“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” – Lao Tzu
I had lost 15 pounds in 3 months. Between work, school, and an unhealthy, quasi-relationship with a man thirteen years older than me, my anxiety had reached an intolerable level. My body was revolting. It didn’t want food. It didn’t want sleep. It wanted out. My mind could find no comfort between the pressures of my daily life and my illogical worries. I spared no energy for release or relaxation, and, as a result, my body started to shut down. If I wasn’t going to slow down on my own, it was going to do it for me.
I was 19 when my doctor handed me a prescription for an anxiety medication. When I got home, I set my purse down and stood at my kitchen counter. I looked down at the prescription in my hand and then at my car keys. The pharmacy was right down the street. It would only take twenty minutes to get the prescription filled. I imagined that little orange bottle, the tiny pills it would hold. They would help the anxiety. I would feel calmer, I would probably gain weight again, and maybe it would even help the occasional depressive episodes I had been experiencing. But the problems would still be there. The man I had been seeing would still be there with his neglect and manipulation (and his own untreated mental illness). My homework and research would still be there, demanding at least three hours out of each of my evenings. My job at a local grocery store would still be there with the callous customers and draining hours. My family would still be there with their various problems and demands. I would still be there, worrying about all of it, even (and especially) the things I couldn’t control or fix. I put down my car keys, went upstairs, and put the prescription in my desk drawer.
But the problems would still be there. The man I had been seeing would still be there with his neglect and manipulation (and his own untreated mental illness). My homework and research would still be there, demanding at least three hours out of each of my evenings. My job at a local grocery store would still be there with the callous customers and draining hours. My family would still be there with their various problems and demands. I would still be there, worrying about all of it, even (and especially) the things I couldn’t control or fix. I put down my car keys, went upstairs, and put the prescription in my desk drawer. I said no. I didn’t necessarily decide to change my life in that moment, but I recognize that moment now as one that led to many of the changes that would take place in the following months and years.
I come from a family with a long history of mental illness. When my great grandfather arrived in East St. Louis in 1910, he planted my family’s roots, but they were tainted with his alcoholism and mental illness. None of his children were spared. His son, my grandfather, inherited schizophrenia. In those days, before much research had been done on mental illness, my grandfather was subjected to shock therapy. It helped temporarily as it sent him into states of numbness, but shock therapy, as we now know, is not a permanent solution, and over time his illness got worse. He and my grandmother had four children, and the seeds of mental illness were sown once again. My mom has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety. My uncle is schizophrenic. Once again, none of them escaped unscathed. In my generation, the bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression have found many homes among my cousins. And it was about to find a home in me.
No one would have judged me if I had started taking anxiety medication. They wouldn’t have even been surprised. It was seen as almost inevitable in my family that we would all be brought down by something over the years. My sister, at 17, was already struggling with a depressive disorder. But I had watched my mom struggle with her own mental illness, as she continues to do. I’ve watched her rely on her medication over the years, watched the medicine cabinet fill up with growing amounts of orange bottles, and I’ve watched her get worse. She never took ownership of her illness, never claimed it as something she could improve in other ways. She let the doctors take responsibility, let them make the decisions about what would help her most, and it wasn’t enough. I had to do things differently. I had to learn from the mistakes I had watched my family make. I had to help myself because, when it came to this, no one else could.
I began by exercising regularly and practicing meditation and yoga. My mind grew calmer as my body grew stronger, and I learned to move with time instead of against it. I started seeing an acupuncturist to help slow down my anxiety-producing hormones and learned how to work with my body to control my mind. Within a few months, I had stopped seeing the man I had been trying unsuccessfully to have a relationship with and started to regain some of my self-confidence. At the end of my second year of college, I quit my job and started working in my university’s library. I changed my major from English Education to English with a double minor in creative writing and philosophy and began to find joy in all of my classes. My life was improving. I was actively removing negative influences from my life and cultivating positive ones. I had recognized the need for a shift, and I was shifting.
I was proud of how far I had come…but the anxiety was still there. It was still there, nipping at the back of my brain, reminding me of all the things I hadn’t done, of all the decisions I hadn’t made, of all pieces of my life that were demanding my attention. I thought of the prescription in the back of my drawer. No. A million times no. Then I found Julie. My high school psychology teacher, who I had kept in contact with, gave me her name. She knew her to be a good, effective counselor. Counselors aren’t right for everyone, but Julie was right for me. She was the key that helped me unlock all the tools I had inside of me to fight my anxiety and occasional depression. She helped me change the way I look at the things happening around me and reorganize my relationship with my thoughts. She helped me learn to analyze the way I was thinking, recognize the things that I should devote attention to versus the things I should let go of, and develop strategies for dealing with anxiety that would inevitably arise from the things I couldn’t control. My mind changed, and so did my life. I ended a volatile relationship with my biological father, decided to teach English abroad after college instead of slipping into a settled life in southern Illinois, and, after graduating college in 2015, I moved to Thailand.
I’ve been teaching in Chiang Mai now for seven months. It’s not an uncommon story—the college graduate who decides to go abroad—but for someone coming from a small town with a codependent, closeminded family, it’s an unlikely story. Most of my family still lives within thirty miles of East St. Louis, where my great grandfather settled when he emigrated from Czechoslovakia all those years ago. Most of them are happy. Many of them are content. I wasn’t. I couldn’t be with the kind of life I would have led there. My mind changed, and my life had to follow.
I rarely have trouble with anxiety these days. There’s the occasional stressful week when I have to give an exam to my 500 students, the occasional cry I have when I’m feeling homesick, and the occasional frustration when I feel that my life, even here, has become too routine. But those moments of stress, depression, frustration, and anxiety are present in every life. It’s natural to feel those things. They are meant to help us, to tell us that we need to prepare for or change something; without them, peace and happiness would be meaningless with nothing to exist in contrast to. When I was 19, I was leading a life of anxiety that stifled the happy moments. Now I’m leading a life of happiness that stifles the anxious moments. That’s the difference. It’s a difference I chose to pursue and one that has taken me four years to fully cultivate. I’m independent, I’m happy, and I’ve finally found peace in a life that was once consumed by the tumult of anxiety.
Never underestimate the power that one change has, no matter how small. That first change you make seeps into your bones, makes you crave another. It pushes you, gives you the wheels to ride out the rest. The changes I made in my life required time and patience. I didn’t sit down and make a list of everything I needed to do to make my life better. That’s not how it worked for me. I simply decided changes needed to take place, and after one, another naturally followed. Recognizing that my life wasn’t what I wanted it to be was the first step; the most important was devoting myself to the decision to change. It would’ve been easy to stay with the guy, to keep my job at the grocery store, to remain in a major I was unhappy with, to settle down in Illinois. But it wouldn’t have led me to the joyful, adventurous life I now find myself leading. It wouldn’t have made me into the person I’m now proud to be. And it wouldn’t have helped me overcome the anxiety that was holding me back from a life I’m now excited to live.
Has there been a moment in your life when you said no to something that eventually led to a major change?