Reflecting on mental illness

My name is Alison. I’m 21 years old, and I’m just about to finish my undergrad degree. I know it seems silly to introduce myself with my name and photo right there in the byline, but I think it’s important that you know a little about me.

I’m a pretty average young adult. I have a good GPA. I have a job that I love, and that I worked hard for. I have a lot of things going for me. I also have a mental illness.

I had my first panic attack when I was 15. I didn’t know what was happening. It was incredibly frightening. My body rebelled, taking the stress I felt and turning it into very real, painful and — at its worst — debilitating physical symptoms. While I struggled through coming to terms with this new invisible obstacle, I missed a lot of school, not something that was easy to explain to my 10th grade peers. I was embarrassed. When I told my friends about what was going on, they would say things like “don’t worry, things will calm down after exams” or “yeah, I get stressed out a lot, too.”

Sometimes I’m perfectly fine. I’ve gone years without my anxiety causing any disruption in my life. But then it comes roaring back, reminding me that at any time my brain can overload and cause my body to effectively shut itself down, to go into survival mode.

Being able to share what’s going on inside my head is the most valuable thing in my relationships.

This year, my anxiety came back with a vengeance, in a completely different way than it had in my teens. The experience was so different that, again, I didn’t recognize what was happening. Being in university and dealing with a mental illness is no easy thing. Odds are that there are plenty of people you personally know who could attest to that difficulty, even if they’ve never breathed a word about it to you.

I can’t speak for every student dealing with a mental illness, and to do so would be presumptuous. For me, it’s been a very isolating experience. While my friends carried on doing things that university students do — going out, drinking, socializing . . . all things that I love to do, too — I started to stay home, feeling safer somewhere familiar, afraid of how my body may react in an uncontrolled situation.

It’s also nearly impossible to properly explain. Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety have become less and less stigmatized over the past decade, but they are still incredibly difficult to understand for those who haven’t experienced them. For my friends and family who are unfamiliar with anxiety, it can be tough to understand why I’m not able to go to flag football this week when I’ve seemed fine and happy all day.

Understanding may come, but it’s okay if it doesn’t. Being able to share what’s going on inside my head — which I often don’t understand myself —  has become the most valuable thing in my relationships. Listening. Caring.

You can’t always know what’s going on with the friend who’s been skipping your shared tutorial lately. But you can listen if they find the courage to reach out.