Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
My first period of anxiety started in sixth grade and lasted through eighth grade. The second happened during eleventh grade and the third during the summer before my sophomore year at Swat. My anxiety comes with panic attacks, and with those comes agoraphobia, a fear of situations where it feels difficult to escape.
During the worst times of my anxiety, I refused to leave the house. I wouldn’t go to school, I wouldn’t go to soccer practice, I wouldn’t even walk my dog around the block. First, my neck would get hot, then my face. My heart would start beating faster, my legs would start feeling weak, and my focus would narrow until I was only conscious of what I felt. I thought I needed to get home before whatever bad thing that was making me feel this way happened.
I told everyone I was sick. Physically sick. It worked for a little while, but there are only so many times an eleven year-old can say her stomach hurts before adults stop believing her. They wanted a “real” reason for my avoiding class, but I couldn’t give them one. I didn’t know what was going on. But what was more, I was afraid to talk about it, afraid that if I told them what I was feeling, they would think I was as crazy, as I was beginning to fear I was. I was afraid they’d tell me there was nothing that could be done, that I was doomed to feel crazy, to feel different, forever.
A turning point for me came when my 6th grade teacher, Teacher Karen, confronted me about all the time I’d been spending in the nurse’s office. That day I went to the nurse so early that the nurse hadn’t even arrived at school yet and the lights were still off from the night before. Teacher Karen came down from her classroom and sat on the blue plastic bed next to me. She asked me what was going on. I told her—like I told everyone—that I didn’t feel well. She pushed me and asked in what way I didn’t feel well. I told her I felt dizzy. Dizziness was the central aspect of my anxiety, the point I obsessed over and continue to obsess over. She asked me why I got dizzy. I started to choke up and said I didn’t know why. She looked at me and observed that it must be really scary not knowing what was happening to me. I looked down as she pulled me towards her and held me as I cried.
Before that day I had seen her as the enemy. She was the one who kept me in class, who held the power and could decide whether or not I was allowed to leave. That day I realized she cared about me and that she had been as frustrated with me as I was with myself for not being able to stay in class. Her acknowledgement of what I was feeling—that fear of the unknown—made me feel less crazy, like maybe someone could help me, like maybe one day I wouldn’t feel that way anymore. Not long after that day I asked my parents if I could see a psychologist.
I got better. But then I relapsed. Then I got better again. Then I relapsed again. I’m better now, but I’m still afraid of anxiety. I have ways of coping with it, but anxiety is inherently scary and I know I’m at risk for another episode. So I monitor myself for it. I make sure that when I decide not to do something, it’s because I really don’t want to do it and not because I’m just afraid of doing it. I make sure I go outside at least once every single day. And I tell the people I trust about my fears. I always worry about telling someone new about my experiences. I worry they’ll judge me and think I’m stupid for being afraid of trivial things. Thankfully, sharing my fears has only ever been met with compassion from other people and it has provided me a sense of relief for being accepted as I am.
I’m sharing this story because I don’t want anyone who might read this to feel as alone and as crazy as I did before Teacher Karen walked into that darkened nurse’s office. As a brilliant man, Professor Albus Dumbledore, once said, “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”