One in four teens between 13-18 has an anxiety disorder. Teen anxiety can result in poor performance in school, missing out on important social experiences, and substance abuse, and parents often don’t recognize the symptoms. This is one teen’s story of anxiety and treatment.
by Alicia Tatar
I’ve struggled with severe anxiety for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I excelled academically, but I fell behind my peers socially and emotionally at a very early age. Middle school was the first major transition in my life. It had been extremely hard on me, while it hadn’t seemed to be nearly as hard on anybody else. I hated school, in a different way than most kids mean when they say they hate school. I really, really hated school.
So I started going to the nurse a lot to get out of class, and I started faking sick a lot to stay home. After my first year of middle school, my mom took me to see a therapist for the first time, and I got my first diagnosis: generalized anxiety disorder. Getting a diagnosis didn’t make any difference in my life. I already knew I was anxious and therapy at that time wasn’t helpful to me. I stopped going after not too long.
In seventh grade I was in the nurse’s office every week and missing a few days of school each month. I was anxious outside of school, too. I had started taking dance classes, but I’d skip them or make excuses to stay home. I loved to dance, but I didn’t want anybody to see me or watch me. I started to struggle with my self-esteem, and it was around this time that I started to become depressed. I stopped eating because I had no appetite, and I began to develop anorexic ideologies too. I made it through the summer with a lot of video games and some online friends.
Eighth grade was even harder. I missed an impressive amount of school and even more social opportunities. I almost failed gym because I was too anxious to change and participate. Nobody understood. My teachers would yell at me for being lazy, and my friends would judge me. I felt helpless and hopeless. That summer I started to harm myself. My sleep schedule and eating habits became worse than ever before. I never swam or did any summer activities because there were cuts all over my legs. With a lot of effort, I hid my self-harm from my family.
The transition to high school was absolutely unbearable. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I hurt myself, almost every day. I told myself that if I stopped self-harming I wouldn’t have anything to keep me from killing myself. By October, it got to a point where I was completely refusing to go to school. The thought of having to go to school completely shut me down, so I went to a hospital instead. At first, I cried and screamed for my mom to never take me back, but she did. I did an outpatient program for anxiety where I did cognitive-behavioral therapy for the first time, and it was really good for me. I learned all kinds of coping skills like listening to music, calling a friend, self-talk, writing, reading, sucking or chewing on candies, and stimming methods.
When I went back to school I was able to use coping skills while I was sitting anxious in class, instead of just being miserable and avoiding it. School became tolerable. What helped me most was getting good medications for the first time. My psychiatrist prescribed a daily drug for anxiety and depression, and the results were absolutely wonderful. I was still anxious and depressed, but it was an immense improvement with those meds. The rest of freshman year after my discharge was not easy, but getting help felt amazing and suddenly my whole life made sense to me.
That was a year ago now, and I just finished my sophomore year of high school. It was the best year I’ve had in a long time, I only missed five days of school! I’m on new meds that are working wonders for me. I also see a therapist whom I love, and I communicate with my parents and friends about what’s going on in my life. I’m steady and feel better than I have in years. There will always be relapses and setbacks, but I have resources and now I know how to take care of myself. I’m not scared of the future. My story is not a simple one. There have been suicide attempts, traumatic events, and misery that words can’t explain, but everything is temporary, and this too shall pass. I have been so blessed to be part of an understanding family, and the most important thing is having people who care about me. Today I am safe and happy.
Alicia Tatar is a junior in high school in Aurora, Illinois.