Love, Life Stories

My Desi family told me to get over my anxiety, because they didn’t believe it was real

Never mind the breakdown and panic attack I had over an A-minus.

“You’re just a worrywart, that’s all.” “You’re just a perfectionist.” “You worry too much.” “It’s normal.” “I worry a lot too.”

One of my earliest panic attacks was over Judgement Day – you know, the day that the world is going to end. The day we stand before God in all His glory – to be judged and either praised or punished for all of eternity.

I think I was between the ages of four and five when I hid behind the couch, refusing to look my mother in the eyes when she tried to reach out to me and pull me close to her. I screamed and cried, asking her over and over when the Day of Judgement was going to come and when I would die. As burning hot tears ran down my face, I asked her if I was going to hell. And even if I didn’t go to hell, what would happen if she did? How could heaven be heaven without my mama? My questions and panic were endless.

The craziest thing of all was that I was less than half a decade old.

My brain went into overdrive over things that many would say are trivial and not worth worrying over. Click To Tweet

It was around this age when my life-long battle with insomnia started. While my twin brother happily dozed off in the lower bunk below me, I would stare wide-eyed at the stark white ceiling, worrying my tiny little brain over things such as my homework assignments, whether I would run into another snake again while playing in our front yard, or my perpetual fear of clowns and what I would do if I ran into one (thanks a lot, “Clowns from Outer Space”). As I grew older, these insomnia bouts turned into full-fledged nights of staying up as my brain went into overdrive over things that many would say are trivial and not worth worrying over.

The craziest thing of all was that I thought this was perfectly normal.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and started college, however, that I began wondering whether or not this was normal – whether it was alarming that I was sleeping with my jaw clenched tight and my hands balled up in tight fists every night. I went to my primary care provider and she diagnosed me with “anxiety-induce chronic insomnia,” gave me some sleeping pills, and sent me on my way. Being somebody who doesn’t take pills, I gave up after a week of extremely drowsy but just as awake and anxiety filled nights. In retrospect, I wonder how she never even thought that perhaps I needed to see a mental health professional for the fact that I was up all night languishing over events long past or ones that never even happened.

I was sleeping with my jaw clenched tight and my hands balled up in tight fists every night. Click To Tweet

Perhaps she, like every other person who had an idea of the type of mental anguish I put myself through every day, thought I was just a worrywart.

My anxiety wasn’t just relegated to night time, either. I remember once when I was young, we were on the way home from a beautiful summer barbecue in a park with my extended family, and I started shaking and crying while having trouble breathing. It was a panic attack. When we reached my house, my cousins ran in and grabbed my mother, telling her something was wrong with me. They found me standing on the front porch. Upon seeing my mom, I told her in a panicked daze that something was very, very wrong. That somebody was going to get hurt really badly. That she should call our family in Pakistan, because I had this bad gut feeling that something bad happened.

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I was calmed down while also being told that I was being a little crazy and dramatic.

I didn’t want people to think I was being crazy or dramatic, so from then on, I would try to keep my worries to myself.

Instead, it was the obsession that kept me up all night. Click To Tweet

When I was in college for my undergrad, my anxiety focused primarily on my academics. Since I worked and attended classes full-time, I didn’t have to worry about insomnia – three to four hours of sleep a night were what I was going to get regardless. This time, it wasn’t endless worry about random things that kept me staring at the ceiling. Instead, it was the obsession that kept me up all night – the obsession to make sure every paper I wrote was spot on, every assignment was done to perfection, and every single word was read and re-read to make sure I understood and memorized the material for the next day’s lecture. I was obsessed with being the A student. This obsession was fueled by the anxiety of being anything less, because if I was anything less, I couldn’t make my dreams of becoming an academic come true. My anxiety over the smallest hint of lack of professionalism destroying my dreams kept me striving to be the perfectionist student that I was.

The craziest thing of all was that thought this was the right way to channel my anxiety – and everyone actually commended me for my obsessive perfectionism.

Never mind the breakdown and panic attack I had over an A-minus. Never mind the fact that my obsession and anxiety made me so obsessed over my academics that I would go months without seeing my friends and would easily give up a night of going out with my family so I could work on a paper that was already done – and not even due for another few weeks.

I could be labelled an imposter - somebody who only pretended to be smart and was actually too dumb to be there. Click To Tweet

It wasn’t any better when I went to Harvard. In fact, my anxiety worsened as I continuously thought I had to go above and beyond in order to prove that I was meant to be there. Panic gripped my heart every time I spoke up in class, turned in a test, or wrote a final paper, because in my mind, just one wrong slip, and I would be labelled an imposter – somebody who only pretended to be smart and was actually too dumb to be there. I graduated with all A’s – four of them which were A-minuses. Four panic attacks that sent me reeling into a world of dismay, because I was so convinced that these four minuses would keep me away from ever getting into a PhD program.

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It was here that I also developed a fear of public speaking. This fear stemmed from my anxiety, and one time, it got so bad that I lost my voice, shook uncontrollably, and eventually had to give up attempting to present my research. That moment still reels over and over in my head until this day.

I graduated from Harvard in May of 2014 – almost exactly two years ago. Without a main, focused channel for my anxiety, it has run rampant to every single aspect of my life.

It is these past two years that I have realized that I actually have an anxiety disorder.

What does this disorder look like for me today?

It is the moments that instead of living in the moment, my fear overtakes any rational thought I have. Click To Tweet

This anxiety is the panic that grips at my throat when I see someone calling from home, and I automatically assume that something bad has happened to a loved one back home. It is the infinite time I spend obsessively googling the chances of my future children having a handicap or being disfigured, because I’ve done some stupid shit to my body over the years. It is the crippling worry that I feel when my husband doesn’t answer my phone calls or texts when he’s been out on the motorcycle all day. It’s the feeling that grips my stomach when I say goodbye to him every morning, and my mind begs him not to die today. It’s the constant worry of not doing enough for The Tempest and being told that I can’t be a part of one of the most life changing moments of my life anymore. It’s the constant fear of me dying in a car accident every single time I buckle my seat-belt. It’s the moment I’m on the Metro and start panicking over whether I will die in a terrorist attack or another freak Metro accident.

It is the moments that instead of living in the moment, my fear overtakes any rational thought I have.

It is, 100 percent, the constant worry of every second of every minute of every hour of every single day that something bad, something terrible, something awful is going to happen any second.

It is these past two years that I have realized that I actually have an anxiety disorder. Click To Tweet

And THIS is not normal. THIS is not okay. THIS is not just simply being a worrywart, a perfectionist, or a little obsessive or controlling.

THIS is a disorder, and I had no idea what THIS was, because for the past 29 years of my life, I was made to believe that THIS was NORMAL.

This is not normal.

This is constantly drowning when you’re swimming in shallow water, because some uncontrollable force in your mind is locking up every ounce of fight within your body.

This is constantly fighting to breathe.

This is constantly fighting with your mind to live.

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Sehrish Sarah Khan-Williamson

Sehrish Sarah Khan-Williamson

Sarah Khan-Williamson is the Beauty, Fashion, & Weddings Editor at The Tempest. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (MTS, Islamic Studies ’14) and George Mason University (BA, English and Religious Studies ’11) – and will begin another two MA degrees at the University of Arizona this fall (Middle Eastern & North African Studies, Public Administration). She prides herself on being a global peace educator and leader for CISV, advocate for social justice and human rights, and her makeup skills.

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