I want to preface this post by saying that I am not a mental health expert. I’m just sharing my experience with anxiety so that you know you’re not alone and that healing is possible.
Growing up as a teenager 10-15 years ago, mental health was not the hot topic it is today. When I heard the words “mental health” I thought that it meant you had some sort of terrible disease like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Anxiety was a rare word reserved for people who had anxiety attacks, and only a few people knew what that actually meant. So I knew something was wrong when I, a person who loves sleep almost more than anything in the world, couldn’t fall asleep for several nights at a time. I just assumed it was a result of normal high school stress. I eventually learned what insomnia was - the hard way.
My parents never pressured me into becoming a doctor like your typical Egyptian parents (God bless them). They simply wanted me to do my best. I miraculously got accepted into a competitive high school where honors classes were the normal classes everyone took, and you were encouraged to take a few AP classes just for fun (I went to McNair Academic High School if you’re wondering). I was self-driven, set really high expectations for myself, and am my own worst critic.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what was keeping me up at night. It was a mix of everything I deemed a big deal then, but I honestly can't remember because it’s insignificant now. Every time I tried to fall asleep my worst case scenarios for practically any scenario would haunt me. Regret would eat me alive over the things I did that I wasn’t proud of. I would stress out about my grades, my extracurricular activities, my friendships, and just life in general. I would think I’m not good enough. That I would fail at everything. Pretty much every lie the devil leads us to believe about ourselves would play in my head over and over again.
As a result of not sleeping I couldn’t focus in class. Some days I just skipped school all together and stayed home in hopes of falling asleep during the day. I was highly emotional, and constantly fighting to hold back my tears over the dumbest things (one time I started to silently cry in the middle of taking a fluid mechanics quiz I certainly failed). I couldn’t keep a normal conversation with people. I would say insensitive things, and not think before I speak.
It wasn’t until the exhaustion caught up with me that I told someone about it. I was blessed to be friends with a servant, more like a big sister, in my church who happened to be a guidance counselor. Maggie would help me talk through things and calm me down. I owe her for keeping me sane in my difficult times.
Letting stress affect my sleep isn’t my proudest moment, and I wish I could tell you it only happened once.Truth is, it happened a couple of times in high school, twice in college, and once again later in my adult life. But every time I got stronger and wiser when dealing with it, and I knew exactly who I could reach out to for help. There are many healthy ways to deal with stress that I learned over the years to avoid insomnia (more details coming in a future post).
I know what I experienced can seem insignificant compared to your mental health struggles. I may not be fully able to fully understand your unique struggles, but without a doubt, I can empathize with you. So here are two simple things you can do when you find yourself dealing with anxiety, or whatever you’re struggling with.
Trust in the healing power of God. Yes, I know this is the overused Sunday School answer you’re tired of hearing, but if we try to defeat this on our own it simply won't work. We need to do our part (read #2 below), but recognize that we cannot overcome anything without His grace. After all, He does say, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30)
Talk to someone! This isn't just my advice. There are books, research, and experts all saying the same thing. Find yourself a mental health expert. I’m not talking about your best friend that knows all your moods, although they might be very helpful at providing moral support (my best friend once came immediately to a swimming meet I had on a Saturday morning because I called her crying after being up all night). You have to find a real professional. Your school most likely has a guidance counselor you can talk to. Your church might have someone certified in that field that can help out. Your parents can help you find a professional that is covered by your health insurance. There's also this great online service from a Coptic Orthodox Christian psychiatrist that you can check out: Simply Psychiatry. Another online counseling resource is Christian Center For Counseling.
While it’s great and highly beneficial to talk to your Father of Confession, he might not be able to help you if you need clinical help. So you can start out with talking to him and he can direct you to the right person. There were countless times I showed up to church in the middle of an insomnia episode crying to Abouna.
As girls we like to talk about anything and everything, but when it comes to our own personal struggles sometimes we’re embarrassed; and it doesn’t help that many cultures view mental health as a taboo. The thought of “What will they think of me?” cripples us and makes us hold back. I’m here to tell you to get over it! You are not the first, and you won’t be the last person who needs help. So put on your big-girl shoes and start your healing journey!