Anxiety, therapy and all the pride in between

A student recounts his experiences with mental illness and grief, and how he praises the small successes in life.

Listen to the author read their essay.

When I least expect it, my anxiety hits me with full force. 

My fingers frantically twitch, my skin freezes and my heart beats faster than it normally does. I try my best to contain myself, taking prolonged, persistent breaths, but I can’t help but feel like I’m drowning.

Every thought I’ve ever had comes back, the scariest ones racing through my mind like a beehive — from insecurities about my abilities and academic future to feelings of nobody else caring about me, even if I know that’s not true. 

And because I have these irrational fears about those who love me most, I rarely tell them about my anxiety in the first place. So, for the past few years, I’ve kept mostly silent about my mental health issues, painting myself in a smile and an aura of positivity so nobody ever worries about me.

And that’s not healthy.

I’d spend some Saturday nights alone, aimlessly walking around Rittenhouse Square rather than making plans. I had little desire to make new friends or to strengthen bonds with the ones I already had, and I found myself ignoring my best friends.

But on a Friday morning halfway through this semester, I broke that cycle.

I walked into Tuttleman Counseling Services, sat down with someone there and told them everything: how I’ve been feeling, the way I’ve drifted away from others, even disclosing anxieties that date back a decade.

A week later, I was assigned to a therapist, and we connected immediately. Although I was still afraid to be entirely vulnerable, I felt like I could talk freely with him.

The experience was exhilarating, and it grew to be much more important when, three hours after leaving that appointment, I received a text telling me one of my close friends from home, Marcus, passed away.

The anxiety came back instantly. My whole body started shaking, my thought process felt clouded, and my voice began trembling so much I could barely stay at work anymore. I asked to go home and cried more than I ever have before. I felt broken, lost and petrified. I skipped most of my classes to stay home, away from others. 

There was no conquering my anxiety in that moment, and my unhealthy coping mechanisms took the wheel.

Over the past month, small tasks like getting out of bed and completing homework have felt like insurmountable feats. 

To have grief and anxiety holding me down, every accomplishment feels like the rush of winning a marathon. Now, I celebrate my smallest victories — going to work, finishing a paper or making plans with friends — because those can sometimes be the most difficult.

And my biggest triumphs — reaching out for therapy, keeping my close friends in the loop about my anxiety, even being vulnerable enough to write this essay — are moments that make me smile.

I know they’re making Marcus smile, too, and I know he’s so proud of me and all my smallest victories.

Reflecting on my own struggles with anxiety, grief and other mental health issues, I chose this year’s Essayist theme to be “proud and powerful” because I want to celebrate the accomplishments of our writers and staff members.

Whether they’re reflecting on how they’ve overcome restrictions others place on them, their own physical limitations or their personal struggles with mental health, I want to highlight these moments of empowerment and pride that might’ve otherwise gone untold.

Because if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to not stay silent about what you’re going through, and by the same token, to be proud of every accomplishment: big or small.

Listen to how the author was inspired to write this story.

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