The familiar scent of magic marker, old paperback books, and someone’s delectable peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich gently wafted through the air. Painted paper with all kinds of messy yet thoughtful designs clung to the wall behind my teacher, who was in the middle of writing out the next math equation we would tackle. From my seat, I could see the endless expanse of blue that stretched far out against the sky, the small clouds that seemed to clasp the corners of the sun. But as I glanced around my comfortable fourth grade classroom, I couldn’t rid myself of what was beginning to engulf my entire body. My breath started coming out in short and small gasps, refusing to give my lungs the satisfaction of an expanded inhale. My chest tightened and stretched over my bouncing heart, making my ribs feel as though they were collapsing over the rest of my body. My stomach was tightly stitching itself together, and the tears that stung my eyes threatened to pour down my face. I was having trouble processing what my teacher was saying, and in that moment, trapped in my nine-year-old brain, I felt as though I was going to die. I quickly raised my hand and announced that I didn’t feel well.
As I walked to the nurse through the long hallway, I took deep breaths, just as my dad had told me to do when I was upset. I let the cool air pass through my nose and fill up my lungs with every inhale, and by the time I arrived at the nurse’s office, I had almost completely calmed myself down, my heart restored to its normal pace. I wasn’t quite sure what to tell the nurse, considering that I felt mostly better now, and that it would be a bit odd to say, “I couldn’t breathe a few minutes ago, but I am fine now.” So when I walked into her office, I simply said that my stomach was hurting, and about an hour later I was back in my classroom feeling fine.
When I got home that day, I cried to my parents, thinking that there must be something terribly wrong with me. But my mom and dad realized that the feelings I was explaining were symptoms of an anxiety attack, and their comforting words allowed me to relax. I was okay. Nothing was wrong with me. I only had to learn to control my anxiety and figure out what was causing it.
When I turned 12, feelings of panic began clouding my thoughts again, but this time in a very different way. During gymnastics, a sport that pushes its athletes to train and compete with an extreme fearlessness, I began doing the strangest things to keep these emotions from controlling me. Halfway through the competitive season, I developed a mental block for my back tuck; I would stand in the very corner of the floor, all of my weight on my tiptoes, and take a deep breath. I longed to feel the texture of the floor beneath my toes as I sprung forward into a powerful run. I wished for my calves to stretch and my ankles to flex as I launched into the speed that would carry me through a series of flips, one side of the floor to the other. And I wanted more than anything to land my tumbling pass, my hips perfectly squared and my feet planted firmly on the ground. It was a skill that I had mastered years ago, now merely a hiccup in my everyday routine. But as I stood there, looking at the endless floor that spread out in front of me, a thought in my mind made me do something other than my back tuck. “If you don’t tap your leg and stand with your feet perfectly aligned, you will fall on your neck.” This echoed through my head, and I quickly closed my eyes, hoping that if I squeezed them tight enough, the thought would be forced out, but to no avail. Soon there was nothing left except my ability to do what my brain had instructed me to. I tapped my leg and aligned my feet together.
“Sophie, are you going to actually tumble, or just stand there? If you aren’t going to do any gymnastics, get out,” my coach called to me in his terrifying, arms-crossed stance from across the floor.
I bit my lip and looked down at my feet to see that they still weren’t perfectly aligned.
“Uhh I need some water.” I yelled back as I ran to the fountain by the other side of the gym. I glanced up just in time to see my coach shake his head and scribble something down in his notebook.
The anxiety that made my mind its prison had begun taking over all of my thoughts, until it was all that circulated through my head. More and more I noticed myself doing these bizarre things in an attempt to rid myself of the panic. The rituals started getting so intrusive to my everyday life that it was becoming hard to complete even the simplest of tasks. I would spend 20 minutes walking through a doorway until it felt “right.” I would carefully step over cracks in the ground, making sure my shoes didn’t so much as graze the splits in the cement. If they did, I would walk back to the first crack I saw and start all over again. I rewrote words in my notebook at school in a specific way so that none of the letters touched each other. People started noticing me doing these things, and I knew they must have thought I was a lunatic, but there was nothing I could do to help it.
Eventually, my parents dragged me to a psychologist where I learned that I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is an anxiety disorder that causes people to have recurring thoughts or sensations, known as obsessions, giving them the urge to do something repetitively, known as compulsions. These compulsions or rituals are completed to try and eliminate the obsessive thoughts from entering the brain, but they ultimately only cause more anxiety. I began a treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with my psychologist, and I eventually learned to escape the obsessive mindset.
Anxiety was a monster living in the deep recesses of my brain, equipped with a grasp over my fears that gave it power to attack my most vulnerable spots. Learning to cage this monster, especially at a young age, was a very long and challenging task to accomplish. But once I had, I earned a new feeling of respect and appreciation for myself. I stopped thinking of myself as a shy little girl, but instead as a determined and strong person. I began pushing myself to do things that had often been scary before, like raising my hand in class, voicing my own opinions, and standing up for other people. My struggle with anxiety and its ultimate defeat helped define the person I am today, giving me a sense of dignity and pride that I couldn’t have found anywhere else.
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