If there’s one thing I learned in my past year of higher education, it’s this: Never, ever go on WebMD. Do you have a headache? A runny nose? A bruise from that time you were running to class and tripped and fell and were really glad that no one saw, but then you looked up and of course there’s one guy looking at you and laughing and you have to do that awkward little smile and wave and walk off pretending like you’re not in extreme pain? Yeah, that definitely never happened to me either. Well, whatever your symptom, a quick trip to WebMD will assure you that there is a 1,000% chance you have cancer and you’ll be dead before sundown.
This is the rabbit hole I found myself in this past summer. I get headaches frequently, but after a week of mild but persistent head pain that didn’t resemble my usual migraines, I, being innocent and foolish, decided that typing my symptoms into Google was the best course of action. Suddenly, my eyes were pummeled by phrases like “tumor” and “aneurysm” and I went to bed that night, trembling between my sheets, not sure if I would wake up in the morning. That WebMD page was stuck in my head like an annoying catchy song you don’t even like but can’t stop singing (think “Wrecking Ball,” or almost anything else by Miley Cyrus).
But for all the ranting I could do about WebMD (a lot), that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the reason why I couldn’t shrug off my Google results as extreme and improbable, why I became convinced with a frightening and absolute certainty that I was dying. I want to talk about why even an assessment from a real doctor couldn’t convince me that I was healthy, why I spent the following weeks in a state of pathetic, gut-wrenching anguish that didn’t begin to diminish until I (begrudgingly) tried therapy. In short, what I want to talk about is anxiety.
For some people, anxiety is just a synonym for stress. A job interview, a final exam, a growing pile of debt — these are all undeniably stressful situations, and I’m sure that many people experiencing them would describe their state as anxious, all sweaty palms and shaky knees and butterfly stomachs. But the anxiety I’m talking about isn’t something that’s always tied to a specific instance or looming event. In many cases, the root cause is entirely unclear. It isn’t a feeling that goes away easily. There is no acing the job interview or passing the exam. The anxiety I’m talking about, the kind I, along with so many others, tend to experience is an all-consuming feeling of dread, panic and sadness that colors all aspects of life. It takes hold of your mind and sucks the joy out of everything you usually find pleasurable. I specifically remember, during the height of my anxiety, eating a piece of pizza and not feeling even the slightest change in my mood. I was eating pizza and it wasn’t making me happy. That’s when I knew things were serious.
The WebMD debacle this summer was my breaking point, but it wasn’t my first brush with anxiety. I’ve always been the kind of person who frets for hours over the tiniest decision. Choosing a restaurant, for example, can send me into a nauseated state of lunacy. Knowing that I’m running just five minutes late to anything puts me on the verge of tears. Once, I was forced to take a window seat on an airplane (I always choose aisle) and nearly gave myself an ulcer thinking about what would happen if the woman next to me was asleep and I needed to go to the bathroom. Let me make this clear: I didn’t need to go to the bathroom. The woman next to me was wide awake. But if I did and if she was, then I’d be faced with the choice of having to suffer in silence or wake up a sleeping stranger. This thought alone had me in a state of pure, unadulterated panic. (Spoiler: She never fell asleep and I never had to go to the bathroom. As per usual, my worrying was all for naught.)
I say all this not to elicit sympathy, or to make light of the situation, but because I know now that I am not alone in this experience. For most of my life I’ve kept my mouth shut about the crazy worries and delusions bouncing around in my head, and consequently have never received any help in dealing with them. I put up a cool, collected front and got used to people describing me as “chill” and “laid-back.” I assumed that if I opened up about what I was feeling I would sound insane, and maybe I do, but that’s okay. I also assumed I was the only one living and thinking this way, and I’ve realized that I’m not. If you’re like me, (here’s where it gets sappy, but I mean every word) know that you’re not alone, and that you have the power to control your own mind and the thoughts that occupy it. Talk to someone you trust, tell them your most ridiculous worry and let them be there for you. Simply opening up and getting those thoughts out into the open where their true ridiculousness becomes apparent is perhaps the best possible thing to do. Live your life. Eat some pizza. Enjoy it. And for the love of all that is good in this world, stay off of WebMD.
Sophia Crisafulli made it past sundown, in case you were wondering.