“I see you. I hear you. And it’s okay.”
“I see you. I hear you. And it’s okay.”
Vanessa (Cantu) Dietmeyer, Assistant to the VP for Campus Life
I was running as hard as I could, trying to keep up with the other 7th graders who were passing me on the timed mile run around the soccer field. And then I felt my chest tighten so suddenly to the point that I collapsed. I remember my P.E. teacher picking me up and, with me cradled in his arms, rushing me to the nurse’s office. Then the fear that I was trapped in my body and couldn’t breathe fully kicked in; I hyperventilated so hard I blacked out. It was my first panic attack. The first of… many. I’ve lost count.
In the world of mental health, I was not an anomaly by any means; but as a 13-year-old who was heavily involved in choir and theater, I began to single myself out as someone who couldn’t keep up because my body couldn’t keep up. My journey with anxiety began as a physical one. Doctor-ordered “light exercise” was a thing, and an inhaler became a lifeline for my diagnosis: physically induced asthma.
The turning point was when physical exercise no longer served as the only trigger for these attacks. An intense stomachache, not knowing the answer to a question on a test because I didn’t study enough, or the stresses from an emotionally abusive relationship in high school were enough to send me spiraling. I had stepped over the line from occasional panic attacks into an unhealthy pattern of not-coping that really began to look a lot more like an anxiety disorder.
I did not seek out the help that I likely needed at the time in order for my mental health decline to be taken as seriously as I was experiencing it. My family – Hispanic, church-going Pentecostal-believing prayer warriors – prayed for me and often quoted 2 Timothy 1:7 (“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline”) often. This was the extent of my therapy. The merging of my mental health with my faith background was something that neither I, nor my family, knew very well how to approach. I was a dedicated student and graduated with 20+ other valedictorians (my high school was full of nerds), so, as long as I was doing well in that regard I, and my family, felt that the other areas of my life must not be suffering that much.
It has been a stretching process for me to embrace my need for therapeutic care on a longer-term basis, and to release the shame/stigma that was once a huge roadblock to my seeking help. Mental health awareness and topics regarding self-care and therapy has become much more mainstream, and this has helped normalize the experience that with which I – and so many others – live with. One of the most effective coping strategies I’ve adopted is naming (out loud) the feelings as I’m experiencing them. I’ve learned that I can soothe the parts of me that are freaking out by saying, “I am spiraling right now, and it’s okay.” Going to therapy regularly and treating it as an investment in my mental health has also been a positive outlet for me to process difficult emotions and life circumstances.
If we understand that anxiety flares up to serve a purpose (to protect us from a perceived threat), we can approach it more gently and honor our experience rather than beat ourselves up for living in a state of fear. I now personify my anxiety whenever it comes up as that scared 13-year-old Vanessa who just wants to run. With a deep breath, I look her in the eyes and say, “I see you. I hear you. And it’s okay.”
To those who can relate to any part of my story, know that I am rooting for your inner peace and mental rest. Give yourself the acceptance and space to ride out the wave of the spiraling feeling, knowing that it is only temporary. And finally, surround yourself with people who give you grace by looking you in the eye saying, “I see you. I hear you. And it’s okay.” The most important person who can give this to you is yourself.