Guest Blogger, Holly Kooi: Opening Up About Anxiety

Holly Kooi is an American expat, wife, and mother living in Vienna Austria. She is the Founder and Executive Director of U!Shine Vienna, an outreach community created to promote mental health. Her blog, 'Holly Kooi', has been widely recognized by not only her followers in the states but also from all over the world, and was recently named one of the "Six Best English-Language Blogs" by the magazine Der Standard, the New York Times of Austria. You can find Holly's blog here:  http://hollykooi.com/
 

A year ago, with the help of several close friends and True Gold Magazine, I opened up about my struggle with anxiety. In the post, I detailed how back in 2014-2015, I came to be diagnosed with postpartum-anxiety quickly followed by a panic disorder and depression.

There was a fearful part of me that assumed most friends and family would leave me in a thick fog to navigate mental illness on my own; that shame by association would take hold and I'd be left holding my exposed vulnerability by myself.

But as anxiety typically does, it presented me with false reality as friends and family poured in from all sides with support, love, and similar experiences. This told me two things: One, people are amazing and we were made for each other, especially in times of struggle. And two, I think in general, we want to talk about mental illness. We want to normalize it. We want to make it okay to talk about because all of us either know someone who deals with it or we deal with it personally and we're tired of pretending otherwise.

Along with learning what I believe to be truths about people as a whole, I've also been on a personal journey to learn more about myself as someone who, for the foreseeable future, deals with anxiety. These are some common, key lessons I've learned thus far that I'm hoping will speak to you, too:

You and I can, and do, and will get better

In seasons of anxiety, I, often, do not think for one moment that I will ever feel like myself again. But, eventually, that season comes to a close and I feel better and stronger than before. Not every day is perfect, and I certainly have days or weeks where anxiety takes the wheel, but I know now that it is possible to recover and feel better.

This doesn't happen through sheer willpower. It happens with help and vulnerability, perhaps the two most uncomfortable words in the realm of mental illness. 'Help' and 'vulnerability' have been associated with 'weakness' when, in fact, the opposite is true: to ask for help and demonstrate vulnerability is 'strength'. Remember that.

If you have days or seasons like mine in which you are all but certain you will never feel like yourself again, I hear you and understand you and encourage you to:

Setting visual boundaries may be what's best for your and my mental health

Will and I have come up with the term "Holly Proof" which means the following:

Any book, movie, TV show, online article - basically anything I can read or watch - that contains a topic, detail, or story that could launch my brain into anxiety overdrive is off-limits. This is because of my tendency to overly empathize with a person (or animal) experiencing pain, tragedy, trauma, fear, and so on. Not only do I empathize with them, but I also become them. I live out their pain in my brain which triggers a domino effect of anxiety. Sometimes I feel this emotionally, physically, or both, which can then lead to a panic attack.

Truth be told, this has been one of my biggest personal struggles to understand in order to accept myself. I love to learn. I love to know. I love to understand people and I want to be with them and love them and hug them. And when I can't do that, I tell myself I'm ignorant. When I can't watch a movie or show that's something deeper than a comedy because my brain might have me become the struggling or traumatized character, I beat myself up for being predictable. When I can't read a popular book because of that one story in the first few pages, I feel stupid.

But what I'm slowly, painstakingly coming to terms with is this:

I am not choosing what may seem like blissful
ignorance to be comfortable; I am choosing
specific boundaries to be healthy.

Because I am a person who feels and analyzes and thinks through everything - every tear, every smile, every text, every heartache, every email, every celebration; because I am a person who lives in a challenging world filled with billions of people feeling billions of emotions, I have to be careful with what I let in, even if that means I don't watch the latest news or read a life-changing book.

If you are an empath like me and feel all the feels all the time and shame yourself for not being able to handle it all, I hear you and understand you and encourage you to:

You and I may be sensitive, but we still have a purpose

Early on in this journey of mental illness, I was highly aware of my purpose in Vienna: to bring love to those in pain.

Yet as I recovered from panic and depression, I couldn't fathom how I could possibly help anyone anymore with my fragile, sensitive brain. But over the years, and with a lot of help, I've learned how to create emotional boundaries for myself so I can still help and listen. Now, I do a much better job of not taking on the burdens and pain of others while still being able to listen and empathize. I try to view my sensitivity as a sort of people-loving superpower rather than view it as a weakness. And I'm also learning that we - humans - better relate to others who don't claim to have it all together. I tried to claim and own that myth for years, but not anymore.

If you are a person who is emotionally and mentally sensitive and unsure of what to do or how to help, I hear you and understand you and encourage you to:

Sometimes, you and I may need medication and/or counseling

A woman I know said, "We all become disabled, somehow, at some point."

She didn't say this to be the Deborah Downer of the room, but rather, to shine a light on the physical realities we face as humans so we can give each other a little bit more grace when one of us isn't functioning quite like we used to. An avid runner may blow out a knee, a talented singer may lose vocal range, a brilliant engineer may fall victim to Alzheimer's, a renowned comedian may deal with depression the moment the mic turns off.

Humans are breakable and sometimes need medicine to feel better in some form or fashion. That's all there is to it. I don't know why there is such a stigma attached to medications and counselors that treat mental illnesses, but it exists, and it shouldn't because it is keeping women and men of all ages and backgrounds from even so much as exploring these routes as helpful options for treating their mental illnesses. If I sound a little upset here, it's because I am. I was in this group of people who resist help for too long out of shame, embarrassment, and fear. I fought my doctor tooth and nail on this, and when she asked me why I was so hesitant to be prescribed medication and see a counselor even though I knew it meant mental and emotional relief, I blurted out, "Because what if people find out!"

We all become disabled, somehow, and some point. And sometimes, at that point, if it's right for us, we need to accept that prescription or that appointment with the therapist.

If you are a person who is experiencing feelings of shame, fear, and embarrassment either because you're currently or thinking about taking medicine, or you're currently or thinking about seeing a counselor, I hear you and understand you and encourage you to:

You and I get it. Let's help others get it, too.

Above isn't an exhaustive list of what I have and am learning about myself, but the lessons I've chosen to share are the ones I think through and struggle with the most often. My hope remains that the men and women who have taken a few minutes to read through my mental illness experiences, as well as the experiences of others, will, in turn, either share their own experiences to whatever degree they feel most comfortable, or, in the very least, reflect on the topic of mental illness and become an ambassador for those silenced and shamed by stigma.

Ask questions. Challenge cultural norms. Find your people lost in the fog of mental illness. Tear down the walls built around medication and counseling. Empower your people to get the help that's best for them. And listen,

listen,

listen.

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