How I’ve Learned to Deal with Mental Illness


Sarah Haylow, Writer

Don’t ask me if I want to hang out on Mondays. I can’t. Mondays are my reserved days for my therapist. Every Monday after school, I hop in my “mom car” and drive to Mansfield to cry in someone’s office and express to him how I’ve been feeling over the past week. We talk about anything under the sun. Some days I’m feeling great and we talk about fun stuff. A lot of days, we talk about how my anxiety and panic attacks have become a weight that feels impossible to lift. We talk about my irrational fear of the week, which can range from realistic things such as, “Do my friends even like me?” to weirder things like: “What if a black hole ate the sun?” And yes, that was a weird fear I had for about three days before realizing that it made no sense. There are days where right after our session, I get into my car and just sit there and cry. 


Every two to six months I take my annual trip to my psychiatrist with one of my parents. We discuss how I’ve been doing and whether or not we need to change the medication I take to keep my anxiety and panic attacks at bay. Around this time is when I typically get a refill of my rescue medicine, the kind that helps calm my brain down when I’m having a panic attack, and consequently turns me into a zombie for the rest of the day.


Every morning when I wake up, I immediately go into my kitchen. I pour myself a glass of orange juice (because I have the worst gag reflex) to swallow my daily medication. Two of the four pills I take are meant to help manage my anxiety disorder. If I’m having a particularly tough morning, I take a dissolvable pill under my tongue that is meant to increase the effects of the chemicals in my brain that makes me relax. So if I ever show up to school and I’m even more quiet then I usually am, you’ll know why.


I really don’t want to sugarcoat anything. Struggling with mental health is the pits and not everyday is easy. There are days where I wake up feeling like someone has airlifted and dropped an elephant onto my chest. Some days I don’t want to get out of bed, and a lot of days I have a lack of motivation to do anything. It affects almost every area of my life and it has forced me to grow up a lot faster than I would have preferred to. Mental health changes a person and how they interact with the world. It forces people to have a more mature outlook on life and it has definitely changed my perspective.


When I describe how my mental illness makes me feel to a person, I usually say it feels like everything is on fire and nobody else can see the fire except for me. That feeling of dread washes over me and the fire begins to suffocate me. I look around me and everyone in the vicinity is acting as if the fire isn’t there. And I know it isn’t there. It’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that’s distorting how I process fearful thoughts. But nothing can change the fact that I still see the fire and feel it on my skin and in my lungs. Sometimes it’s so unbearable that I can’t stand to sit where I am. I can’t pretend like I’m like everyone else and that I don’t see it. It’s too big and too loud and I’m starting to not be able to see through the clouds of smoke.


Over the years, I’ve learned what fans the fire and what calms it. Nowadays the fire is nothing but a small flame, but some days I find myself feeding it. I hear or see something that sets my brain off for some reason and suddenly my brain is tossing firewood everywhere like it’s candy. Once I realize I’m going off the deep end, I start doing breathing exercises. I either do one big inhale and one long exhale or I breathe in for six counts, hold it for six counts, and exhale for six counts. I repeat these steps until my brain settles down. Another thing I do is exercise the part of my brain that deals with logic, because when I’m anxious my brain tosses logic out the window. I count backwards from 100 to one counting by threes. I’ll play word or puzzle games on my phone or read a book that I enjoy. Kickstarting the logic side of my brain forces me to start actually thinking logically, which helps a lot when trying to calm myself down. Talking to people helps me out a lot as well. I’ll usually talk to my mom and my sister and if whatever I’m worrying about is something they already know about, we instead try focusing on talking about literally anything else. My mom asks me tons of random questions that force me to stop thinking about what I’m afraid of. My sister will make me laugh so hard that I forget all about whatever it was that I was even worrying about. Another thing my sister and I will often enjoy doing is watching stupid YouTube videos that make us laugh or TV shows that we both enjoy.


Sometimes my anxiety gets serious and the flames turn into a bonfire, also known as a panic attack. That’s typically when I realize that I need some extra help, because it usually makes me feel like I’m dying (many people often compare it to having a heart attack?). I’ll take some of my rescue medication and I’ll sit still. Sometimes crying helps, but a lot of times it fuels the flames and makes me panic more. During a panic attack I start by doing breathing exercises, followed closely by turning on every fan in my room because I usually start to get really warm. I’ll lay down because I usually get pretty dizzy during an attack. My stomach is usually in knots and my head pounds. Occasionally my vision goes completely blurry and I have to close my eyes. My heart is usually going 100 miles an hour and my arms and legs start to feel numb. 


On average, panic attacks last anywhere between five and ten minutes, so I’m never panicked for long. They’re scary every single time I have them, but they’re a lot easier to deal with now. Sometimes I’ll get them in school and I end up in the nurses’ office because I just need a few minutes to catch my breath. 


Talking about my mental illness is not a new thing for me, this has been an ongoing struggle for eight years. It feels like a topic that has garnered a lot of attention over the past few years, but not nearly enough. I think it’s still a taboo topic for people and it’s often romanticized as a way of appearing relatable to young people. For that reason alone, I decided a long time ago to be open about my struggles so that I could be a source of comfort for friends or family who are also struggling. For something that has gotten a lot of attention as of late, mental health is still an isolating thing for many people. I don’t love the part of myself that makes me nervous all the time, but it’s a part of me and I’ve learned to accept it. 

Most of all, I know what it feels like to feel alone when facing struggles. I understand feeling self conscious about my anxiety and feeling isolated from my peers. I understand feeling like all I can do is live one day at a time and pray that I make it through the week without falling apart. And, on a more serious note, I understand what it feels like to just feel like giving up. It’s a scary thought, but over the years I’ve learned that I have control over my life and over how much power I choose to let my anxiety have. In a weird way, I’d say I’m too petty to let myself get to that place. I’m too determined to live and too determined to thrive and I find that my pettiness is what consistently drives me forward. I don’t want to let my anxiety rule over my life and I don’t want to be another tragic story. I want to be able to confidently tell people that I have a happy life filled with so many blessings, because I do. I have a family who loves and supports me, friends who care about me, dogs who love me unconditionally, and I’ve got my main man God watching out for me. 


I love my life, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My darkest days helped make my normal days brighter. I’ve grown and have matured as a person and I’ve learned to be thankful for the blessings in my life. I take each day as they come and am endlessly thankful for the good days and I work through the bad ones. 


To see how other students deal with their mental health, check out my feature story: