What 23 Means To Me: My Year With An Invisible Illness

The transformation that I’ve undergone for the past year is hard for me to talk about, and something I’ve kept private because I am often unable to string together the words to explain the pain. During the winter of 2014, I decided I wanted to lose weight, once and for all. I had been pudgy and uncomfortable in my skin for far too long, and while I’m sure some people will say “You looked fine/great/better before,” the fact of the matter was that I loathed my body every day. The journey of accepting my body is a different story for a different day, but the moral of the story is that I wanted to make a change. So I signed up for a half marathon and started training day in and day out, in the hopes that a new body would give me confidence, happiness, and (romantic) love.

While the weight I lost last spring didn’t bring me confidence, happiness, or love, it is the transformation that everyone notices. For over a year now, friends, family, and mere acquaintances will stop to tell me that I look wonderful or ask me how I lost so much weight. Don’t get me wrong, the compliments are greatly appreciated and they bring a smile to my face. But they made me realize how quick people are to judge your well-being based on how you look. Not just that, but also that people get so caught up in their own lives and self-importance (which unfortunately has been made worse by social media), that we forget to take the time to care for and engage with the people in front of us.

About a year ago exactly, I developed a crippling anxiety disorder. While my doctor believes that the disorder had lay dormant for years (while manifesting itself in seemingly subtle ways like my germaphobia and emetophobia), all of a sudden I had been plagued by not a phobia or two, but an overwhelming and never-ending feeling of fear and dread that followed me everywhere. I still remember the first big anxiety attack I had at a Forever 21 one afternoon when I was shopping before going bowling with friends. The amount of physical and mental anguish that overcame my body was a frightening experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

The disorder got worse, for months and months. I couldn’t drive on the highway without having to pull over multiple times on the way to my destination. I couldn’t eat out at restaurants because panic flooded me too much and I had to escape. I couldn’t even eat at home, because when my anxiety is bad I have a hard time swallowing. I would wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly startled and struggling to breath. I secretly suffered in misery while out at bars, because the social activities I used to look forward to became highly triggering environments for me. It got to the point where I couldn’t even go to the grocery store in my neighborhood without having a panic attack. When I started a new job and became physically ill on the first day, I chalked it up to a virus, not the fact that my anxiety was through the roof. But really it was nothing but denial. Denial that an anxiety disorder was wreaking havoc on the body that looked so healthy and strong from the outside.

Denial is a funny thing; so are appearances in general. Because I appeared to be healthier than ever, people didn’t realize that I was fighting the toughest battle of my life. My anxiety got so bad that I felt ill nearly 24/7 and dealt with various physical manifestations of the immense stress my body was constantly under. (The thing about mental illness that many people don’t realize is that it can be just as much physically debilitating as it is mentally.) But back to the subject of appearances. Because I appeared to be out at clubs and parties with my friends throughout 2015, people don’t realize that the majority of those hours were spent in my room, pleading with God, with the universe, and with my brain to free me of this disorder. And not to mention that the presence of my handsome, smart, fun, and most importantly kind new boyfriend had my friends, family, and acquaintances assuming that I was so happy. And I was, in the sense that I am so blessed to be with him. But I was by no means happy in general. I may have looked better than ever, but I felt worse than I ever had. I was sick, but the veiled lives that we lead make it easy to make assumptions and create distance. Having an invisible illness is hard no matter what; it is even tougher when people don’t understand how someone who looks so healthy could be so sick. This doesn’t just go for mental illness; this includes all of the invisible illnesses that people fight everyday.

As people were applauding me for losing weight and reaching new fitness goals, I was fighting for my mental health. The world, including most of my friends and family, remained unaware of the extent of my struggle. Then there came a night, on January 26, 2016, that I’m sure will always remain significant to me because it was the night I almost gave up. I wanted to succumb to the disorder that had made me its captive because I wasn’t even living anymore; merely existing. And to be honest, if it wasn’t for my loving boyfriend who stayed on FaceTime with me for almost 5 hours as I struggled through the darkest night of my life, I might not be here today.

After that night I finally took charge, realized that therapy alone wasn’t working, and in these three months since my doctor put me on Zoloft, my life has changed significantly. I am finally experiencing the kind of confidence, happiness, and love that I always dreamed of. And it’s not because I lost a bunch of weight a year ago; it’s because of the transformation I am experiencing within.

(Side note: the stigma surrounding medicating mental illnesses is what prevented me from taking the leap for a long time. Anyone who looks down on others for needing medicine to be well, please realize that mental illness is not a flaw in character. It’s a flaw in chemistry. Please take the time to learn about these debilitating illnesses and that they are indeed rooted in biological flaws, just like any other disease, disorder, or syndrome.)

It wasn’t long ago that I wanted to surrender the fight from this war. Because of this reason and so many others, turning 23 is a really big deal for me. It is a symbol of progress, redemption, and recovery. It is a reminder that enjoying the moment should always trump fear of relapse, worry, or anguish. Turning 23 is a symbol that even the roughest terrain can be traversed with determination and perseverance. And it’s an achievement. Because just three months ago I wasn’t smiling, eating, or even living. To see my family and friends share in the joy of my recovery with me, and smile at the fact that I’m smiling again, is the birthday present I never knew I needed.

Thank you for the birthday wishes. Thank you to the people who have stood by me through the darkest year of my life. Thank you to those who will now understand a little more of why I went missing-in-action for a really long time. I hope you can forgive me for my absence in your life as I struggled to fight for mine. And thank you to every person who has shared their own battle with mental illness (or the battle of someone they love) with me. You have made me brave enough to share my story and help spread awareness. Mental illness should not be taboo. The unnecessary stigma is the reason why a lot of people are not fortunate to be sitting here celebrating a birthday like I am today.

I share this not to toot my own horn, but to remind anyone reading this that it truly can and will get better. I share this to remind everyone that it’s always darkest before the dawn — something I experienced quite literally on the longest and hardest night of my life. And I share this to remind everyone that we all have a cross to bear. Take the time to stop and really engage with the people you care about. Ask them if there’s any way that you can lighten their load. In this chaotic digital age, it’s easy to get caught up in the madness or believe that someone’s public moments encompass their whole life, when really it’s just a highlight reel.

Take the time to ask someone how they are doing. And really, truly mean it. Be generous with the love you give away. Love is the only thing in the world that makes you richer by giving away to others, and that’s pretty darn special. And last but surely not least, I share this to remind anyone who needs encouragement that transformation is possible. And I don’t simply mean via the numbers on the scale.

Sunshine + whiskey enthusiast. Always writing about pop culture's intersection with politics, vows @ xojuliet.com, or drinkings margs at your local taqueria.

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