These past few weeks have been tough. Scratch that. My entire life has been tough. But whose isn’t?
In July, I went to a concert to see Panic! At The Disco and Weezer, and after eating and drinking all night, I didn’t feel too well. My stomach was in so much pain that as soon as I got home, I collapsed onto the floor in the hallway upstairs, sprawled out on my laundry I was supposed to put away earlier. I couldn’t move without a dizzy spell and felt like I was somehow months pregnant from the bloating in my stomach. Suddenly, my heart dropped.
I hate throwing up more than most things in this world. It’s remained one of my phobias since the first grade, right before I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, 15 years later, I still cringe at the thought.
So when I felt that intense nausea and pain while lying on my floor, I panicked. I really, truly panicked. I ran up and down the stairs, pacing and crying and pulling at my hair, yelling at my parents that I felt sick, gagging over the toilet, dry-heaving for fifteen minutes before finally throwing up my entire night in the bathroom sink downstairs.
That was all it took to send me into a downward spiral.
I was doing fine for years until that moment. I’d gone to cognitive behavioral therapy for a while in fifth grade, where my psychologist had me stare at pictures of people vomiting every night before bed. I wondered how the hell that was going to cure me of my fear, but eventually, it just clicked — I could function again.
But maybe part of the reason I recovered is because I went years without throwing up. I had nothing to trigger the phobia.
Fast forward to now — I’m back at school in my new apartment, cozied up in my double bed, Christmas lights and beach-cottage-themed decor surrounding me. Any normal girl would feel at peace. There’s nothing wrong. At least I don’t think so.
But for the past few months, I’ve been waking up with waves of nausea, squeezing my thumb to stop from choking, a reflex courtesy of my anxiety. Every time I open my eyes in the middle of the night, I immediately ask myself, “Do I feel sick?” before even taking a breath. And immediately, every time, I do.
Maybe something is wrong with me. I’ve been having severe cramps and weight loss issues. I’ve been eating and sleeping less. I’ve been bouncing from specialist to specialist.
But, you see, none of that matters. Sure, health issues are frustrating and sometimes a bit daunting, but these aren’t the issue here. The issue is my OCD.
I turn everything, nothing, into something — something so much worse. I googled my symptoms and self-diagnosed myself with countless digestive diseases/issues, only to worry myself and make the situation even rougher. My mind has been to dark places lately; I feel like I’ve lived with a chronic illness for the past month, all thanks to my mind and the power it seems to have over me.
I’ve been waking up in my new room every hour of the night feeling entirely alone. No one understands, and I’m sure everyone is tired of hearing me complain. I sit up and stare at my blinds, knowing it’s too early for the sun to be up, and take deep breaths — in for four seconds, hold for six, out for eight. But my stomach doesn’t settle. It never does.
When I try to close my eyes again, I feel the little food I ate that day work its way back up. There’s no way I can rest, so I jump out of bed and walk to my window, my heart racing at the thought of vomiting. I try to relax in the cool, early morning air, watch cars zip by on the road below, but my mind won’t let me. I gag again, run to the bathroom without relief — then cry.
For the fifth time that day, I cry. Until I finally fall back to sleep for a few hours, I cry. This happens nearly every night.
Sometimes I wonder how I could ever handle being sick — actually sick. What would I do then? Sob about the possibility of throwing up from whatever treatment I need? Avoid necessary surgeries out of fear of anesthesia side effects? I can barely gut the idea of eating meat because of the possibility of salmonella.
I feel weak. I feel as though I’m not as strong as others, those who’ve dealt with serious diseases and came out fighting, the ones that have sat in fear, not knowing the outcome but doing everything in their power to push forward and stay positive. I want to be like that.
My patience waivers in these times. I need to be in control, to know that I am safe and healthy. A second of doubt is too long, and I break down in anxiety. How could I ever handle a true illness?
That’s when it clicked — I already am.
You know, it’s not always visible. The terror. The compulsions. The internal pain. I beat myself up every day for not being strong, when really, that’s all I ever am.
Mental illnesses are just as severe and debilitating as physical ones. In just one week, I made myself so sick with anxiety that I lost ten pounds. One week. The emotional stress that comes with anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses can lead to actual physical pain and complications.
So, while, yes, it is “in my mind,” it spreads everywhere else, too. It leaks into my heart, quickening it to a pace that concerned the nurses at the ER. It pounds on my head, sending tension down my neck and to my shoulders. It paralyzes my stomach muscles until I’m griping in pain. It steals my energy, my focus, my desire to get out of bed – yet, I still can’t seem to sleep more than an hour because it takes that ability from me, too.
And when I think about how I let this affect me, when I think about how other people would handle this, I don’t realize that they aren’t in the same situation as I am. No one is. Everyone has their own baggage, and this happens to be mine. It’s chronic and severe and constant — there is no relief at any point. Just like any other chronic illness, physical or mental.
So when I tell myself that I’m weak compared to others, those who could easily brush off minor nausea or stomach issues, I’m not crediting myself for dealing with my emotional symptoms — the ones I’ve fought my entire life. It’s like I forget that I wake up every morning and greet the same demons that abuse me every second of every day. I make peace with them long enough to focus on classes, work, clubs, life.
Being strong does not mean being fearless. It means acknowledging your own personal fears and not allowing them to overcome you, to push forward despite them.
We all have our own battles, each unique and unsettling. My journey belongs to no one but myself, so I can’t judge my steps in comparison to someone else’s. Only I live in these shoes and walk these strides, and only I know what that feels like. So I can either attack myself in my most vulnerable state for tripping along the road, or I could pull over, dust myself off, and keep moving forward.
I think I’ll do the latter.