I’m the first to say that my mental health does not define me as a person, but that doesn’t change the fact that it actively affects all areas of my life. I’m also not ashamed of my disorders- at this point in my life, at twenty years old, I have accepted them as a part of my identity, not all of it.
With that being said, anxiety, OCD, ADHD are not parts of myself that I immediately bring up to people when I’m meeting them. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s become “cool” or “trendy” to have a mental illness, and flaunt it at every opportunity. The reality is, most people who are actually suffering do NOT want their mental health to be the center of attention, and this includes me. I do not want to be defined by what is only a portion of who I am. The only times I really bring up my mental illnesses is when it’s relevant to the situation, and if disclosing it will lessen the amount of uncomfortable situations in the future.
Like many people, the neuropsych areas of my life that I struggle with tend to overlap. Generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder almost always go hand in hand. I’ve written about this before on my blog- they all tend to cycle together and have very similar symptoms in my personal experience. If you’re interested in learning more about that, I’ll link that article below.
Today, I want to talk about how these conditions affect my day-to-day life. Certainly, many people have it much worse than me, but that doesn’t change the fact that my life comes with a unique set of challenges and adversities. I want to be open about these experiences, because I’m sure there are lots of other young people going through similar difficult things. My mission has always been to be an advocate and a voice, and that’s why I’m happy to be as transparent and honest as possible.
Anxiety really is the umbrella for quite a few of my problems, to be completely honest. Anxiety is extremely common in young and old alike, but when it reaches a point of disrupting daily functions, that is when it becomes considered a “disorder.” Anxiety has persistently plagued me since I was a toddler; it is both a genetic and situational disorder for me. This is one of the reasons Lexapro- an antidepressant- has been so impactful in my adult life. Antidepressants literally change the chemistry of your brain, which is incredible for people who were simply born with lower serotonin counts in their brain (such as myself). Obviously, medication isn’t the answer for everyone, but it has been a pivotal solution for my own health struggles. Medication does have some downsides, however, and I will be going into those shortly.
A lot of my anxiety is very survival based, and my fight-or-flight instinct always seems to be ready for action. For survivors of childhood abuse (again, including myself), the fight-or-flight anxiety is a often result of feeling terrified and powerless as a child, usually due to some traumatic event. I am extremely conscious of danger, realistic or not, around me at all times. Anxiety plagues me with paranoia on a daily basis- while I am at college, I find myself constantly jerking around, watching other people, afraid that they are laughing at me and whispering about me. As anyone with social paranoia will tell you, it’s an exhausting cycle of worry and self-doubt. It can also effectively destroy friendships, if you’re constantly critical of yourself and others on such an intense level.
On the subject of this type of anxiety, my fear is also heightened by something coined “climate grief”. This type of anxiety is extremely common in young people, because it’s centered around a fear for the sustainability of my future, global warming, etc. Like I said, I’m a major hypochondriac, and my obsession with survival takes up an exhausting part of my thinking. When I get into this state of particular anxiety, it entails a lot of deep panic, crying, hopelessness, and frustration. The worst thing about climate grief is that there isn’t much I can really do about it, except lean on my closest friends and family for physical support and soothing.
Another form in which anxiety affects me is panic attacks and anxiety attacks. It’s estimated that 1-2 percent of the general population is suffering with a panic disorder, and as you may have guessed, I am one of those people. Anxiety attacks are much more common for me; I’ve only had about three panic attacks since 2015. There are particular circumstances that can trigger panic attacks for me- hospitals, doctor’s offices, blood, needles, claustrophobia (usually in the doctor’s office), and even low blood sugar are all catalysts for me to have a panic attack. For this reason, I always need to have my mother, a friend, or a trusted adult in the room with me when I need to get a shot or even a finger prick. The dread I feel about going to the doctor’s can start even weeks before my actual appointment. There is a name for having a fear of hospitals and medical procedures -nosocomephobia- and earlier, this year, I was officially diagnosed with it. Having this fear can often make me think irrationally, because it’s very likely I would consider avoiding going to the hospital, even if I needed medical attention. Subsequently, I am constantly afraid of developing illness or sustaining an injury. Doing so would first of all give me panic that I am going to die. Then, I would work myself into a panic about potentially having to go to a doctor or hospital. Then, my panic would spiral into a fear of having a panic attack once I got to the hospital, which is one of the worst possible experiences I can imagine happening to me.
Everyone’s panic attacks are a little bit different, but mine always entail “visual snow”, impaired hearing, and difficulty breathing. Visual snow is a neurological disorder characterized by a continuous visual disturbance, described as tiny flickering dots that resemble the noise of a detuned analogue television. This visual “static” slowly begins as a couple of flecks, but quickly takes up my entire field of vision until I can’t see or hear anything at all. It looks a little something like this.
The first time I had a panic attack in a high school classroom, where my teacher was talking about blood types, I had absolutely no idea what was happening to me. I truly thought I was dying. The terror that washed over me as my hearing and vision disappeared into static is probably the scariest thing that has ever happened to me, and to this day, I work myself into intense states of anxiety, constantly plagued by the fear that it could happen again if I’m in the same room as someone talking about blood.
The second time this happened was in a church, and the priest was talking about the blood of Christ. The third time this happened was in a medical examination room, but the nurse was able to help me immediately by ducking my head to get the blood flowing again. This stopped the visual snow from happening, but I still threw up all over the floor. After having a panic attack, I’m always absolutely fatigued and feel lifeless for the rest of the day.
I normally don’t have sleep problems, but sometimes, my anxiety keeps me awake because I am worried I will have a panic attack. I worry when my mom is at work and I’m alone in the apartment, or when I’m alone at school- what if I randomly have a panic attack and nobody is here to help me? What if I collapse and hit my head? What if it’s not a panic attack, and I’m actually dying?
Welcome to the life of a highly anxious person!
So, that’s a look into my life with anxiety. We aren’t done yet. Now, we’re going to talk about Escitalopram, which is the drug I take to reduce my anxiety. My dosage of Escitalopram (my brand is Lexapro) started at 5mg, but about a year and a half ago I bumped it up to 10mg. Over time, drugs like Lexapro can slowly become less effective, so patients often have to amp up their dosage or switch to another medication. I have been on Lexapro for about two years, and it still appears to be working just fine for me. I still have anxiety, as you can clearly see, but it is much more manageable now than it used to be. I also used to struggle with depression, which is not something I have experienced since being on Lexapro. That being said, there are negative side effects that can come with taking antidepressant drugs like Lexapro. My side effects actually didn’t appear at the beginning of taking the drug- they started becoming noticeable to me about a year ago. The first thing Lexapro has affected is my overall sexual function. It may sound like a strange side effect, but it’s not uncommon for these drugs to lower your sexual libido and make it difficult to reach/sustain arousal with another partner. I haven’t had satisfying sex in about two years, which is when I started taking the drug. I know that probably sounds bothersome to an outsider, but it truthfully doesn’t bother me enough to the point that I would consider getting off the drug.
Another side effect with Lexapro that impaired memory and slow thinking. I have definitely noticed that my memory has gotten worse- sometimes, I can’t even remember what I did in the previous six hours. It’s difficult to describe how Lexapro has impacted my thinking skills, because it’s so frustrating and complex for even me to understand! The speed of my thought process is slower, my ability to think of relevant words is slower, and sometimes, my mind just feels completely blank. Again, for an outsider, I understand this probably sounds horrible and not worth taking the medication for, but like I said, these changes to my brain happened very slowly and I hardly even noticed them happening. At this point, I am used to it, and am even finding ways to adjust to this. I would love to be off lexapro in the future, because there are things about myself that I miss, and I also cannot drink alcohol while taking this drug (although that’s such a minor inconvenience compared to the other downsides). While weaning off lexapro is a future goal of mine, I have anxiety that my depression may return to me because of my compromised serotonin levels. Also, weaning off of this drug can have extremely intense withdrawal symptoms- some people are even hospitalized for this process. On the bright side, there is faith. It’s possible my brain has now learned how to make more serotonin on its own, and I may be able to continue living a depression-free life without it.
Moving on from anxiety and antidepressants, let’s talk about ADHD and my short-term memory skills. I was diagnosed with ADHD about five months ago, after going in for six hours of neurotesting at a nearby hospital. If you’re curious about my entire experience being diagnosed with ADHD, I’ll also link that article below. I’ll try to keep this segment short, because this article is already going to be crazy long.
I believe I inherited my ADHD genetically. My brother was diagnosed with it when he was in middle school, and though my dad has never been formally tested, I’m pretty sure that he has it, too. When I was growing up, I never associated myself with having ADHD, because I have always been a very well-behaved student and earned decent enough grades. It never occured to me that the fact I was working twice as hard as everyone was abnormal, because I never directly brought it up to my parents and teachers. I can remember, even going back to elementary school, literally not having a clue what was going on around me. I struggle following verbal directions, especially lectures, and usually need directions/instructions to be repeated many times for me to actually absorb information. The only reason I managed to get through school (and continue to get through school) with decent grades is because I am constantly observing what other students are doing, and copy their actions to yield passable results. Most of the time, I don’t actually know what I’m doing. I’m just sitting in a chair, surrounded by other students, completely unaware of what’s happening but still complying on a motor level.
I would say that about 80% of the time, I’m not really listening to my professor. I don’t read the textbooks, or worksheets, or anything else that I know I’m going to forget after ten minutes. If something does not have personal significance, or just doesn’t make sense to me, my brain doesn’t even bother making the memory. In more scientific words , I have “weak, albeit intact, performances for non-contextualized word list learning and memory.”
And that’s not just me assuming things about myself. It’s printed in my neuropsych report that I have impaired short term memory skills, and low “working memory” task requiring “arithmetic skills.” According to my report, I struggle to comprehend mathematics above a 6th grade level, which is about the time I started seriously failing math.
It’s noteworthy to add that my teachers in middle/high school never referred me for learning disability testing. Instead, they chose to litter my report cards with words like “distracting”, “not trying”, “daydreaming”, etc.
I really wanted to give you that much in-depth information, because I hope it will help you better understand how ADHD and anxiety are connected. When your life and savings are more or less dependent on completing your higher education, it can be frustrating and worrisome when you feel like you have no clue what’s going on. It’s ridiculous to walk out of a classroom and think, “I’m spending all this money to sit in a classroom and feel utterly confused.”
Like I said, I get through classes by copying what peers are doing and mimicking their actions. I work much, much better when I can be alone in my own space, working on my own time, and absorbing information in a way that works for me. I am excellent at writing essays, and have an easy time focusing on organizing my thoughts into words. This works out great for me, considering most of my college assignments just consist of writing essays anyway. I feel like I’ve earned the right to be proud of the fact that I can punch out a five-page essay in about an hour. Having ADHD isn’t all negative- I am also an extremely fast worker, and enjoy rushing through things as quickly as I possibly can. I don’t care about being the top in the class, or earning an A every time. I want to be quick, efficient, and…average.
So, that’s more or less the deal on my daily life with ADHD. If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis, like I said, there will be a link at the bottom.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is something that used to plague me much more severely when I was younger, but as I have aged, it has become much more manageable. I attribute this somewhat to my medication, but also to the fact that I have been in and out of therapy to work on these obsessive issues with professionals. I have counting compulsions, and compulsions to do everything possible in even numbers. It used to be a lot worse when I was in elementary school and middle school- everything, everything I did, I was consciously aware of doing in even numbers. I stepped on cracks in the sidewalks in even numbers. I flicked lights on and off twice. I got up to check if the stove was off not once, but twice. Or four times. Or six times.
I sometimes still catch myself doing this frustrating habits, but the more aware I become of the ridiculousness, the easier it is to ignore my compulsions. OCD is significantly intertwined with anxiety, because ignoring these compulsions can literally litter my mind until I give into it. I know nothing bad will actually happen if I do something in an odd number, but it’s the fact that I’m going against it that makes me obsess over the diversion. Like I said, however, I have been able to manage this successfully to the point that it’s hardly noticeable anymore, especially to outsiders. I would say I have a compulsion about 1-3 times per day, but there are also days when I have no compulsions at all.
Lastly, I want to talk about Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), because this condition feeds directly into almost all of my other mental issues (mainly anxiety and OCD). The easiest way to describe PMDD is as very intense PMS, that begins up to 7-10 days before your period and last for days afterwards. On an especially bad bout of PMDD, I can feel symptoms for up to 15 days, which can start to feel like it will never end. It’s common for people already suffering with anxiety to develop PMDD, and the symptoms are very similar. Interestingly, I will sometimes have a cycle with no PMDD symptoms, and feel generally fine for the entire month. And then, in the next month’s cycle, I will start to feel pretty shitty around the second week of my cycle and know that a rough emotional storm is coming.
The somewhat nice thing about PMDD is the predictability. I’ve had enough episodes of it to know when my symptoms are coming, and I am able to remind myself, “This is okay, you’ve gone through this before, you know it will be over eventually and you’ll go back to feeling like yourself.” Taking oral birth control can help with these symptoms, and that’s actually exactly what I do to regulate my PMDD. Before taking birth control, I would feel totally out of control and severely depressed in the days leading up to my period. Because birth control can regulate hormones and affects estrogen, it has actually been shown to help women suffering with the condition find emotional/physical relief. It’s important that everybody knows birth control is NOT just for preventing pregnancy. Birth control needs to stay readily available to women because it helps with so much more, like managing hormonal mental illness.
The symptoms of PMDD include lasting anger/irritability, sadness/despair, tension and anxiety, crying, lack of interest in people/activities, troubling focusing, low energy, food cravings, binge eating, trouble sleeping, feeling out of control, bloating, and headaches . Some women also experience frequent panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts, but thankfully, I have experienced neither of those as a result of PMDD. I have never experienced suicidal thoughts, and my panic attacks are few and far between.
Feeling the effects of my PMDD can be really scary at times, even if I know they will pass eventually. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and panic, because I don’t feel connected to myself, and like I’m in some sort of horrible dream that I can’t wake up from. The climate grief that I mentioned earlier, and my hypochondriac behaviors, become a LOT worse. My OCD compulsions in an attempt to gain control of my life become heightened during this time. I usually don’t want to leave my house, talk to people, or engage in the activities that I usually love doing. When my PMDD is at its worst, all I can do is lay in bed and try to distract myself with naps and emotional support. I can also become extremely paranoid while dealing with my PMDD- worrying that people secretly don’t like me, or that they’re out to get me, etc.
Like I have stated, I have never experienced suicidal thoughts or tendencies, and I know the pain is not permanent. It is not my fault I have a hormonal imbalance in my body that affects my mind. I remind myself that it is not the end of the world, I pull my family and friends close, and eventually, I do start to feel better. I truly want everybody reading this, especially the young people suffering with mental illness and feeling hopeless, to know that YOU WILL BE OKAY. There are people here for you who want to help you and support you in whatever you need.
Because I take an oral contraceptive, my PMDD symptoms are a lot less severe than they used to be. I’ve mentioned in other articles that when I was in high school and early college, a lot of uneducated authority figures tried to send me to hospitals and crisis clinics because they wrongfully thought I was a danger to myself and others. I’ve talked in detail about these traumatic, scary experiences, and how it is resoundfully dangerous it is to call the police on a person in mental distress.
I repeat, DO NOT CALL THE POLICE ON A PERSON IN A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS. (Unless they actually are a danger to themselves or others). For me and many others, however, calling the police or an ambulance on me when I am having an anxiety attack is the worst possible thing you can do. Even worse, making a person suffering in mental health distress feel like they are a nuisance, danger, or anomaly is a huge problem that I have seen across not only my college campus, but across the entire nation.
I’m not writing this article because I want pity or sympathy, I am writing this because I want to normalize invisible mental illness. I may have my privations, but that does not define who I am. I am a happy, healthy, and confident woman. If I can maintain my happiness, independence, and well-being, then I believe in you, too!
The relationship between ADHD and GAD: https://diplomatsdigest.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/the-relationship-between-adhd-and-gad/
Being diagnosed with ADHD: https://diplomatsdigest.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/being-diagnosed-with-adhd-at-19-my-experience/
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