I have known this week’s author, my friend Carly, for about five years now. She is full of light, laughter, and love for many. Carly also struggles with anxiety, but her mental health and these other attributes are not mutually exclusive; rather, they all co-exist. The ways in which she cares for and thinks about the people in her life, whether she finds them or they approach her in personal or professional spaces (she is indeed a kick-ass teacher), often inform the feelings she experiences when she is alone.
Carly’s words are a reminder that people contain multitudes, and that we might not immediately recognize the struggles of those who deal with mental health. It can be easy to ignore forces that, while invisible, are simultaneously some of the most challenging obstacles a person could face.
I was grateful that Carly reached out to us at “The Issue” and was staggered to hear that “The Monster in the Back of My Head” was about to be written right after the point in time when she contacted me. I learned this when I got a text from her in the middle of the work-day saying something along the lines of: “Okay, I’m writing an essay…I’m having a panic attack.” Hers is a story of in-the-moment pain and an immediate grappling with that hurt. Carly’s writing is a manifestation of the tension between her conflicting identities, an attempt to troubleshoot her desired self, and a toggle between feeling “right” and experiencing her emotions, all quickly committed to paper during her planning period at school.
Carly, like all of our previous contributors, emphasizes her desire to explore her identity to the furthest extent. It takes courage to give voice to such difficult issues, and as we end this year before moving onto the next, we remain grateful for the stories already told and hopeful for those yet to be shared.
THE MONSTER IN THE BACK OF MY HEAD - Carly McRae
CW: anxiety, mental health
Currently, my fingers are tingling. I feel as though someone is sitting on my chest. My feet feel cold. I can’t keep all of my thoughts quite straight. I’m hyper focused on my computer screen and am completely unaware of my surroundings.
I’m writing this while having a panic attack.
It’s a mild one in comparison to others I’ve had before. I can never predict exactly how they are going to feel. This one is more manageable. I am continually counting to ten in my head. But it is still a panic attack.
I am sick. I want to go home from work and lie down. I want to eat comfort food and watch terrible television. But I am not sick. I feel as though I cannot say to my boss, “My anxiety is flaring up today. I need to go home and rest.” There is a stigma - perhaps one I’ve put upon myself. Right now, I can only think about lying in bed, but I cannot seem to take the steps to get there.
I am a teacher. I love my job, and I take it very seriously. If I go home early today, I feel like I am giving up. Giving up on both myself and my students. They need me here, I tell myself. I feel like going home is a cop-out. A get-out-of-jail-free card. It would let me avoid doing everything I am supposed to do today. I still can’t take a complete breath.
The preceding paragraphs were, in fact, written during a panic attack. It was not the first one I have ever had and it will certainly not be the last. So why am I so afraid to tell my truth?
On that day, I eventually went home sick. I did not tell a soul that it was my brain that was sick, not my body. I took a nap. I ate some comfort food. I felt guilty the entire time. I wasn’t sick.
I have been living with my anxiety “officially” since I was a freshman in high school, but if you ask anyone who knew me before then, the anxiety has been there much longer. It has kept me from making friends, from going to parties, from having sleepovers. The list goes on. Until I was around fifteen or sixteen, I couldn’t even order my own food at a restaurant.
It’s nearly impossible to describe anxiety - true, deep, harsh anxiety - to someone who has never experienced it. Perhaps this is why so many people tend to write it off. I’ve tried to explain it countless times - to friends, doctors, loved ones. They are sympathetic. They want to help me. But a kind word, a friendly smile, or a word of advice can only go so far.
My life took a turn when I was in the tenth grade. I began taking medication for my anxiety. My wonderful psychiatrist prescribed Lexapro to me, and I began a journey of self-discovery. For the first time ever, I felt right. I hadn’t known what I was missing, but over a few weeks I began to feel like I was truly myself. My brain wasn’t whirling around at 9,000 miles per hour. I could breathe. I had never known what it felt like to be truly me, and it was an amazing experience.
About a year or so after I began taking medication, I began having panic attacks. I was frustrated and angry. I didn’t understand why my medication wasn’t working. When I had a panic attack, I wasn’t in control. I hated the feeling. It took several more years for me to realize that my medication was and is not a magical cure-all. I still had to work. I still had to battle my anxiety. The only difference was that I now had a tool to help me. Yet despite my continued progress, I continued to hide my reality from those around me. I would make excuses for not doing things. I would come home from school and immediately go take a nap. I shut myself off from the world.
It has only been in recent years that I have begun to reveal the true nature of my anxiety to those close to me. It’s a terrifying feeling - making yourself vulnerable and putting yourself at the risk of being judged. The monster in the back of my head always says, “They won’t believe you. They won’t care. You don’t matter to them...” but I power on. It was hardest to tell my boyfriend. I was so worried that he would leave me or see me differently. Now, he is my biggest supporter. He understands the ups and downs of my anxiety probably more clearly than I do. Opening up to him has allowed me the freedom to begin opening up to others.
And I have. I’m trying. I want to be a voice for those who are not ready to speak out for themselves. Because I’ve been there.
Most people are supportive. They still love me. They want to understand. But sometimes, on my bad days, people say things like, “Did you take your medication today?” or “Have you seen your therapist recently?” I’m still a human with human emotions. I never wanted my feelings to disappear. I don’t want the bad days to go away. After all, how can you have good days if you have nothing to compare them to? I still want to feel my emotions - I just want to be in control of them.
I know those people don’t mean the things they say maliciously. But I think it’s about time that we look beyond mental illnesses and come back to viewing the person behind them. It’s okay for me to have bad days and good days just like everyone else. It’s also okay for me to recognize when my anxiety is taking over. And maybe, one day, I’ll be ready to say, “My anxiety is flaring up today; I need to go home and rest,” and those who hear me will be ready to respond saying: “I understand.”
Artwork by Casey Brown. @caseyisokay
MORE TO THE STORY
Contact the Panic Attack Hotline at 1-800-64-PANIC.
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to learn more about mental health, donate and volunteer, or access free resources and counseling in your area.
In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report stating that 1 in 4 people worldwide are affected by mental or neurological disorders. Due to the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, only about one third of those people will seek help from a mental health professional. Read more here.
Song of the week: A Better Son/Daughter (Rilo Kiley)