Content Warning: This post contains information about mental illness, which may be triggering to some survivors.
“Inside, I was Struggling,” Kristi Hipp
Over the past two years I have been dealing a LOT with figuring out my mental health. I was in and out of therapy as a kid, because my mom struggles with depression and saw some concerning things in me as a kid. The first therapist I went to sat me in a corner, had me color for thirty minutes, and then told my parents I would grow out of it. The second (in middle school) was more helpful, but when I started high school all signs pointed to the fact that I had, indeed, grown out of it. So I stopped going.
To everyone else, I was a happy, well-adjusted kid.
But inside, I was struggling.
I’ve always been a high achiever, someone who rarely got into trouble, someone who did everything I could to make everyone else happy. But it wasn’t necessarily about achieving so much as the fact that I was terrified of getting into trouble. I grew up in an emotionally and verbally abusive household, which I’m sure didn’t help.
My first year as a professional was probably when my anxiety was the worst. I can remember sitting in my office holding the duty phone and just being terrified of the next call coming in. The best way to describe it, I think, comes from a Tumblr post on anxiety: “It’s like that feeling you get when you lean a little too far back in your chair, but all the time.” I would have that feeling for hours at a time. Every time my boss asked to talk to me about something, I was certain I was going to get fired. Any time I made a mistake, I was certain I was going to get fired. Any time a student was less than thrilled with me…I’m sure you can figure out where this is going.
To try and help combat my high anxiety, I decided to pursue the option of getting a pet. The school I was working for didn’t have a permissive pet policy, but my immediate supervisor told me to draft a policy and she would support it. I spent approximately a week doing research, collecting information from other professionals, and putting together a 15-page document that was more restrictive than the policy for students.
On my 24th birthday (September 10th, 2014), I presented the proposal to my department, including our director and Vice President for Student Affairs. I didn’t hear back until November that the answer was no. My director’s explanation was, “It’s just not in the cards right now.”
When I asked if she would support me getting an Emotional Support Animal, she told me, “You’re just doing so well; you don’t look like you’re struggling. I don’t understand why you need that accommodation.” She then told me that if I really wanted to press the issue, I could go to HR; but that she would check in on me regularly to make sure I was caring for my animal properly, and that if students got upset about it, the department would not have my back.
I left her office sobbing.
Over the course of that year, my mental health steadily worsened. My anxiety was so bad that most mornings I would vomit at the thought of going into work. I couldn’t make decisions or do anything to try and better my situation because I was almost literally paralyzed by my anxiety of being let go. So, I did the only thing left I knew to do: I started job searching.
My search went into the summer, and at one point my anxiety was so bad that I knew I needed to talk to a counselor. I filled out all the forms, found a center that accepted my insurance, and called to make an appointment, only to be told that for triage appointments they only accepted walk-ins. So, I drove across town to the clinic, only to then be told that they had no more time that day for triage. I would have to come back, but there would be no guarantee that they would be able to see me the next day, either.
I cried all the way home.
The day I got the offer for my current job, I sobbed tears of relief. The day I drove away from my previous institution, it felt as though a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders.
I thought I was “cured.”
Then, during move-in, I was so anxious about my lack of institutional knowledge (e.g., not knowing who to call to get a student a different desk chair) that I was sure I was going to get fired. The first time I had a serious duty call at my new institution, the anxiety came creeping back. I remember my supervisor telling me, “You need to stop asking me if I’m going to fire you, or else I will fire you.” It was a lighthearted comment and we shared a laugh about it, but it helped me to realize that my anxiety level was once again too high and that I needed to find some help. So, I started the process of finding a therapist.
I remember talking to a fellow professional that I had met through a Facebook group about the process of finding a counselor and saying, “Trying to find a counselor for my anxiety has given me anxiety.” For me, that was so incredibly true. It was terrifying dealing with insurance companies, subcontractors, and sifting through pages of web sites only to end up with a diagnosis. To me, a diagnosis was confirmation that I was abnormal. I could no longer pretend that everything was okay, that I was just tired or having a rough day.
Today, I logged into my health insurance portal to check on something, and found my diagnosis looking me in the face: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. From my years as a Psychology major (I have a Bachelor’s in Psychology,) I know that this means that my anxiety seeps into every area of my life in such a way that it impacts my ability to function normally. What surprised me most was the feeling of relief I immediately experienced.
Now that I know what the monster in my head is (or, as I say to my boss, my “special brain,”) I know how to deal with it. I’m headed off to my third counseling session soon; she’s helping me put together coping mechanisms and helping me process through the abuse I went through growing up, which has been immeasurably helpful.
But I will never forget that conversation with my former director, someone who was supposed to be my support and my sounding board: “You don’t look like you’re struggling. I don’t understand why you need that accommodation.”
If there’s one thing anyone takes away from my story, I want it to be this: mental illness is, for the most part, invisible. While some people have psychosomatic symptoms, or physical markers to their mental illness, that doesn’t make those of us who don’t less deserving of help or support.
There are so many of us that are hurting in one way or another, but are afraid of seeking help for one reason or another. For years, I put on a happy face and went into the office while on the inside everything in me was screaming to be hiding under a desk somewhere where no one could yell at me, confront me, or do anything to make me anxious.
My mental illness is not a weakness. In fact, having to struggle against my instincts has made me strong. I refuse to give in to my special brain. I refuse to let my anxiety stop me from being the person I want to be. I will be fearless in the pursuit of what sets my soul on fire, and I will support the students I serve when they find themselves in the situations I have struggled so hard to overcome.
I refuse to ever be the awful, doubting, or painful voice in someone else’s head.
About the art:
Kristi's story was powerful, and speaks to the invisibility of anxiety as it impacts your life.
Hearing about how her friends, family, and supervisors only saw her achievement, and not the stress behind the success brought the image of a mirror into mind. What you see is not always what you get, and supportive communities know how to recognize that (even when it's not staring you in the face). Hearing that Kristi was able to find a support system in her new role and with counseling is an inspiration, and a reminder to all those who work with people that there is more than meets the eye.
The quote carries particular meaning for Kristi, and in her own words:
"This quote has always had really deep meaning for me since I discovered it a couple of years ago. When you struggle with anxiety, even doing the smallest things like answering the phone or going out to eat with friends can be terrifying and panic-inducing activities. Also, as a first-generation college student, the thought of going 420 miles away to college, and then about 2,000 miles away for grad school, was even more terrifying. This quote reminds me to be strong and at least try to overcome my anxiety when it's for something that I am passionate about, or even just something that I want to do. Spending time with my friends can set my soul on fire the same way that a really great meeting with a student does. It's important for me to be able to know, even in the midst of doing something that causes anxiety, that I'm doing something that is good for *me,* rather than something that is bad for my anxiety. It doesn't always happen, and sometimes my anxiety wins. But it's a work in progress, and this quote helps me to feel stronger than my anxiety, which is a really great feeling."