‘I Hated Myself as a Teen Girl. A Diagnosis Helped Me Understand Why’
A CDC report in February 2023 found that nearly three in five teenage girls in the United States felt persistently sad or hopeless. One in three had seriously considered attempting suicide—a near 60 percent increase from a decade ago.
While this report calls attention to a mental health crisis, it provides statistics without putting a face on the problem.
I am one of the teenage girls who experienced crushing depression and anxiety during the pandemic. I was a member of the class of 2020. I had no prom, no high-school graduation, no college freshman year beyond Zoom classes. My life was frozen and fractured.
At the beginning of 2020, I was on cloud nine. I lived in Los Angeles for a month, attended New York Fashion Week, and went on a date with a boy I was into. But then, the pandemic hit.
For a while, I coped surprisingly well in quarantine. I made a temporary move to the Hamptons and was enjoying the alone time to write, film videos, and work on my fitness regimen.
But in August, something inside of me shifted. It was a sensation difficult to explain. I was sitting on the couch when suddenly, I couldn’t catch my breath. It made no sense, I was watching an ’80s romantic comedy with my mom—what could possibly be wrong? I asked my dad to take me for a COVID-19 test, but it was negative.
That’s when my mom suggested it might be anxiety.
To me, anxiety was just another word for stress, like the butterfly sensation I felt when cramming for a final exam. I was never taught about mental health in school, so I struggled to understand what was happening to me. It felt completely different from pre-quiz jitters.
My breathing was shallow, and I struggled to find my footing because I felt faint. The anxiety began as solely physical symptoms. I’d wake up feeling fragile, my hands trembling underneath the covers. At one point, I was so shaky in the morning that my breakfast fell out of my hand.
I didn’t know that anxiety could manifest itself mentally as well as physically—until an unexpected revelation from a friend. She had been struggling with anxiety and depression to the point where she harmed herself. I wanted to be there to offer support. But when I caught a glimpse of the scars on her wrist, the world stood still.
“Is this what happens to people with anxiety?” I thought.
From that evening on, I had occasional bursts of intrusive thoughts. My brain would place terrifying messages in my mind. It wasn’t until winter break that these thoughts became more of a preoccupation. I obsessed over them, questioning why they were there, if they were real and why they wouldn’t go away.
One day, I found myself blankly staring at the ceiling of my bedroom. My heart leaped out of my chest, beating out of control as it struggled to find its way back home. My mind raced in circles. It seemed impossible to find peace as intrusive thoughts entered my brain. It felt like there were two voices in my head, one telling me to believe things would get better and the other saying there was no way out.
The fear of what I might be capable of terrified me. It was as if I had an illness that I couldn’t shake. Although I wasn’t physically sick, it felt like my brain was infected and in need of healing.
The confusion was frustrating. A constant track ran in my mind where I tried to rationalize my way out of the situation. When I was most afraid, I retreated to an escape thought: “Life is great. Your family and friends love you. You don’t want to actually hurt yourself.”
But my intrusive thoughts felt so real. Most days, it felt like there was a hole inside my head that I couldn’t crawl out of. People tried to talk to me, but it was as if I weren’t really there.
My surroundings were blurry. I was stuck inside my brain, detached from the world. I did whatever I could to make myself feel more “alive.” I filmed dozens of TikTok drafts, took up cooking, and watched more Marvel movies than I could count. Still, I felt like a robot, methodically going about my day. I forced myself to move forward. Some days, just existing had to be enough.
I was uncomfortable being alone with my thoughts, so I attached myself to my family, who continually reassured me that everything would be okay. “My brain is loud,” I’d say to describe the intensity of my anxiety. I expressed how my mind felt like it was “on fire.”
No matter how much my parents reassured me, nothing stuck. Telling me things would get better was like filling a cup with a hole in it. I couldn’t find faith—there was only fear.
I tried my best to find courage, even when nothing inside my head made sense. Any fun experience was followed by an overwhelming wash of emotions. I suddenly remembered all the anxiety I faced, as if my brain were making sure I didn’t forget it was there. It was like I forgot how to be happy. Sometimes, it felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I looked back at images of me from the past, and I didn’t recognize myself.
The eighteen-year-old body I was living in felt strange and unfamiliar. I was searching for a glimmer of hope, a sign, or a reminder that I was still the same girl I was the year before.
Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, it was hard to bring myself to ask for help. But once I started therapy, I began to understand what I was experiencing.
When I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, (OCD), all the pieces fell into place.
My therapist told me that OCD does not just cause physical compulsions—think excessive cleaning, washing your hands repeatedly, or organizing your kitchen—and was also placing unwanted thoughts in my brain.
Learning more about OCD gave me a sense of comfort. It helped me realize there was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, even though it often felt like it.
I know now that anxiety is a series of peaks and valleys. One day, I’ll have just a few moments with my intrusive thoughts. The next, I’ll be distracted and unfocused every hour, internally shouting at my anxiety to “go away.” The turning point in my battle was realizing that it wasn’t going to go away, and it never will.
Now that I’ve faced my fears head-on, there’s no forgetting what I’ve gone through. The difference is now I have the tools to tackle my anxiety when it arises. Some days will be better than others, but I know now that joy is still possible. My happiness may have been temporarily lost, but it was never destroyed.
I’ve emerged a stronger, wiser, more compassionate person. I now prioritize personal growth and mental health above all else. I’ve proven my power to myself and listen to my heart when I need to take a breather. Only you can control your emotions. Sure, my parents and therapist were a great rallying squad, but I needed to be my own cheerleader.
I’ve come a long way since that day I sat shaking on my bed. At first, I wasn’t able to vocalize what I was experiencing or even say the frightening words flooding my brain aloud. I thought I was alone in my struggles, but I now realize that everyone is going through something. I’m still a work in progress. Intrusive thoughts pop up occasionally, and physical compulsions linger as well. But I’ve grown a lot. I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
My anxiety made me hate myself and my life. I didn’t know how to get myself out of bed in the morning. I didn’t want to. The sun was shining, but all I saw was the darkness of my thoughts. I’d look at the sky and pray for motivation. I was looking outwards for help when I really should have been looking inwards.
The second I acknowledged my anxiety and took active steps to understand it, I began to see my life in a positive, more empowering light. I began to fight for myself.
The above is an adapted excerpt from Carrie Berk’s solo book debut, My Real-Life Rom-Com (Post Hill Press; Simon & Schuster) which will be released September 19, 2023.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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