Mental illness is a real illness that requires time and effort to treat, even though it's invisible to most people. (Emma Follman)
Mental illness is a real illness that requires time and effort to treat, even though it's invisible to most people.

Emma Follman

Peace of Mind: Meet me and my anxiety

How my anxiety significantly impacts my ability to function every day, and why we need to talk more about mental health at Vanderbilt

May 26, 2020

Emma Follman

It’s 2 a.m. on Sunday. I’m lying awake in my bed, staring at the ceiling with heavy eyelids and wishing I wasn’t so aware of the sheets against my arms or the buzz of the air conditioning in the background. I’m not up because I went to some rager, was studying for an exam or hanging out with friends. I’m up because my mind is up, and when you struggle with anxiety, it often seems like your mind dictates your entire life. 

When it gets really bad, it’s like falling into quicksand. It starts out with some uncertainty or worry that pings my brain, like a tweet. And then another one comes, and another, until all of a sudden my brain is buzzing so incessantly it’s impossible to ignore. Remember that email you forgot to send? You have so much work to get done this week! Do you think your friend really meant that? Of course, I try to fight it all; I try responding to the tweets by planning my entire week’s schedule or making a script of what I’ll say to my friend in my head. But the more I respond, worry and ruminate, the more the thoughts just keep coming. 

Once I fall in, I’m gone for the night, no matter how much deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, calm reading, stretching or walking I do. When my anxiety is really bad, it’s like being the passenger in a car that’s about to crash without having any control over it. The next morning, I wake up to a car that’s lost two of its doors or has its bumper completely crushed, but the pressures of being the “perfect” Vanderbilt student push me to keep driving—to study for an exam, read a research article or go to a club meeting. 

When I’m not able to finish all my work because of my anxiety, I feel even more anxious the next night. This cycle continues over and over until I hit rock bottom and have a mental breakdown, which is like waking up and realizing my car has become nothing more than a pile of wheels, metal and glass: my mind, like the car, is shattered to pieces. Even though my mind and my life often feel fragmented, nobody would know the difference on the outside. I may smile and say, “I’m fine,” but on the inside, I’m asking myself, Why can’t I just be normal, like the other kids? Why can’t I just be happy when I have so much to be grateful for? The reason I can’t “just be happy” is because my mental illness is a real illness, and just like physical illnesses, it requires me to invest lots of time into my own treatment. I know that my illness is real and valid, even though it is invisible to most people.

My anxiety manifests itself in many other ways besides cycles of sleepless nights, and of course this is just one story out of millions. In fact, I think it is difficult for people to truly understand the gravity of the situation without experiencing it for themselves. Mental illnesses are serious health concerns affecting people around the world, especially young people. Illnesses such as anxiety and depression not only cause extreme amounts of suffering and pain but also cost many lives and burden healthcare systems. For this reason, I want to be a voice for those who have mental health challenges on campus and to encourage productive discussions on these topics through my column. 

Moving forward, I hope to share more of my experiences with mental illness as well as my experiences with different types of treatment. I also would like to discuss important issues relevant to college students and to challenge preconceived notions about people with mental illnesses. I’ll be pulling from my and my family’s experiences with mental health, knowledge I’ve gained through years of therapy and insight as a neuroscience major. Hopefully, my column will help people feel a little less lonely and also encourage people to seek treatment. Despite the intensity of our daily struggles with mental illness, I hope that we can all find within us the power to desire and pursue our own healing and wellbeing. Because what’s the alternative? Do we want our minds in pieces, or do we want peace of mind?

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