Earlier this year I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I had been struggling with my physical health for months, and had a stomach illness that made me feel sick all the time. Because I could barely eat anything and lost a lot of weight, leaving the house became my biggest fear. I was afraid I was going to throw up in public. Ultimately, that situation took its toll on my mental health. I had to take a break.
When it is just too much
Even before I was diagnosed, I had been stressing out about college. I was on summer break here in Brazil, but I could feel my time running out. By the end of February, I’d have to go back to class and face my senior year at the university.
I wasn’t nervous about the classes, as I have been a straight-A student my whole life. School was never a problem to me. What scared me was the thought of feeling sick in college and what would I do if I had to throw up in the middle of a lecture. I feared what would happen if I had a presentation or a test to take and I couldn’t go because my stomach hurt.
I felt ridiculous, but I tried
When classes started, I skipped the whole first week because I was too scared to go. Afterwards, I convinced myself that I should at least try, so I took a stress ball to class with me so I could fidget with it instead of pinching my arm like I normally would do due to my growing anxiety. I also took a big bucket that I’d carry around the campus just in case I felt sick and didn’t have time to find a toilet. Doing these things made me I feel ridiculous and miserable, but I tried.
I went to class a total of four days, in three weeks of trying.
I received my official diagnosis
Then one day I had my first major panic attack. I was home, stressing out about everything, asking myself how I was going to carry on with college for the whole year. Suddenly, it happened. I ended up in the hospital during the attack, and needed to be put to sleep with intravenous medication.
The next day I received an official diagnosis, but of course by then I already knew I had serious anxiety issues.
It doesn’t mean you are weak or lazy
The reason why I tried so hard to force myself to go to college was that I felt doing otherwise would mean I was weak. The thought that something that was ‘only in my head’ could control me made me feel ridiculous.
What I failed to understand back then is that having a mental illness is not a sign of weakness. It’s the opposite; it shows that you have already been strong for too long. I had been struggling with my physical health for over six months when anxiety started to creep in. I was no weakling. I had been fighting a long battle, and my mind was just tired of it.
If you are in a similar situation, I want you to understand something. Mental health is just as important as physical health.
Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you are weak. Wanting to take a few days off work or school doesn’t make you lazy. It means you are human.
What I did
For me, taking a few days off wouldn’t be enough. The year 2017 was meant to be my final college year, and that meant I had to deal with six months of internship, a ton of final exams, and the process of researching and writing an undergraduate thesis.
All that while I was still struggling with my stomach issues, which the doctors hadn’t yet figured out. I had no idea when I would get better and what kind of treatment I was going to have to go through.
After the panic attack episode, I finally decided I couldn’t do it.
I knew my health issues would prevent me from doing my best, and that was not acceptable to me. I’m a perfectionist and I take my studies very seriously. If I couldn’t do it right, I’d rather not do it at all.
I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take that decision. Despite being a college student, I still live with my parents, who financially support me. So I decided to take a year off college. I’ll go back and graduate next year.
You might not be so lucky, but even if you can’t take a full year off to recover, a few days or even just one day can make a huge difference.
Don’t be afraid to take time off work or school, if that’s what you need to feel recovered and refreshed.
Self-care is not selfish
My parents did everything in their power to prevent me from taking time off college. They thought staying home would be bad for me, and I could get depressed. I understood they wanted to see me graduating this year. They had been waiting for it since I started, back in 2014.
It was their dream.
They told me that.
It was another reason why I forced myself beyond my limits: I didn’t want to be selfish. Not only with my parents but also with my classmates. We did everything together in college, exams, paperwork, presentations, and I didn’t want to leave them alone.
However, I learned the hard way that putting ourselves first sometimes is not an egoistic thing to do. If you are not well, you won’t be able to do much for others in the first place.
My parents now agree that the best thing I could have done was taking this time off to recover. Also, my friends survived without me and are now on their way to graduation. I’ll make sure I am in the front row to watch them receiving their diplomas, and all is well.
By every means, be considerate of others. Your boss, your colleagues, your friends, and your family deserve that you are open and honest with them. However, don’t let them hold you back from doing what you need to do to recover. You have no reason to feel guilty.
It’s just like the Buddha once said, ‘You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.’
What To Do To Make It Comfortable
Even after you convince yourself that you need to take a break, you might not feel comfortable with that decision. Here are a few actions you can take to make it easier for you to accept your needs.
Commit to Coming Back
Set a date for when you are going to go back, then let go of all worry until such date.
To me, that meant committing to go back to college next year. Making a point of telling everyone I was going to do it, I also wrote it down in my journal so I never forgot. I promised myself I was going to go back the next year.
Knowing that, I made my best to stop thinking about college altogether and focus on my recovery. It was difficult at first as I couldn’t stop thinking about all the classes I was missing and about how my friends were doing without me. However, after a while I managed to let go of it.
So, if you decide you are going back to work tomorrow or next Monday, or whenever, then it’s decided. Try not to think about it anymore. If it helps, write it down on a paper and sign it. Now, it’s official. You are going back. This is just a break.
Get Professional Help
Go see your doctor or your therapist. This is going to make you feel better. I mean, you don’t feel guilty when you need to leave early because you have an appointment with the dentist, do you? This is the same thing.
Besides, by seeking professional help you know you are trying to get better. If anyone asks you, you can tell them, ‘Yes, I am ill, but I’m receiving treatment’. It’s not like you’re staying home all day doing nothing. You’re taking action, and that’s important.
Make It Meaningful
Even if you decide not to go to therapy and you feel you just need to stay home and relax, it’s ok. You just have to make your time meaningful. Make it count. Do something you enjoy. Find out what you need to do to renew your energies.
During the first few months of my recovery, I didn’t work or study. I spent my days making art, I learned a new drawing style and wrote a few short stories. I also made sure I was having fun by reading books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Then I watched a couple of great movies. Most importantly, I enjoyed myself.
I didn’t feel like I was wasting time, as I was doing what was necessary for me to feel better. There was no energy to work, and I needed to recharge. I knew art could help me with that, and I was being kind to myself.
You can do that, too. Whatever you need to do to feel better, do it. Be unapologetic about it.
If you feel you need to spend all day binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix, do it. You’re not going to be doing this forever. The commitment has been made by you to go back to work/school later, when you are feeling better, so it’s ok to do what you want with your free time for now.
Sometimes, taking a step back is necessary for us to be able to move forward. I know it’s a cliché to say that, but it’s true. The world never stops, and it has convinced us that stopping means defeat. It doesn’t. The bird who stops flying because it is too tired to stay in the air is just preparing to fly even higher later.
Taking this year off college was the best decision I have taken, as I got to recover and to become a much stronger person than I was before. I now feel much more prepared to face the challenges that my senior year is going to present me.
Everyone needs a break from time to time. You deserve to take yours, too. You’re going to feel better, and by feeling better, you are going to BE better.
For everyone. Especially yourself.