“Growing up, I had a very typical, easy going childhood. I had great friends, a loving family, I enjoyed school, was active and involved in sports and activities, and overall was just a happy, content kid. This all drastically changed in February 2004. When I was 8 years old, I woke up in the middle of the night sick with a bug. I got sick a few times over the course of a couple days, then it passed and I was okay. No one necessarily enjoys getting sick but it was no big deal. I got better and moved on. However, a few weeks later, my sister got that same bug which provoked this intense, irrational fear in me that completely changed everything.
I vividly remember pacing back and forth on my driveway hyperventilating, crying, shaking, and absolutely terrified when I found out that she was inside vomiting. I felt like I was completely losing control of my mind. I was only 8 years old and within one minute, I went from this happy, care free kid to this kid who was about to have their entire childhood and adolescent years run by mental health disorders.
As days went on, my anxiety got progressively worse. I started to form these habits, where I felt like if I didn’t do something a certain way, I would get sick. It took me so long to do the simplest tasks. My brain convinced me that if I didn’t switch the light switch on and off 4 times every time I left a room, I would get sick. I had to say a ritual in my head every time I left the bathroom, or else I would get sick. As frustrated with myself as I was, I was more confused than anything. I was always a very happy kid, and within one day I went from living a carefree, joyful life to living this life consumed by negative thoughts and fear.
About 5 months after my first panic attack, I was diagnosed with Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Emetophobia (the phobia of vomiting), and was placed on my very first antidepressant. I remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, feeling so ashamed of myself. I specifically remember, now being at the age of 9, feeling like some monster took over my brain and was controlling all of my thoughts. I had no idea how to make it go away. I didn’t understand what had happened to me. I felt absolutely broken, confused, and terrified by the person I had turned into.
To sit in a doctor’s office at such a young age, being told I had multiple things ‘different’ about my brain, and that I needed so much help to get through my days was such a crushing feeling. Mental health disorders were never something I had heard of. I had no idea what had changed in me, why I was struggling, and I truly felt like I was the only person on this planet who understood what it felt like to be trapped by my own mind.
Eventually, the medication I was first put on started to give me a little relief, but it took time, and many adjustments. My anxiety and OCD would fluctuate very frequently, leading to psychiatrist appointments every six weeks to adjust the medication I was on, and therapy once a week to help me understand what was going on in my mind. After some time, the medication I was on and the therapy I was doing started to work, and I would feel like I was gaining control of my life again, until a few months would go by, and more flare ups would occur. These flare ups led to more adjustments in my medication, which sometimes would help, but other times they would make me feel worse, and the cycle continued. The worst part of this cycle was that my anxiety would make me extremely nauseous, which would trigger my anxiety more, which would make me more nauseous, etc. It was a never ending cycle of nausea, panic, and fear, that caused me to miss out on so much of my life.
There were days I would have to leave school early, or hide out in the nurse’s office because a classmate said their stomach hurt, so I would spend the entire class period trying to hide an internal panic attack. I missed out on birthday parties, field trips, and even some vacations, all because I was living in this huge cycle of fear. In moments that I did feel okay, I still had this knowing in my mind that at any moment, something could trigger me and my mind could do a complete 180.
In high school, depression hit. I felt more pressure to be ‘normal,’ and the more I tried to resist the habits, worries and panic, the more intensely it would come. I was causing fights and lashing out at loved ones, while isolating myself all because I couldn’t stand to be living inside my own thoughts. Not only was I fed up with it, but I was embarrassed, ashamed, and exhausted.
By the time I got to my junior year of college, I had been on more antidepressants and had seen more therapists than I could count. One afternoon, I was on my way to my psychiatrist for another adjustment with my medications. I was preparing myself to tell her that I was struggling again, and that nothing was working. I remember driving to that appointment wondering what else she could possibly put me on because I truly felt like I had tried it all.
As I walked into her office that day, (already being on 200 mg of Zoloft, the highest legal dose of that medication you can be on), I sat down in the same chair I had been sitting in for years, telling her my same problems I’ve been repeating for years, and she said something that changed my life forever. She said, ‘Technically you are on the highest dose that I can legally prescribe you, but you have been on this medication for long enough that I am confident to push you up to 225 mg of Zoloft. You can start today.’
I walked out of that office and something just clicked. I didn’t want to have to rely on medication anymore to be happy. I didn’t want to live my life this way anymore. I knew in my heart there had to be some other option. I called my mom and told her I was done. I told her I had finally reached my breaking point and I was done settling for the life I was living, and that I was going to fight to make a change for myself no matter what it took (Disclaimer: I’m grateful for how much it helped me at the time, and in no means is it wrong to be on medication, this is just my experience).
When I got home, I started doing some research on healing anxiety. I read something completely new, that no one had ever told me before. I learned that roughly 90% of serotonin (what regulates feelings of wellbeing and happiness, and what the antidepressants were trying to adjust) comes from the gut. I was blown away by this. Could what I was eating really be the root cause of all of this suffering? From that moment on, I became aware of the foods I was putting into my body, and how I felt after.
My entire life, my diet consisted of quite possibly the most unhealthy foods. I basically lived off of all processed foods. I knew this was going to be an adjustment, but it was quite obvious my gut was inflamed, and there was a very good chance this could be an answer for me. It was a long, slow process, but I gradually started incorporating more and more whole foods into my diet, while cutting out as many processed, artificial, inflammatory foods as possible, and this made all the difference in the world.
Throughout the process of learning about healing my gut and feeding my body the proper nutrients it was so badly craving these past 14 years, I managed to very slowly wean myself off of my Zoloft entirely. I began a practice of daily meditation, I developed a passion for lifting, and I fell in love with taking care of my mind and body, while completely changing my lifestyle around. I graduated from college in May 2018, and within that same week, I enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which is an online school that allowed me to pursue my dream in becoming a certified health coach. I now coach women to help them free themselves from anxiety through mindset, movement, and nutrition.
My journey was far from easy, but it was an experience that I will be forever grateful for. It taught me resilience, it taught me strength, and it taught me how to treat my body properly. I still have my anxious days and I still have my struggles, but I now have the tools to power through any obstacles that come my way. I’m still a work in progress, but most importantly I’m proud to still be here and I’m proud of the person I grew up to be.
To anyone struggling: I just want you to know that you are not alone. Mental health disorders do not define you, and they do not make you any less of a person. I understand the overwhelming feeling, and I know how hard some days may seem, but we have so much more control than it may feel like sometimes. You are loved, you are valued, and you are enough, just the way you are.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Courtney Hayes of Tampa, FL. You can follow her journey on Instagram and on her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.