For the most part, mental illness doesn’t stop me from living the life I want. It’s only a part of me. I did well in school, hung out with my friends on the weekends, and worked at a local restaurant to make money for college. I hated my job as a server. I didn’t like the job when I was making money, so I definitely wasn’t thrilled when I found out I had to volunteer to work the restaurant’s annual lemonade stand with a new hostess I didn’t know, another waitress, and her three young kids.
On the night of my volunteer shift, I put on a white dress and a fake smile. I tried to make the best of it, but children downing cups of sugary lemonade and running around on a 100-degree North Carolina evening are a dangerous combination. About an hour into my shift, the youngest kid threw up a few feet away from me after his sixth cup. Most people would have thought it was gross. Me? I was just faced with my biggest fear, which I’ve had since I was nine years old.
“No one likes throwing up,” people say to me. I understand that. I have emetophobia, a phobia that causes intense anxiety around vomiting. I absolutely hate it, and the idea of me or anyone else vomiting sends my mind into an uncontrollable spiral of anxious and irrational thoughts. After witnessing the kid’s puke, I felt myself start to fall apart.
“Be right back,” I said, and disappeared into the restaurant.
I walked through the front doors into the chaos of a Saturday night dinner rush. People waiting tables, servers running past with plates, and loud guest conversations ambushed my already over-stimulated brain. I looked around desperately for a place to escape.
I spotted a chair in the back of the restaurant, thinking that I just had to make it there. I focused on the chair and started walking toward it. It seemed to be getting farther and farther away. The room spun and every sound intensified, then muffled together into a loud ringing noise. I broke into a cold sweat as I walked past tables of families enjoying dinner.
As I got closer, one of my coworkers sat down in the chair and started organizing receipts in her server book. I had to get away from everyone.
I changed directions and passed my friend Kendahl on the way to the back of the restaurant.
“You okay?” she asked.
I nodded. I’m always okay, even when I’m not. I lie because I don’t want people to worry about me, and I don’t want them to think I’m looking for attention. Kendahl called after me, but I didn’t turn back. The tears had started, and I didn’t want her to see me cry.
I hate the person I become during a panic attack. I’m embarrassed of that girl. I don’t ever want anyone to see her, especially if I want those people to respect me. They’ll think I’m weak, and I try so hard to be strong. Even though I hated my job, I loved my coworkers. I didn’t want them to see the pieces of me that I try so hard to keep hidden. If they saw me having a category five panic attack, everything I’m ashamed of would have been out in the open.
The only private place in the restaurant during a Saturday night dinner rush was the walk-in refrigerator. I kept my head down as I wove through the chefs on my way back. I pulled open the stainless steel door and collapsed to my knees the second it swung shut behind me. My body shook uncontrollably as I tried to find something to focus on. My eyes darted from the five-gallon buckets of butter to the crates of diced tomatoes, and finally settled on the boxes of frozen bread stacked to the ceiling. I quickly breathed in the 38-degree air as my heart pounded in my chest and I tried to stop my head from spinning. I was afraid I might pass out, or even worse, that I would throw up. I knew I wouldn’t, but I was still terrified. I closed my eyes and told myself I was fine. I’m fine. These are two of my most overused words. They’re a lie.
Later that night, Kendahl texted me.
“Don’t worry about tonight,” she said. “If you ever need a hug or anything when you’re stressed, just let me know. I got you baby girl.”
I read the text three times. It genuinely surprises me when people are that nice. I couldn’t believe it. After too many experiences of people being judgmental or rude about my mental health, I wonder why anyone would want to be nice to me.
Kendahl was one of my favorite people at work. She always had a joke or a story to tell, and she could make anyone feel comfortable. That night she wasn’t just nice to me, like she had been since the day I met her. She was actually there for me.
I don’t know if Kendahl even gave much thought to the text. She didn’t have to. To me, that text meant everything. She helped me feel less weak, less embarrassed, less stupid. She made me feel less alone. She built up my confidence after I kept telling myself that my coworkers all thought I was a pathetic attention-seeker. I just wanted to fit in at work, and I didn’t think having a panic attack in the cooler was the way to do that.
I responded. Even as I thanked her, I worried that I was handling the situation incorrectly. I didn’t want to bother her. As the conversation continued, I realized that Kendahl actually cared. She wanted to make sure that I was okay.
“Any table can wait a second for you,” she said, and made me promise to tell her if I ever needed a hug or someone to talk to when I needed help. She told me that if anything ever happened again, she was there for me. I’d always wanted someone to say that to me.
Embarrassing symptoms like those on that night often pop up when I least expect them. I am no stranger to mental illness. Over the past nine years, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobia, bipolar disorder, OCD tendencies and depression.
I rarely tell people. I don’t want everyone’s attention on my mental health. Sometimes I’m afraid that people would think I’m just desperate for sympathy, or that I’m making excuses for my behavior. My anxiety keeps me from talking about my anxiety.
There are people out there who understand. They are the people who understand that mental illness doesn’t make someone weak. They see that it’s isolating. It’s impossible to know what goes on inside someone’s head. Fighting a battle in your brain is exhausting and inescapable, but just a few words can help a person much more than you might think. Be there for people. Build them up; they deserve it.