I am still that girl.
Mental Health Awareness
While I harbor far more anxiety than the average person, my worry is equally matched by my desire to live a unique life, to form meaningful relationships, and to gather as many wondrous experiences into my pockets as possible, so that one day my descendents might look at me in my rocking chair and say, “Wow, Grandma lived one heck of a life.”
Moving to Ireland was one of the most terrifying and important decisions I ever made, which involved leaving my family, my friends, my cat, and my entire structure of life in pursuit of adventure.
And I did it with an anxiety disorder, proving that my mental illness — while a very real obstacle — is not so high a hurdle that I cannot jump over. Like Georgia O’Keeffe says, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so take a moment to educate yourself on mental illness and speak to someone who has one, listening with a compassionate and empathetic ear. And if that someone is you, clap yourself on the back, brew yourself a hot cup of tea, and take a bubble bath, because you’re not weak, or fragile, or broken — you’re a badass.
The Princess Diaries, directed by Garry Marshall
Caption: Anxiety can feel like a shadow that follows you everywhere.
*Natalie Keller is a former resident of Galway, Ireland and works in the world of libraries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms, and she is currently editing a novel, much of which is set in the Emerald Isle. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected].