I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at age three. I’ve never known life without worry or a feeling of eminent danger, be it real or not. I thought if I ignored my anxiety, suppressed it, ran from it, and denied it, it would go away. My parents – the most wonderful, patient, caring, and selfless people on earth – did everything possible to help me. Psychiatrists, therapists, special accommodations at school, showing endless patience when the alarm bells in my head would send me into a whirlwind. But I dug in my heels – all I wanted was for my anxiety to go away and I thought if I ignored it long enough, it would. I would do anything and everything to avoid taking responsibility and ownership of my mental health. It was too painful for me to admit and accept the fact that I had what I perceived as a haywire nervous system that made me feel deeply flawed as a person.
For 23 years, I played that game of expert escape artist before finally, at age 26, I broke down. I had gone from a confident, smart, and levelheaded person to someone I flat out didn’t recognize. I was angry, anxious, and hating life even though I had everything right going for me – a loving fiance, a beautiful new home, two higher ed degrees, a good job, loving friends and family. I had everything I could ever want and I realized that if I didn’t take ownership of my mental health, I’d lose it all. I realized that ultimately, happiness is an inside job and it starts with me. It wasn’t other people’s responsibility to make me happy or fix me – it was mine.
I was knee-deep in the muck and I felt like I had run out of options. I was scared, knowing that I had reached rock bottom and it was time to face my deepest and darkest demon – my anxiety and the fact that I alone had let it get out of control. In that moment of surrender, I turned to fitness as my outlet. I had heard for years that exercise is beneficial for your mental and overall health, but I didn’t realize how much of a catalyst it would be. Fitness – weights, specifically – became my safe space to let in and accept those terrifying intrusive thoughts and nerve-racking feelings, a place to explore and accept who I really was. And everything changed. I found myself again, but this time, it was an even better version of me than I had hoped for. Fitness is what saved my life and I mean that from the depth of my soul. But it wasn’t just about getting in a workout every day – it became so much more that that. It became a transformation into a lifestyle that honors and respects my body, mind, and spirit, and by extension, the lives of others. I realized that without a sense of compassion and acceptance for who I am in all facets of light, it wasn’t possible to live life fully, deeply, and joyfully. I also learned that love is the most powerful force on earth – even stronger than fear – and that every relationship you have with others starts with the one you have with yourself. If you love yourself – that is, if you learn to become your own best friend, see yourself honestly, and show yourself compassion, acceptance, and respect for wherever you are in the given moment – that is where you find joy, wholeness, and the ability to love and be loved.
Anxiety and other mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of me, but it no longer defines me. Mental illness affects so many of us, but we hold it in for fear of shame or blame or guilt when really, we shouldn’t. It’s through sharing our stories that we can connect and come together. What is your story? I’d love to hear it.