Anxiously Aware

 May is mental health awareness month, so I wanted to take this time to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and so many others' as well.

 The scariest thing about mental illness isn't the illness itself, but the lack of awareness, appreciation, and sympathy people have for it. If someone says, "I have the flu" they are met with hoards of well-wishes and offers for medicine and pick-me-ups like soup or funny TV shows. But if someone says, "I have anxiety" or "I've been feeling really anxious lately," they are often met with comments like, "just calm down," "relax," "chill out," or are simply told that they're overreacting. There is an astounding lack of sympathy for sufferers of mental illness of any kind, not just anxiety.

 Anxiety is kind of like being in a room full of laser beams. You might successfully step over one just to collide with the next one, one you hadn't even previously known was there. And when you do come up against your fears and anxieties there are real, tangible consequences, as the symptoms of anxiety are a lot bigger than anyone understands. With anxiety (and many other mental illnesses), you're constantly dodging and weaving through a maze of worry and insecurity, and it is completely exhausting. But it's a silent struggle, and a lot of times it might not seem to other people like anything is actually wrong. So they tell you, "relax, it's fine" or, "you always worry for no reason," and that can make you second guess what you're feeling, and pretend it's not happening. No, it's fine. You might tell yourself. Other people do this and they're okay. I'm fine. But it's not fine, and this cultural apathy only serves to continue the pain and suffering, in situations where it might have been helped.


 What pains me the most as a sufferer myself, and someone who has been speaking fairly openly about my anxiety for about five years now, is that I still find myself apologizing when I tell someone what's going on with me. I'm still downplaying it, still using a smaller voice to try to make it seem like it's not a big deal. I find myself saying, "Oh, I've just been feeling kind of anxious lately..." and shrugging, like it's not totally kicking my ass. Like it doesn't make me want to completely give up sometimes. I've had anxiety since I was about seven years old, so I've had years to get to know it, and become familiar with the nitty gritty, ugly highs and lows of it. And yet even I still sometimes fall victim to this unfeeling and unforgiving cultural mindset about mental illness.

 What I'm saying is, there needs to be more sympathy for sufferers of mental illness, and it starts with us. If you suffer, please, treat yourself well. Try your best not to negate your feelings in your own mind. Allow yourself to feel bad, because in my experience admitting that you feel bad is the first step (on a sometimes long road) to feeling better. Do I still feel like total shit about the fact that going to the movies has been making me crazy anxious lately? Yes. Do I feel bad about the fact that I had to leave the theater a few weeks ago before the movie was even over because of this anxiety? Yes. Do I horribly guilty for making my boyfriend leave that movie as well? Yes. Do I feel bad about the fact that "normal" activities are harder for me, and require more thought and preparation beforehand than most? Yes. Am I afraid that something as small (and ordinarily FUN) as a simple road trip to Philadelphia might end in disaster? Yes. Am I sometimes I afraid that this will effect my whole life, that I'll never do the things I dream of because my anxiety will hold me back? Yes. Am I cripplingly afraid of letting fear control me? Yes would be an understatement.

 It's okay to admit all that, but it's also okay to cut yourself some slack. Do people with the flu apologize for sneezing? Well, maybe, if they do it impolitely and get someone else sick, but ordinarily-- NO. They are met with, and I'll say this word again for emphasis, SYMPATHY. Kindness. Well-wishes and pats on the back (even if it's from a distance and with hand sanitizer at the ready). So maybe it's high time we do the same for people with mental illness. Unlike the flu, it isn't catching. You don't have to avoid the subject for fear you'll catch it yourself. This month, I'd urge you to be more mindful, considerate, and open to conversation about mental illness, in the hopes that one day it will be a natural reflex rather than a conscious effort to be sympathetic about this topic.

 -Fran