Stigma Trapped Me In High-Functioning Anxiety
Earlier this week, I read an article that really hit home with me. The Mighty released a very personal story about what it is like to live with ‘high-functioning’ anxiety.
If you’ve never lived with high-functioning anxiety, let me explain my experience with it:
I graduated cum laude from a top university with a double major and a mathematics minor. I was the president of the honor society in my degree and active in numerous other organizations and events, and even held an on-air position on our university-run television station. By all accounts, from the outside it seemed like my life was filled with achievement and perfectionism.
What went on behind the scenes was quite the opposite: Nervous habits like biting the inside of my lip until it bled. Peeling my nails. Constantly combing my fingers through my hair. Toe-tapping – always toe-tapping. Clenching my jaw to the point I was unable to eat. Waking up with balled up fists.
What people didn’t see was that the first five minutes or so after an exam was issued, I sat still in my seat, unable to even write my name on my paper. They didn’t see the minutely detailed sticky notes on my desk that listed out exactly what I was to do each day. They didn’t see my tears when I failed to make a checkmark next to every item on that list. They didn’t see the way I mentally beat myself up when I was unable to solve a complicated physics problem – and questioned myself on why I was so dumb. They couldn’t see the way I felt like all the blood was draining out of my body each time I was about to get a paper or exam back with a letter grade. They didn’t see how I became anxious at the very thought of becoming anxious.
Often times, other people can’t see our own anxiety and mental health issues. And out of fear of being labeled “crazy” – we keep our negative feelings bottled up and “deal with it.” It’s hard enough to go through the struggle of a mental health issue, and the thought of exposing our anxieties to others is trigger on it’s own. After many years of internal suffering, anxiety reached a point that my work and health became visibly impacted. That’s when I finally sought the treatment that I needed.
Stigma is a powerful force.
Across the country, some of the biggest issues families and individuals face include addiction and mental health problems. But what’s more? There majorities of these millions of men and women struggling with with the illnesses refuse to talk about them, or receive treatment for them, because of the stigma that comes along with them.
- Over 23 million Americans will need help with substance addiction this year alone. Only 3 million will actually seek addiction treatment.
- Nearly 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. are suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability in our country.
- Nearly 9 million adults have co-occurring disorders – meaning they have both an addiction and a mental health disorder. Only 7.4% of those with co-occurring disorders receive treatment for both conditions. Less than half of people with co-occurring disorders receive any type of treatment.
- Those who suffer from depression, anxiety, mood disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD and other mental health issues are far more likely to seek drugs and alcohol in order to self-medicate. Their hopes are that the substances can make them feel “normal.”
Even now, working in the field of addiction and mental health treatment, I personally know and understand the stigma. I remember the shame and embarrassment I felt when I called my doctor to schedule an appointment. I remember telling my boss that I was missing work to see a doctor for my Crohn’s Disease – not anxiety – because I felt like it was more acceptable.
After all this time, I now understand my flawed thinking.
By talking about addiction and mental health; by calling it out for what it is and facing it head on, we can be more comfortable in seeking help. Getting the help we need can encourage others to do the same. Chipping away at the stigma and sharing our stories may empower others who have hidden in silence and suffering.
If you are silently suffering with a mental health issue, addiction or co-occurring disorder, please know that you aren’t alone – and that once you get the help you need, life does get so much better. And if that’s not enough – know that once you get the help you need, someone who hears your story may feel brave enough to get the help they need, too.