‘Thanks for talking about this. I think I need help too.’ It hit me there were tons of others dealing with the same issues.’: Mental health warrior urges ‘stop the stigma’

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“If you were a diabetic, would you take your insulin? If you had high blood pressure, would you take your medication? I’m pretty sure everyone would answer yes to these. So then why do so many of us fight against taking medication for mental illnesses?

I have a mental illness and it has taken me years to be able to say those words. For the longest time, having anxiety isn’t something I would even admit to, let alone speak about openly. But I am tired of hiding. I am tired of feeling ashamed or weak because of something that is so completely out of my control. We can’t control the fact that we are diagnosed with a mental health disorder – but we can control how we care for ourselves with it.

I have always been a worrier. I have always been someone that takes things to heart and has a hard time letting things go. I stress to the point where I stay up all night over-analyzing a simple situation or conversation. I’m a crier and I get worked up very easily. People always told me I was overly sensitive and emotional and I believed them. I would get so overwhelmed by work and school I would get nauseous and sick but I just thought that it was normal. It never occurred to me it might be something deeper. It never occurred to me I was suffering from clinical anxiety.

Woman smiling in blue jacket
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

When I was 21, I lost my best friend of 10 years in a tragic car accident and suddenly I started struggling with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. This was the beginning stage of my OCD. I constantly had these worrisome thoughts in my head I just couldn’t get to go away no matter what I did. I always thought OCD was people needing everything perfectly clean and organize or having to do rituals before leaving the house. I never knew OCD could mean obsessive thoughts that take over your mind and give you anxiety. I never knew it was me.

I was 24 when I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and OCD but it’s something I have suffered from my entire life. Looking back now, there are many times in my life I was suffering from a panic attack or from extreme anxiety but never had a label for it. The times I wasn’t sleeping or I was so worried about a test at school, I would throw up or get hives – I just assumed that happened because I couldn’t handle my nerves. In reality, it was my anxiety manifesting itself. But even after I was diagnosed and my therapist suggested medication to help me control my symptoms – I said no.

Woman smiling by lake
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

There was something about taking medication that made my diagnosis more real. In my head, I didn’t want to take medicine for something I thought I should have been able to control all on my own. I was scared. I was scared perhaps this was something bigger than myself. And yet still, I refused medication. Whether people want to admit it or not, there is a huge stigma surrounding mental health. People automatically assume you’re ‘crazy’ or it’s something that isn’t to be talked about. I didn’t tell many people about the fact I was even seeing a therapist, let alone I was diagnosed with anxiety. I was worried about what my boss or my coworkers might say – would they trust me still if they knew what I was dealing with? What about my friends – would they still trust me with their secrets? Would they still want to be around me? And even worse, would people tiptoe around me like I was going to explode at any second? I couldn’t handle the thought of being labeled.

Wedding photos
Jordan Marsh Photography

Until recently, no one really talked about mental health. There was no mental health awareness week in school when I was growing up. A mental illness meant that you were crazy or needed to be in a treatment center. There was no real thought of the varying degrees of mental illness and how common it truly was. It is a scary thought that the first time most people learn about mental health is when they are being diagnosed with it. People don’t realize the ones out there suffering are the ones that are best at hiding it.

When you look at pictures of me throughout my life, you don’t see my anxiety. You may see an overachiever. You may see a big smile and the life of the party because that is other side of me. You see the girl who thrives on performing. But the side you don’t see is the one that gets the shakes and can’t breathe if she has to drive in a crowded downtown area. Or the one that will spend hours overanalyzing a text message or a conversation.

Pregnancy bump photos
Jordan Marsh Photography

For a while, I truly thought I had my anxiety under control. I even went a few years without seeing a therapist and was doing mostly well at managing my symptoms. And then, 2020 hit and it hit hard. Suddenly, I was stuck inside with a toddler all day, alone. I was isolated and frustrated and more than anything, I was terrified. I was constantly terrified of getting sick or my son getting sick. I was scared every day my husband had to go to work and was at risk. I was worried about how it would impact us financially because of all the time I was losing from work and dance gigs that were no longer happening. My anxiety and OCD physical side effects kicked into high gear. I was getting hives constantly and always nauseous and crying at the drop of a hat. I felt like I was in a day-to-day fog and always on the brink of a panic attack.

Finally, I hit a breaking point. I just knew I couldn’t keep going battling this on my own and I turned to my husband and said, ‘We need to get me help.’ Right after that, I started virtually seeing my therapist again, and even after several sessions, I still didn’t feel like it was getting better. It was in those following weeks I knew this was more than I could handle with just therapy. I was terrified to say it out loud but when I finally said the words, ‘I think medication may be what I need,’ it was like I was finally letting a weight off of my chest. I knew this wasn’t going to be a perfect fix but I was just relieved at the thought of being able to feel like myself again.

Wedding photos
Jordan Marsh Photography

However, it wasn’t a quick fix like I wanted it to be. I wanted to go on medication and finally be normal and not have a worry in the world. I wanted to experience life in a carefree way like so many other people do but that is not my reality, even with medication. I started on something right away and after a few weeks, I started to notice I was able to better manage my irrational thoughts and overwhelming anxious tendencies. But I also started to notice I was gaining weight. It was around the holiday season so I chalked it up to too many Christmas cookies and told myself I would get back on target soon.

The New Year came and I started back on a healthy diet and workout regimen and yet, the weight still piled on. In less than 2 months, I packed on nearly 15 pounds and for someone who has always worked hard to maintain a healthy and fit physique, I was crushed. I was working out more than ever and there was a reason for the weight to be piling on like it was, other than it being a side effect of my new medication. It felt like I had to choose between feeling sane but heavy or feeling crazy but skinny. Suddenly, my anxiety was under control but I started having depression. My overall self-esteem tanked hard and I could barely look in the mirror. I was disgusted with myself and again, I knew that something wasn’t right. I had never really had depression before but I knew the way I was feeling was NOT healthy and I needed to make a change.

Mom holding son outside and smiling
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

My first thought was, ‘See! I knew this medication thing was a bad idea. I should have listened to the people who said not to do it.’ But, part of me knew the medication was helping my anxiety and this was just a bad side effect. There are so many different options of medications out there for those suffering from anxiety and my therapist was amazing and convinced me to not give up just yet. We tried two more medications before finding the right one for me and I am so glad I didn’t give up. I am slowly getting that extra weight off but nothing feels better than the weight lifted off my chest each day when I know I finally have all the tools to deal with my anxiety and OCD every single day.

Medication isn’t a cure-all. I still have anxiety. I still have obsessive and intrusive thoughts. I am still jittery and panic from time to time. But I don’t wake up every day feeling like I can’t breathe. I don’t immediately twitch and start to feel overwhelmed by the things happening around me. Medication can’t pull you to shore if you are drowning, but it can throw you a life raft. I needed that raft more than I knew.

Mom and son at beach
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

Medication doesn’t make me any less of the person that I am and have always been. I’m not in a fog. I’m not the glazed-over human being so many think of when they hear about medicating for mental illnesses. I’m still me. I’m just a happier and healthier version of myself. It’s hard to believe I suffered for so many years. I suffered because I was afraid of what other people would say or would think of me. I suffered because of the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental health.

We need to stop the idea that medicating for a mental illness makes you less of a human. We need to stop perpetuating the idea that there is something ‘wrong’ with talking about mental health. We need to stop the idea that taking medication for a mental illness makes you a weak person. It makes you strong. It makes you HEALTHY. It makes you the version of you everyone deserves to see.

When I finally started opening up about my mental health on my Instagram, I was shocked at how many people messaged me saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea. You never seemed like the type of person that would have anxiety or a mental illness.’ And at first, I was super offended. What does that even mean? That just because I wasn’t a disheveled mess crying every time someone saw me I didn’t still have a mental illness? It meant I was suffering in silence. It meant I was great at hiding my symptoms. It meant I had functioning anxiety I live with every single day like so many others out there.

Mom kayaking
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

But something else really wonderful happened when I started to share my story publicly. I had so many others reach out and share their story too. I had messages from people I have known for years admitting they too have suffered for a long time and never had anyone to talk to about it. I had young people reaching out to me saying, ‘Thanks for talking about this. Can you talk more with me because I think I may need some help too?’ It hit me there were tons of others out there who were dealing with the same issues I was but none of us had ever had anyone else to relate to – until now.

I’m not here to advertise medicating is the only way to handle anxiety. I’m not here to act like everything is sunshine and rainbows for me now. I’m just here to say mental health is not something we should shy away from talking about. We need to start the conversations around us so together we can end the stigma behind mental illnesses. Talk to the people in your life because you never know just how much they may need it! Together, we can save lives and stop the stigma.”

You are not alone t-shirt
Courtesy of Ariana McGrath

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ariana McGrath from Baltimore, MD. You can follow their journey on Instagram.  Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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