By Liz Greene
I was on my knees in front of the toilet, retching. I’d brought up all the food in my stomach, but I didn’t dare move. My babysitter rubbed my back gently as I alternated between sobbing and dry heaving. I was only seven years old, but I was already a slave to my anxiety.
It started young. At age three, my parents introduced me to strangers with the forewarning that I was “shy”, and unlikely to speak to them. I didn’t like crowds, was terrified of meeting new people, and absolutely loathed anyone who was overly outgoing or boisterous. I was happiest when I was alone or quietly spending time with my parents or grandparents. I took comfort in the certainty of the familiar.
Perhaps if things had never progressed from those early years, I would have had a more normal childhood. But things did progress, and they did so with surprising swiftness. At age seven, I suddenly developed an overwhelming fear that my parents were both going to die — and I would be left alone in the world.
This in itself wasn’t unusual. Around the age of 6 or 7, children start to understand death as being irreversible. As they realize that death will ultimately affect everyone, the normal worry about the possible death of parents can intensify. In some cases, preoccupation with their parents’ death can become incapacitating — I was one of these cases.
The trouble started every morning when we parted. My mom would drop me off at the babysitter’s house before school, and I would wave as she drove away. As soon as she was out of sight, I would begin to silently cry. My little body would bow to waves of nausea, and I’d find myself in the bathroom, violently reviewing my breakfast. My babysitter knew the reason for this reoccurring illness, as did my parents, but they were helpless to do anything about it.
We moved when I was nine, and the fear notched up dramatically. I would vomit every morning when I got to school, and beg my teacher to let me call my dad each day at lunch, just to hear his voice and confirm he was alive and well. I met with my school counselor once a week to talk things over, but it did very little to help.
Bedtime was a waking nightmare. While I never asked to sleep in bed with them, I would plead with them to leave their bedroom door unlocked. I was convinced that as long as I could easily get to them in an emergency, everything would be fine. My father tried to ease my apprehension as much as possible, but my mother was at her wits end.
My anxiety was holding our family hostage.
Around the age of twelve, I slowly started letting go of the obsession with my parents mortality. Unfortunately, I had other fears to replace it, and most of them would follow me through my teenage years.
In many respects, I was a normal teenager. I went through puberty, got boobs, body hair, and an annoying monthly visitor. I was awkward, had low self esteem, body image issues, and a few close friends to commiserate with. I laughed as much as I cried, obsessed over boys, and struggled to figure out who I was.
I also had my anxieties — most of them tied to control. I didn’t like to stay over at friends houses, because I couldn’t be certain what I would have to eat for dinner, where I would sleep, or who would be in the house. I didn’t go to many parties, but when I did, I wouldn’t drink much for fear I would be unable to drive home. I trusted no one — not even my friends — to ensure my safety. I had to be in control.
Through all of this, I kept running into the problem of explaining myself. To begin with, I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with a mental illness — I just thought I was afraid of everything. I didn’t know why I was always so uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to vocalize it to my friends. I became a master of excuses, always having a reason why I couldn’t go to a party, or spend the night, or try a new drug.
I was labeled a wuss and a goody goody, but I refused to budge. Fear is a strong motivator, even when you place a great deal of value in what others think of you. I made it through my teen years in one piece, but the future held an unsettling surprise.
Young adulthood was good to me. My anxiety was at an all-time low and I had learned to manage many of my most debilitating symptoms. By the time I was twenty-four, I was living a fairly normal life. I had a decent job, a nice car, and a lovely little apartment. Things were finally starting to look up.
In the summer of 2009, life threw me one hell of a curve ball. It started one morning as mild indigestion after eating breakfast, but within a month, I was hitting eight or nine on the pain scale daily. The doctors were baffled. I had two endoscopies, two CT scans , an ultrasound, a HIDA scan, and a small-bowel follow through. Everything seemed to be normal. In, what I assume was a last-ditch effort, they removed my gallbladder.
That wasn’t the problem, either.
The pain was so intense that I was prescribed heavy duty opioids just to help me get through the day. I couldn’t eat without experiencing mind-numbing pain, so I pretty much stopped eating altogether — losing over 50 pounds in three months. I had to quit my job, and depend on my parents to pay my bills and take care of me. I was told there was nothing that could be done.
In January of 2010, I started seeing a new general practitioner. He listened to the story of my illness, and proclaimed, “Of course they couldn’t find anything wrong with your stomach, it’s your brain.” He prescribed venlafaxine and a milder pain killer, and within two weeks the pain was gone. Two years later, I no longer needed the medication to keep it at bay.
My doctor was a lifesaver. He saw in me what no one had before — I wasn’t a broken person, I just had some mental health issues. The anxiety that had plagued me since childhood had finally overwhelmed my brain, and it manifested in debilitating stomach pain. In 2013, he diagnosed me with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and started me on Zoloft.
Years of anguish and pain melted away, and I found myself at the cusp of 30, a completely new woman.
“We whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions. The brain is a body part, too. We just know less about it. And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love.” — President Barack Obama.
I talk openly about my mental illness to anyone who will listen. I talk about taking medication, the symptoms I experience, and I acknowledge the role anxiety plays in my life. I’m doing my part to help crush the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Refusing to learn about mental illness — or discriminating against those who have it — is incredibly harmful. One in four Americans struggles with a diagnosable mental illness, and when they’re shamed or made to feel as if they’re inferior because of it, they often fail to seek treatment. Unfortunately, people with untreated mental illnesses are vulnerable to a myriad of horrible consequences, including drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration, victimization, violence, and suicide.
Chances are, you, or someone close to you suffers from a mental illness. I encourage you to educate yourself and others, be kind to everyone you meet, and most importantly, break the silence surrounding mental illness. It’s time to destroy this ridiculous stigma and celebrate each and every beautiful brain out there.
Liz Greene is a dog loving, history studying, pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.