Friday, May 9, 2014

Mental Health: Two Sides of the Same Coin

     The swing set cast long shadows on the abandoned shovels scattered among the wood chips and shards of plastic. It seemed like any other ordinary day at recess: me and my best friend were playing witches just like always. But today a hazy cloud of anxiety floated above me, engulfing me. No matter how many deep breaths I took I could not shake it. The tears began to well up in my eyes, and just as we lined up at the wrought iron fence I broke down crying. I felt like a plastic mannequin on display as all the kids in my second grade class stared at me distantly and uncomfortably. For some reason I was convinced that my mom wasn't going to be there to pick me up from school, even though in my rational mind I knew that she would be there smiling and waiting for me promptly at 3:15, just like always.

     Every day for the rest of second grade I continued this routine. I was scared out of my mind, convinced my mom would leave me at those dreaded concrete stairs. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of my struggle with a debilitating anxiety disorder. Just like everyone else, I got nervous about tests, first days of school, and going new places, but for me these things were much bigger and scarier. I was like a little kid afraid of the monsters under the bed while everyone was like an adult and knew they were just dust bunnies.
     In seventh grade this all came to a peak when my teacher shared extremely personal information about me with others. I became petrified of her - just the sight of her walking down the hallway was enough to bring me to tears. I sat in the principal's office every day, rocking back and forth and crying hysterically. The teachers hid me away, warning the kids not to go near me as if it was contagious or I was some sort of vermin. They never even phoned my parents to inform them of my violent anxiety attacks and vivid flashbacks. Looking back, I realize that if I had been suffering from anything else they would have told my parents, but because it was a mental health issue it wasn't treated with the same seriousness as a physical ailment would have been.
     After months of this same routine and days that seemed filled with nothing but tears and terrifying anxiety attacks, the principal finally informed my mom and I was enrolled in therapy. 
      I sat in the bleak and aesthetically unappealing waiting room, shaking slightly and utterly horrified by the thought of someone I knew seeing me there. Now when I sit in the waiting room I don't care who sees me or if the nurse calls my name too loudly, because honestly, it's nothing to be ashamed about.
     Therapy is a long and sometimes unrelenting process that constantly reminds me that for some reason I am meant to be here. It took copious amounts of time and sessions for me to face the monsters and to be able to see them as dust bunnies. Through this experience I have learned a lot about stigma and judgement. To be honest I don't blame the kids that ran away or the teachers that were too consumed by their own bias and stigma to fully understand the depth of the situation. Prior to this experience I too probably would have shared their judgements. Some people look at having a "disorder" as a negative thing. But that is only a social construct, and because our society perceives it that way. However, through this experience I have become a much more tolerant, self-aware, and accepting person. That is the silver lining in my dark cloud.

    This year I embarked on a six month long project about mental health in young people and have just recently completed it. I have also realized that I want to become a psychologist so that I can help people the same way that others helped me. Finally, I started a GSA in my school to help make it a more inclusive and tolerant place. I know what it's like to be stigmatized and treated like I'm contagious and I don't want others to feel that way. I spend much of my time volunteering for Teen Link, talking about mental health, and working to make my school community a better one. Now and again I still have anxiety over tests or new things, but I have come to realize that they are not big scary monsters, just dust bunnies that need to be swept away.

     If any of this sounds familiar to you Teen Link is a great resource if you want to talk about it. Teen Link is a anonymous, nonjudgmental and confidential helpline. It is run by teens for teens. It is open every night from six to ten or there is chatline if you don't feel comfortable talking about it over the phone. No problem is too big or too small. The number is (866) TEEN LINK  and the website is www.866TEENLINK.ORG

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