Suffering in silence

June 15, 2020

Anxiety is more than a condition. Millions of people suffer from it in one form or another, yet it does not look the same in every person. Anxiety is in the shadows, unable to be seen, but able to be felt in a deep way. For some people, no matter where they turn to, feelings of anxiousness never stray from their mind, leaving them constantly at the will of an illness that is completely unpredictable.

Two highly functioning young ladies navigate their adolescence as their own minds seem to work against their best interests. In their respective journeys through life, Sofia and Allison learn more about themselves as individuals and find their own ways and close confidants to rely on for guidance.

As parents watch their children begin to grow, it is their hope that they will have an easy time. They hope they will make friends, and flourish in any activity or hobby they take on. But children often have their struggles. Some even stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Sofia was merely three years old when her own struggles began. What was easy for other three-year-olds seemed more difficult for Sofia. Seemingly out of nowhere, tantrums would erupt, and she even faced breakdowns. Her parents could only wait and see if this was a phase, or a sign of something more complicated taking over her brain.

Her parents had seen mental disorders before in their own families, such as anxiety and depression. But both of her parents were very stable, despite some ups and downs. The familiarity of these illnesses caused her parents to wonder if their own family history of mental illness was impacting yet another one of their relatives- this time, their bright and wonderful young daughter.

Sofia’s behavior did not show signs of changing as she grew. The struggles she faced were always prominent, and it became clear that she suffered from a form of anxiety. As this was realized, her anxiety suddenly became worse.

It all came down to the day when her family’s house tragically burned down. She may have been young, but the losses she experienced stayed with her. Most of her family’s possessions and their heirlooms were lost in the fire. Worst of all, they lost one of their own family members: their cat.

The trauma Sofia faced greatly heightened her anxiety. More than ever, she needed the love and support of her parents to guide her. Everyday expectations such as getting dressed in the morning could be physically and mentally taxing to her on rough days. She began to notice specific symptoms of anxiety which would face in times of stress or hardship. Migraines, nausea, swollen lymph nodes, and drowsiness were common for Sofia. Her anxiety overwhelmed her, and could make her feel hopeless. Sometimes, the best way to manage these feelings and still get things done was to keep them bottled up inside. But by keeping everything in, it was almost inevitable for these feelings to boil over, and cause Sofia panic attacks.

Panic attacks have become predictable in a way. Sofia will feel her heart rate speed up, become clammy or hot, and begins to itch. She has identified these symptoms as the calm before the storm, or moments before a full fledged panic attack.

Panic attacks can feel like a total loss of control. These episodes of intense anxiety leave Sofia completely vulnerable and consumed with fear and stress. They are nothing like her everyday feelings of anxiety- in these moments, she cannot put on a brave face, or give the illusion that she is alright. 

The only way Sofia became able to escape her feelings was through hobbies and activities she enjoyed. For most of her life, she has been a performer- singing, acting, and playing the guitar are her creative outlets that she has found a passion and safe space in. Her love of the arts has supported her through her struggles, by allowing herself to take on a new persona and forget about her own worries. As long as she has something to keep her busy, she can manage.

Later as she navigated the ups and downs of middle school, her anxiety caused her to learn more about herself. To her peers, she was quite blunt, and unafraid to let them know who she was and what she thought. Sometimes, having no shame led to bigger problems, which eventually led to guilt and more anxiety. It seemed like a never-ending cycle. In 8th grade, this system became overwhelming.

Sofia hopelessly suffered with self-consciousness, body issues, and teenage hormones in addition to her anxiety, making it her worst year mentally. Seeing a therapist became a great aid to Sofia as she balanced these issues. By having someone to talk to and receive advice from, she felt relieved of pressure. On her toughest days, her therapist was able to help her cope with her emotions and give a positive perspective. And when Sofia wasn’t upset, she felt comfortable talking about anything else going on in her life. Sofia can be emotionally dependent, so she is greatly helped by having people she trusts to confide in.

While the guidance of a mental health professional proved paramount in helping Sofia, much of the relief she eventually felt was due to her own efforts and actions to feel better. Joining boxing classes was a massive jump into a completely new environment. As daunting as this may have been for Sofia, it became a great way to spend her free time. Not only does boxing keep her physically fit, it also provides her anger relief. Reading, walking her dogs, and working on her gemstone mosaic have also become stress-free activities that keep her from drowning in her thoughts.

Even now as she adjusts to high school feeling much better than a year ago, her anxiety is still a major part of her life. Despite always trying to accomplish things outside of her comfort zone, there are some situations and environments that consistently increase her anxiety. Any sort of surprise or spontaneity is discomforting, and she has found her annual camping trip with her family to cause stress since she cannot control her setting. 

No matter how much progress Sofia makes, the fight against her mental disorder is daily and cannot simply be stopped.

Allison Ross is an accomplished 18 year old girl. She is part of the National Honor Society, has been accepted into her top college choices, and has a variety of interests she explores, such as movies and music. While similar success is common among her classmates at Glen Rock High School, she has overcome extremely difficult and discouraging setbacks which pushed her away from happiness- namely, her social anxiety.

From a young age, Allison was interested in theatre- she could always sing, and enjoyed performing in plays and musicals. On the weekends, she would often see Broadway shows in New York City. As she grew older, the idea of performing became less attractive. Her nerves were so high, her performances began to end in tears. Soon after, Allison stopped participating in shows. 

Middle school was a difficult transition for all of her classmates, as they navigated a completely foreign environment and felt the reins of their teachers and parents become looser. But this change was especially daunting for Allison. In middle school, Allison’s anxiety became a major setback- she had difficulty making friends, and her lack of friends contributed to her angst throughout the day. P.E. was a nightmare- her athletic abilities, or the lack thereof, made every activity difficult and anxiety-ridden. She constantly feared being teased if she dropped the ball, or ran too slow, or missed the basket. She began bringing in notes to evade gym class nearly every week. For Allison, her anxiety made her an outsider. All she wished for were genuine friends.

And high school was no different. “9th grade is when it really got bad,” Allison said. During lunchtime, she sat by herself, wondering if anyone would be her friend. Her struggles were not too far from what she faced in middle school, but her anxiety was heightened. This was a daily struggle she faced. She felt even more disconnected and isolated from her peers as the year progressed, and unhappy about her lack of true social connection. As her anxiety peaked, her therapist provided some relief to her constant nerves. She was also prescribed Lexapro, an SSRI, by a nurse practitioner. A few months later, though, she had stopped taking them.

In sophomore year, though, her anxiety was amplified. By January, she had stayed home from school multiple days due to mounting anxiety. But as the end of sophomore year approached, Allison’s situation improved. In May, she decided to volunteer at a film festival, to sell merchandise. Being pushy was never something in her nature– but now, she had to be. After experiencing crippling anticipatory anxiety over it, she not only got through it, but had fun as well. She also learned that the best medication for dealing with anxiety is stepping out of your comfort zone, and that by forcing yourself to do things that may be harder for you, you grow in a number of ways. During lunch now, she sat in the cafeteria with a few friends, without the concerns of months prior.

Though, junior year brought new problems. The pressures of college, the SAT, the ACT were difficult for all of her classmates, but especially hard as a girl suffering from clinical anxiety. She questioned her future- her college life, her career. Putting off her needs and goals was partially a result. Early in junior year, she was prescribed Zoloft, another SSRI, after being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). An SSRI is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, a type of medication that increases serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is considered to be a mood stabilizer. 

For as long as she can remember, anxiety has been a part of Allison’s life. It may not have had a role in every single day, or every single decision, but her condition has been in her mind for years, even if it was sometimes hidden. And as she has grown, coping with her nervous feelings has become almost second nature. Now, as a senior, she’s not taking medication any longer, and her anxiety does not define her. She is extremely proud of her academic accomplishments– particularly her writing. “The fact that I’ve managed to write so many articles and especially about really important issues to me, and I’ve talked to so many people. That has honestly made me proud,” Allison said. Not only has getting admitted into colleges boosted her confidence, but also has reassured her about her future. She is optimistic about college life, and eager to make new friends and develop connections- something she feels she missed out on in high school. 

While preparing to navigate her new environment in a matter of months, Allison is uncertain of how her anxiety will impact her college experience. While she’s excited about the future, she moves forward with some apprehension.

For many children and teenagers suffering from anxiety, school is a place where nerves are often at their height; at Glen Rock High School, academic pressures, such as report cards and tests, as well as athletic pressures, like making the team and winning games, are common among students, according to Laura Vargo, one of the school’s guidance counselors. For older students especially, the college admission process and planning for the future are triggers for anxiety, often fueled by parental pressures as well. Both Glen Rock Middle School and High School faculties work to support students feeling anxious, and encourage them to ask for help.

“It is important that our students know that they should talk to an adult and not wait,” Vargo said. “Students can talk to their counselor, teacher, coach or trusted adult in the building.”

Even for students who do not face chronic anxiety in their everyday life, school work can be overwhelmingly stressful. Yethmie Goonatilleke, a freshman at Glen Rock High School, has found that the pressure of grades and assignments is a constant topic of conversation amongst her and her peers. She admits that she would be upset if she received a bad grade, regardless if she knew the material. However, students like Yethmie understand that teachers must adhere to their set agenda, and feel that in a time of true stress her teachers would likely be more lenient and understanding.

While many high schools work to offer as many supportive outlets as they can for students facing mental health issues, one of the greatest triggers for anxiety exists in many of these students’ homes, and follows them throughout the day, in school and out: technology.

Before the usage of smartphones and other smart devices took over homes across the country, students could go home and relieve some of the pressures they felt throughout the day. Now, social media is not only a part of many teenagers’ lives, but is an extreme disruption and threat to mental health. The effects of social media on mental health have not been extensively studied, as social media is still a very recent addition to society.

For people suffering from anxiety, there are a variety of ways they can work on overcoming this illness. Common solutions include psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, as well as seeing specialists, like clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. The goal of psychotherapy is primarily to maintain good mental health, while types of psychotherapy like CBT have more specific aims; in this case, CBT focuses on changing thought and behavior patterns for the better. Therapy can be effective in reducing patient anxiety, but the use of medication is often another step. For patients with severe anxiety, antidepressants are common. However useful, these medications are known to have side effects needing consideration.

These measures may seem out of the question for some depending on their access to therapists or psychiatrists in their area, but there are many ways to reduce anxiety through self care. Exercise and meditation are especially useful in dispelling nerves. But even beyond these treatments, it is vital for people struggling from anxiety to be open with their issues with a trusted friend or family member. In general, discussion about mental health must become encouraged, and shouldn’t be an awkward or uncomfortable topic.

This stigma surrounding mental health is being combated by Stigma Free initiatives across the world. The Bergen County Stigma Free Initiative has been working with members of the community to make mental health an accepted issue. 

Fort Lee High School in particular has worked with Bergen County Stigma Free to improve their approach to handling mental health. The faculty of Fort Lee High School recognizes the need to prioritize mental health for students in their school environment. The school has collaborated with Bergen County Stigma Free through running events which tie into the efforts of the Stigma Free Initiative, such as Red Ribbon Week and School Violence Prevention Week. Town-wide events organized by Fort Lee Stigma Free such as a Stigma Free Fair have further solidified the town’s dedication to improving the perception of mental illness. David Cuozzo, the Student Assistant Counselor at Fort Lee High School, has been working at the high school for six years, and has made many efforts to bring student mental health into the conversation. 

“I would say the most important thing is reducing the stigma and letting students know where they can go if they need help,” Cuozzo said. While the Fort Lee school district has always been progressive about these issues, the Stigma Free programs have continued raising the bar for other schools, and made students more comfortable discussing mental health openly. Fort Lee has made impressive movements to create school environments with faculty members prepared to address student mental health issues. By having counselors in every school building and teachers who are trained to handle anxiety, students are assured to have access to support outlets if needed. The district expects to have 150 staff members trained in mental health first-aid in the near future. Compared to other school districts in Bergen County, Fort Lee is ahead of the game in dealing with students’ mental health. Cuozzo’s own advice to other school districts across the nation in terms of battling mental illness: Make it a priority.

Sofia’s mental disorder may have held her back for many years of her life, and inhibited her from taking part in what her peers find joy in, but her passion for performing and her unapologetic way of living will always propel her forward with extreme persistence and determination. While she believes her anxiety will never disappear, Sofia is constantly developing her ability to manage the issues she faces and prevent anxiety from negatively impacting her life. Even in her darkest moments, the love and support of her close friends and family stand as her own beacon of light and pillar of hope.

As she anticipates her departure from home, Allison is preparing in case her anxiety gets worse. Before she goes to college, she will visit her psychiatrist to get a reevaluation of her mental health. She hopes that her anxiety will not limit her from new experiences, and despite once feeling daunted by new environments, Allison genuinely looks forward to her college life with overwhelming optimism and eagerness. She has full confidence in her power to manage any rough times either in her near or distant future. But the distant future would be preferred.

For the considerable population of people across the world who suffer from a form of anxiety, stories of recovery and perseverance akin to Sofia and Allison’s own are common, and establish the fact that no one is suffering alone. However, brave and inspiring stories of people living and surviving with crippling anxiety are not being shared openly enough. The mental health stigma takes away the voices of many strong individuals who have suffered and battled with their own minds. Fearful of being judged and misunderstood, people diagnosed with mental disorders often stay silent and alone. Their stories will not be heard until they feel welcomed and accepted. Because even though they have courageously fought against their illness, they should not be expected to have the courage of Sofia and Allison to subject themselves to the ridicule of unprepared and uneducated listeners.

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