‘I won’t raise my hand too high because it might upset somebody.’ I picked apart my every move.’: Woman with anxiety advocates for mental heath

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“‘You are a terrible person.’ ‘Nobody likes you.’ ‘Stop making mistakes.’ It’s 6:45 a.m. and my alarm just went off. I haven’t opened my eyes yet and these are the thoughts running through my mind. I get up (against my will), roll out of bed, and think about all the mistakes I have made the previous day. ‘Okay, today when I raise my hand, I won’t raise it too high because that might upset somebody, which would make me a bad person.’ This was my version of self-improvement. Picking apart my every move (yes, even the way I raised my hand) and calling it personal development. This was my life. This was the face of Mental Health with Maddy all of 2016.

girl in apple field
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

Hi everyone! I’m so happy you’re here. My name is Madison, but you can call me Maddy. In January of 2021, I started my own not-for-profit organization called Mental Health with Maddy. Over the last 5 months, we have created a community of nearly 5,000 friends that share one thing in common: mental health. I grew up attending a private Catholic elementary school that never talked to us about mental health. School is supposed to be a safe space for children to learn, but for myself and many of my friends, it was the complete opposite. I had teachers (who I am now able to understand after thousands of dollars spent in therapy) who were the cause of my anxiety disorder.

photo of young girl outside
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

There really aren’t enough words for me to describe how traumatic that school was. I remember waking up every morning feeling unsafe. I was terrified of being at school and even more terrified of some of my teachers and principal. I was taught all the different ways people can be ‘thrown’ into hell and was told, ‘Your family is lying to you and you need to believe what I say because I am helping you get to heaven’ and so much more. Now you’re probably reading these statements with your mouth wide open in disbelief, and I don’t blame you. At first, I didn’t believe these statements. I thought they were almost laughable. But keep in mind, I was a young and impressionable 13-year-old who had heard some form of this statement on a daily basis from age 10 by various teachers. Over time, I became obsessed with not going to hell. At 13 years old, a child’s biggest worry should be about recess, not hell. From a young age, this school had instilled so much fear into me I was no longer able to function.

Fast forward a year later, and I was in high school. I left that toxic environment and went to a school that was filled with love, support and kindness. My story is starting to sound like I lived happily ever after, right? I was physically out of this toxic environment, but mentally I was still there. I had a teacher in high school talk to my class about anxiety and the ways it can present itself in teens and I remember thinking, ‘She is describing me perfectly.’ So with the help of a BuzzFeed quiz and WebMD, I had self-diagnosed myself with an anxiety disorder. (Disclaimer: if you think you have a mental illness, please learn from my mistakes and seek help immediately.)

It wasn’t until a year later I was diagnosed by a professional (however I would like to point out my self-diagnosis ended up being correct after all), but we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, I became obsessed with the idea of mental health and spent my days learning as much as I could about anxiety, depression, OCD, and every other mental illness. I grew up wanting to be a teacher but as I learned more about mental health, my career choice quickly changed. I ended up starting a mental health awareness club in high school and ran it for 3 years. I’m sure this is partially connected to my OCD, but everything I did in that club had to be perfect. It made me feel important. Like this anxiety I diagnosed myself with meant something.

girl standing by waterfall
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

So there I was. Running a club that told people, ‘It’s okay not to be okay!’ and ‘Reach out for support if you need it!’ I put on an image that my life was perfect. That I was perfect. How could the president of a mental health awareness club struggle with her own mental health? That wasn’t an option for me. I very quickly learned the more you try and sweep your feelings under the rug, the bigger they get. In the summer of grade 10 going into grade 11, I had finally run out of options. Everyone in my life was on my back about going to therapy. It was such a dirty word in my mind. Please keep in mind, I wanted to be a psychologist but refused to go to therapy myself. Yeah, let’s have that sink in for a moment.

That summer, I reluctantly agreed to go to therapy. (This is the part in the story where I have this huge revelation and life starts to pick up for me so get ready.) That first session changed my life. Not only did it solidify my decision of wanting to switch careers from teaching to psychology, but it allowed me to realize all these big emotions I was feeling made sense. It made sense I had anxiety whenever religion was mentioned, considering what I was taught in elementary school. It made sense I avoided making mistakes because I thought they made me a ‘bad’ person. Things were finally starting to add up. Oh, and my therapist was also the coolest woman ever, which helped a lot.

girl standing outside in snow
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

One of the first things my therapist said to me when I met with her was something that will probably stick with me forever. Anxiety (and most mental illnesses) are actually hereditary. Studies have shown the brain of someone with anxiety or OCD actually has higher levels of brain activity than those without, showcasing the physiological differences of someone with a mental illness. Now I am no science wiz (ask my teachers in high school), but basically all that means is this: I had no control over having a mental illness. Just like I had no control over what color my hair was when I was born. But I do have control over what I do with my anxiety. I can let it consume me and stop me from doing things I enjoy or I can work on it and use my anxiety to help raise awareness about mental health. In case you were wondering, I chose the latter.

So that’s my story in a nutshell. I want to make it clear I never really did live happily ever after. Mental health is something I still have to deal with on a daily basis but I have come a long way. I no longer wake up in the mornings with the belief I am a terrible person. Instead, I wake up with a mindset I am lucky enough to live another day (it’s so cheesy I know). Some days it feels like waking up is life’s way of telling me I will have the joy of being a universal punching bag for the people around me. But I keep going. Why? Because I’ve had days where staying in bed seemed like the best way to deal with my problems. Where watching hours of Netflix under my weighted blanket was my version of self-care. I’ve learned this won’t get me very far (believe me, I’ve tried). So I keep getting up.

selfie of girl smiling
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

Mental Health with Maddy isn’t perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I preach positivity and kindness, but do I live up to this all the time? Of course not. I’m constantly looking for ways to better myself and I have no issue distancing myself from people if I feel they are not growing with me. I try my best to ensure there is very little negativity around me. Are you mad at me? Let me know. We can talk it out. Don’t like something I did? Don’t talk about me, talk to me. You are who you surround yourself with and the people in my life are a reflection of who I want to be. Each person in my life holds a place in my heart. I don’t have a big circle, but I have a circle of people who I know I can count on and they’ll be there. My best friend is someone I met 7 months ago and has become one of the most important people in my life (if not the most important) and has encouraged me and all my crazy ideas on my account.

We need people. People who will love us at our worst, support us through the good times and the bad. People who love you enough to give you a hug when you need it but are just as ready to slap you across the face with that tough love advice when needed. If you’re reading this thinking, ‘I don’t have people or even a person like this.’ I want you to know I’ve been there. I know how awful it is when you feel like you don’t have anyone. (Quick reminder just because you FEEL something does not make it true. Feelings aren’t facts.) I promise you with my whole heart you will find your people. I can’t tell you when or who it will be, but I know for a fact if you are a good person, good things will come your way.

photo of girl by brick wall
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

Now hold on because I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’ve listed at least five people you know who are good and have had terrible things happen to them. I’m not a therapist (yet) so I can’t really talk you out of that mindset. HOWEVER, what I can tell you is this world has a lot of negativity in it. So yeah, it’s hard to find those good people, but they are there. They take longer to find because you have to weed out all the sh*tty people (sorry, Mom, for swearing). But they are there.

If you take anything from this, please remember the following.

A. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this. I hope you learned something or at the very least I made you smile. (I think I’m pretty funny so hopefully, you laughed too.)

B. Follow me on Insta #shamelesspromo

C. Be kind. Be a light. Love the people around you. Love yourself. Just love.”

Woman smiling with sunglasses on her head
Courtesy of Madison Furgiuele

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Madison Furgiuele. You can follow her journey on YouTube. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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