“You’re supposed to write about something you want to break free from.”
I looked at my strip of paper. I could have written school, or team drama, or any number of superficial things that I didn’t like in my life. But I went on that trip to be honest. I went so I could try to move forward. I took a breath and touched my marker to the page.
I guess you could have called that a cry for help, but nothing happened. Now, I don’t have friends. I go to school to say I’m normal. I’m still in sports and clubs. I still go to church. I’m set to graduate this year.
My mom found out in a church service that I was struggling. She asked what I wrote on that paper. And, because I thought she’d always be there for me, I answered honestly. She blew me off. Apparently, a kid who appears “normal” can’t have anxiety. Because I’m in sports and clubs. I sing and speak in front of people. I’m able to go to sleepovers and be around people. I can go to a store and not end up a mess on the floor. I have future plans. When I tried to explain, she told me that I was perfectly normal, and just a teenager who was shy. That nothing was wrong.
But I mean, that couldn’t be less true. Because every day I struggle. Every day I question the people who say they’re my friends. Are they really? Or is it just fake? I look at my teachers and wonder if the work I handed in was good enough.
There’s this part of my brain that tells me I’m not good enough. Because if I’m able to get straight As in school, shouldn’t I be able to talk to people? Shouldn’t I be able to stand in front of people without shaking? Shouldn’t I be able to look up from the floor? So maybe I’m not good enough.
I’ve thought about quitting my sports, but it’s expected of me, and I don’t want people asking why I left. What if they know? Because this isn’t something I can talk about. Because if my own parents don’t believe me, or like the idea of me having a mental illness, then other people aren’t going to be able to accept it. I know my generation is supposed to be accepting, but I know us. And I can’t let them know this.
So, I go through the motions. I act “normal” as if nothing is wrong. Sometimes, I think about just letting things end.
But, what you just read, it’s only part true. I did write anxiety on that piece of paper. My mom did find out in church. She leaned over, asked what I had written when our pastor told the congregation about the activity we did. When I whispered back, anxiety she looked at me, completely dumbfounded. Total shock covered her face, and fear must have covered mine.
But she believed me.
So, let’s rewind a bit. All the way back to elementary school. I must have started to feel anxious sometime in first grade. But wrote it off as being shy. Because I was seven and didn’t know what anxiety was. Come third grade, I wasn’t exactly bullied, but I also wasn’t fully left alone. Then, fourth grade. The first time I can look back and think, wow, how did everyone miss that sign? Every morning, I would get sick to my stomach for no apparent reason. My brother and mom would laugh it off, because I was ten and what ten-year-old wouldn’t try to get out of school. They’d sing some song about the “Monday morning sickies”. So, I’d probably cry a bit, and then go to school. I got used to feeling sick when I had to go back to school. And I didn’t like my brother and mom laughing at me, so I stopped telling them that I felt sick. When I talk to my mom about this now, she tells me that she didn’t think anything of it. That she hardly remembers it. Because, by no fault of her own, she wasn’t looking for the signs.
And what signs was she going to find? All through elementary school I was pretty normal. I mean, I was in dance, basketball, a church choir, I got good grades, and I had hobbies. I went to overnight camps and sleepovers. I babysat and talked to people. I even started to read in church as I got into late elementary school.
Somewhere in there, I must have realized that what I felt, and still feel, every day had a name. Say it with me folks because it’s not a bad word. Anxiety. Yup, that’s right. A mental illness. Because that’s not a bad word either.
So, on a church trip early my freshman year, I wrote anxiety down on a piece of paper to be put into a chain with dozens of others. Then, mom found out, and started to try to figure out what I was feeling.
She doesn’t get it. The idea of anxiety simply doesn’t make sense for her. She can understand that I struggle but, can’t really imagine it. So, in the early stages of her finding out about my anxiety, there were a lot of conversations where I just tried to explain how I felt, and she was confused or shocked. Because this wasn’t even on her radar of things to be watching for.
There’s a stigma around mental health that, of course, affected my parents. Mom says that she doesn’t even remember talking about mental health issues when she was younger. She says that when she thinks of mental illness, her mind goes to school shooters. She was nineteen when the Columbine High School massacre happened. That’s what she thinks of right, wrong, or otherwise. She says that before me, she never would have thought of a fully functional person.
I suppose this stigma is why I kept it hidden for as long as I did. Because I didn’t want to be the weird kid. The other kids I knew who said they had mental illnesses were the “weird kids” in class. I didn’t want to be ridiculed like they sometimes were. My family had never talked about it, so I didn’t know what to say to them or how they’d respond.
But, despite the immediate thoughts that my mom had, she’s been willing to learn. And my dad gets it, he really does. We think he’s got a bit of the same issues I do. From the first moment I told my mom about my anxiety, she was shocked and confused but, she still tried to learn. She tries to understand what I’m feeling and really, that’s all I can ask for. And, during our talks about mental health, our bond has grown. My mom knows everything about me.
During freshman year of high school things started to get hard. My best friend and I were growing apart and I was lonely. I found a group of friends, but at that point it just wasn’t the same. Things started going downhill. My mental health was at an all-time low, and I needed something to change.
The group of kids I was with was what we decided to change. Because rather than changing me or them, we’d change my environment. So, I skipped a grade. It took months of hard work, online classes, and five weeks of summer school, but fall of 2020 I started school as a junior. That was also when I got on medication.
Meds for mental health have another stigma around them, and it’s honestly horrible. My doctor put it like this to my mom when we started talking about getting me on something. If someone has diabetes, they take a medication. If someone has high blood pressure, they go on a med. If someone has heart disease, they go on medication. If something isn’t working right, you take a medicine to fix it. Mental illnesses stem from a chemical error in the brain. Medication can try to fix that.
Starting junior year and quickly starting meds, I had a brand new start. I was with a new group of people and was getting help. And that change has been great. I’m a happier, more outgoing person. I’m able to talk to people without there having to be an objective in the conversation. I’m able to make friends.
When mom and I talk about the way things have worked out, we always end up talking about our relationship. It’s a unique one, to say the least. I tell her everything, and she listens. She talks to me like I’m actually a person, not just a kid. But, we respect boundaries. She asks how I’m doing and if things have gotten better, worse, or stayed the same. She makes sure I’m not thinking about killing myself. And if I was, she’d be there to try to help me fix it. While she checks up on me and my mental health often, I have a lot of freedom. The bond we have helps to grow trust. I’m able to go out with my friends and be away from home. I get to spend time alone. All because she’s able to listen and try to legitimately attempt to help.
With the help of my parents, trusted adults, and friends over the last few years, I’ve been able to get comfortable with who I am. I’ve figured out some coping mechanisms that I use all the time. On the daily, I talk about my anxiety and mental health. Because if I don’t then it’s just going to weigh on me and get worse. I hang out with my people. The people I can trust to be there for me. When I’m in a stressful, or anxiety inducing situation I’ve started doing grounding exercises. I tap my fingers and count things in the room. Or, I’ll start doing mindless tasks. If and when things do get all the way into a panic or anxiety attack, I have to focus on my breathing. A lot of the time it helps me to hear someone talk. I tap my fingers together and count the taps.
I’m able to do all of those things because my parents and family try to help me. When I told them I had anxiety, they didn’t shy away from the topic. They took in on full force to try and help me. Even if it’s not something Mom fully understands, she tries to get me to be as happy as I can be. Even if Dad has just dealt with a lot of similar things for his whole life, he wants me to get help I need.
I was able to cry for help, and they answered. But that’s not the reality for everyone. Most kids don’t talk to their parents. They don’t ask for help. Or their parents don’t want to believe that their kid can have a mental illness, even if it’s ok to struggle.
My name is Morgan Souza, and I’m one of the lucky ones.
(This article was written by my daughter. And she’s done amazing. Showing that people with mental illness can overcome it and be successful)