I’m a musician and a mental health advocate who is lucky enough to have the opportunity to perform shows at high schools and spread awareness for psychosis and bipolar disorder. Whenever I get up on stage, I look at the three hundred to one thousand students looking back at me and I try my best to tell them what I needed to hear when I was fourteen. This also has to fit into the span of a couple of minutes, because we have an entire hour of demonstrations and dance competitions that we need to get through (the former so that we can explain the symptoms of psychosis, and the latter so we can make sure the students are awake). I often end up speaking incredibly fast, talking about my own experiences with psychosis brought on by the bipolar disorder in my genetic history, about my bipolar depression and the suicide attempts that followed, and of course about how I now treat my bipolar disorder and have accepted it. I often end up talking through the first bell as the students start getting up and leaving, and still have more to say. When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I had no idea what it was and only heard the word “crazy.” I walked away from the clinic with a bottle of Seroquel and took the whole thing, not wanting to live in a world where my ex-boyfriend was right about my insanity. I do my best to make sure that if there is a fourteen year old Sarah out in the audience, she will recognize the symptoms of bipolar disorder before she loses her best friends and her first love, and she will go to the doctor and get help right away. But I never have time to say what fourteen year old Sarah needed to hear most, and when students come up to me after the show and explain that they related to my story but they “only have anxiety,” I feel like I’ve failed her, and them! I’d never heard of anxiety as a teenager, but if I had, I would have definitely put the word “only” or “just” in front of it.
I’ve “only” lived with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) since the age of four. I don’t know what life is like without it, and that makes it easy to ignore. When bipolar disorder reared its ugly head when I was seventeen and eighteen, I felt like I was losing control of my life, like my brain was a villain who had taken me hostage. It was easy to tell that there was something wrong. But if you’ve had a hard time sleeping, breathing, digesting food, answering the phone, and looking people in the eye your entire life, you think it’s normal. Doesn’t everyone imagine their friends and family dying every time they say goodbye to them? Doesn’t everyone go through life with a racing heart beat and their shoulders up to their ears? I now know they don’t, but it took me a long time to figure it out. Even after I learned that I was more of a scaredy-cat than everyone else, I was still under the impression that I could control it. I’ve been told a thousand times to “calm down,” “chill out,” “stop worrying about it,” or “just think about something else,” as if this is something that I should be able to do. Even though our society uses anxiety as a buzz word these days, it’s still hard for people without an anxiety disorder to grasp the concept. And anxiety disorder is not just invisible to everyone else, but it also tricks you into thinking it’s not a big deal. Anxiety tells you that you are lazy, and a coward, and that if you just tried a little harder you could be like anyone else. Even right now, my anxiety is telling me that I’m being dramatic and I should delete this entire blog post. But I know better than to believe my own thoughts by now, so I just tell my brain, in my most sarcastic voice, “thanks for your help!”
Those students who come up to me and tell my they “only” have anxiety have things a little twisted, and if I had more time during my presentations, I would tell them this: Anxiety is an emotion that we all have. It’s normal to feel anxious before tests, or on stage, or before a dentist appointment. We all need to feel fear, it’s the reason why we don’t run towards black bears and try to give them a hug. But we shouldn’t feel fear all the time. Having high levels of anxiety all the time regardless of the situation, which is what we call generalized anxiety disorder, is not good for us. I won’t go into how it can wreck havoc on your body because honestly, I’m anxious enough as it is and it doesn’t help to think about it. But the good news is that there are things we can do to treat anxiety disorders. It’s not quite the same as treating bipolar disorder, which requires following a routine of heavy medication and blood tests, but it’s just as difficult and possibly more confusing. It takes time, it takes opening up and accepting help from others, and it requires a lot of homework. One of the most important things about any mental illness is to know that it’s okay to not be okay. Living with anxiety means that it’s okay if you can’t get out of bed because you are too scared. We would never tell some one with a broken leg that they are not allowed to be in pain, or that they should go jogging with everyone else. But we would also never tell someone with a broken leg that they don't need to see a doctor or get a cast. Anxiety disorder is a big deal, but unfortunately we don't get to put casts on our heads, which means that we have to remind ourselves every day that it’s not “just” anxiety disorder.
After years of treatment, my bipolar disorder is in check. I’ve found the right combination of medications and I haven’t had a suicide attempt or a hypo-manic episode in years. But my anxiety disorder is a beast I know I will struggle with every day for the rest of my life. As I type this, I can feel it in my shoulders and on my chest. One of the most important things I’ve learned on my mental health journey is that I can’t wait for my anxiety disorder to go away to live my life. I’m going to live my life right now, use my skills to withstand the pain, and keep doing the things I believe in. On the rare occasion that I do have time to have a real conversation with students struggling with anxiety disorder, I point them in the direction of learning how to cope with anxiety, rather than trying to ignore it, avoid it, or minimize it. Intense physical exercise (don’t think yoga, think rock climbing or running marathons) has been my saving grace. I dance for at least an hour every day, and it helps me regulate both my anxiety and depression. I also use evidence-based therapies like mindfulness, DBT (Dialiectical Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to challenge my brain on a regular basis. These skills can be learned with the help of apps like Mindshift, Headspace, Wysa, Calm, and more great apps are being created every day. I also encourage anyone dealing with a mental illness to join a therapy group. We live in a world where we think that everyone has everything figured out except for us, and there is nothing more powerful than meeting other people who think the way you do and have similar struggles. My first therapy group was the mindfulness group at the Vancouver YMCA, but since I have taken part in over ten different groups. When I was in high school, I was certain that I was broken, lazy, and even cursed. It’s “only” taken me ten years to get to where I am now, functioning but still struggling to keep anxiety at bay, and I know I have a long journey ahead of me. Thriving with this stubborn mental illness will be my life long work. There is no such thing as “just” anxiety.