Anxiety has had a strong grip on me for as long as I can remember. When I was much younger, it manifested in the form of me being overly critical of myself in all ways imaginable. I became extraordinarily upset whenever I felt as if I was failing, even if the problem was as small as missing just one question on a spelling test. My dad would tell me to dig deep, that he knew I was stronger than the voices in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. This mantra was absolutely magical to me because it always helped me persevere, and I have continued to use it throughout my whole life to get me through even my worst days.
However, the nature of my anxiety changed as I grew older. After a long streak of severe depressive episodes in high school, what I had previously called extreme perfectionism morphed into an overbearing monster that dictated my every move at UVA. Severe panic attacks became a routine part of my daily life as my timid demeanor clashed with the intensity of the UVA environment. These attacks were so debilitating that I started isolating myself and scheduling my entire life around the probability of having one. While everyone around me was working hard to build their professional resumes, it felt as though the only experience I was gaining involved letting my mental illness determine who I was.
I cycled between depression and anxiety and was perpetually exhausted. I never felt normal—instead, most days I felt like I was trying to sprint underwater. Nevertheless, I still told myself to dig deep. I thought that letting anyone know what I was going through would forever label me as weak. Maybe if I continued to push through and ignore the severity of the problem, I would eventually find the strength to overcome the anxiety on my own.
I could not have been more wrong. I did not begin to heal until I realized that digging deep does not have to mean pretending that your struggles do not exist. It does not mean that you have to face your obstacles alone. Sometimes, it means summoning all your strength to admit that you can’t do it alone, and that’s okay. Mental illness is not indicative of weakness, and seeking help from friends, therapy, or even medication is not cheating.
Healing is an arduous and complex process. There is a lot of ground to cover between the “I’m not okay” and the “I feel like myself again”. If you need to reach out in order to win your fight, allow yourself that freedom because there is strength in admitting that some problems are too big for us to handle alone. There is strength in facing even your most painful obstacles head-on in therapy instead of trying to simply schedule life around them. There is strength in learning how to be gentle with yourself, and there is strength in enduring the seemingly interminable process of recovery.
I used to think UVA was a symbol of my weakness. I thought that I was failing at college or that there was something seriously wrong with me because I was struggling. In my final year, I have come to realize that UVA is actually a symbol of my resilience and growth. If you’re reading this, know that you deserve to recognize your own resilience too.
You may not be feeling it now, but you are so remarkably strong. You have survived 100% of even your worst days and you are more than capable of overcoming whatever it is that you are going through. There is nothing easy about struggling with mental illness and there is certainly nothing easy about recovery. But, there is immeasurable strength involved in allowing yourself to be vulnerable— so dig deep and continue to fight, but do not feel as though you have to do it alone. Because you don't, and you never will.