Words by Chelsey Milkovich

The upset, the downfall, the clear skies and everything in between conquering anxiety

leaf graphic
Illustration by Samantha Nold.

Start deadline story, review politics study guide, work on microeconomics homework, study for law discussion and quiz tomorrow, take vitamins, brush teeth, go to sleep, wake up, brush teeth, drink smoothie, go to the gym, go to class, go to work, go to second job, go home, study, turn in deadline story. A list this specific and precise would make for a mess I like to call an anxiety attack.

As I struggled to focus on my homework for microeconomics, each breath I took grew heavier and became more apparent. Is this a perfect competition? A monopoly? The sweat began to develop on my forehead. What am I going to make for dinner tomorrow? Wait, do I even have any groceries? Oh my god, I won’t be able to eat tomorrow. My hands began to tremble as I struggled to hold a steady grip on my paper. Do I work both jobs tomorrow? Oh my god, I can’t remember my schedule.

And that’s when the anxiety attack went from mental to physical, and my body was locked in the bathroom. I found myself curled into the fetal position for about an hour. Unfortunately, these little anxiety attacks were a typical day in the life of this young adult.

According to News In Health, a monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health, tens of millions of Americans of all ages suffer from long-term anxiety, or generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness found in children and have a tendency to carry on into adult life. This is where my story begins.

As a child, I was terrified to eat in front of my classmates at lunchtime. When we took tests, I would almost always finish first, but I wouldn’t dare be the first student to take his or her paper to the teacher. If a friend asked me to come over for a playdate, I would regretfully decline, in fear that I would be too uncomfortable leaving my family for the night. If I ever woke up late, I would rather stay home in bed for the entire day then walk into class 10 minutes after it began. The thought of my classmates staring at me as I walked through the door all the way to my seat made my heart race. From my early elementary school years to my freshman year of college, this was a problem that encompassed my life far too long.

At the beginning of each school year, from kindergarten to sophomore year of high school, the thought of starting school back up made my voice tremble and my hands shake. The bus ride to school was a nightmare if I didn’t have someone to talk to and calm me down, because the thought of getting to school and not having a single soul remember who I was always flooded my mind.

My mother worried about my anxiety every year until my senior year of high school. I was finally comfortable with my surroundings and didn’t care what anyone thought of me.

I had a great boyfriend and a caring group of friends that always kept me busy. Whether it be milkshake dates to Steak ’n Shake on Friday nights or lazy Sundays on my couch watching football games only the boys were interested in, there was always someone to make the days go by. Even with a severe case of senioritis, my grades were top notch. I had the typical high school senior attitude—I was unstoppable.

It wasn’t until my mother mentioned my growth that I truly noticed how well I was doing. My confidence was sky high, and my thoughts about every single detail about every single day no longer bothered me. Unfortunately, senior year was very short-lived because the next year when I decided to go away to college, I was right back to the anxiety-driven drawing boards.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 40 million men and women in the United States are diagnosed with anxiety every year. Almost seven percent of college students report having symptoms. Worrying about how to deal with this new lifestyle as an independent person is one of the biggest transitions students beginning college struggle with, and they often show multiple anxious symptoms. Between balancing school, multiple jobs, friends, family, being independent for the first time and being pulled in different directions all at the same time, it was clear to me that I was absolutely among the seven percent.

The day my parents dropped me off at college is a day I will never forget. The 20-minute car ride from my house to the University of Akron seemed like a lifetime with the rate my heart was beating. I remember counting each and every street sign we passed and each red light we stopped at to keep my mind off leaving my family. The moment we reached the parking garage, my heart raced so fast I swore I could see it beating through my shirt. The further we drove, the more I wished the parking garage would be an endless driveway so I wouldn’t have to be left alone to start my college career. The second my father found a parking spot and put the truck in park, my stomach dropped to the pit of my stomach. This is it.

The first month of my college career consisted of my counting steps to classrooms where I would arrive 20 minutes early just so I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone looking at me walk in the classroom. Every night I would call my mother at 5:35, approximately five minutes after I knew she would be home from work. It also gave me enough time to prepare and relax my voice so my mother wouldn’t be able to tell I was upset and anxious.

Unfortunately for me, she’s my mother, and she always knew how I was feeling and when I was putting on a show. She could tell I hadn’t made any new friends and that I had no desire to go out and meet people. The only reason I was showing up to all of my classes was to do something with my time. The time I didn’t spend in class was the time I spent sulking and worrying on my own. The worst part? I was worrying for no reason. There was never an explanation as to why I was so upset—why I was so nervous and anxious—and I didn’t understand why it had to be me. It was the first semester of my first year of college that I began to have the darkest thoughts that I needed to make disappear immediately.

The first time I talked to someone about my anxiety was rough to say the least. I didn’t know how to explain the problem because I was unaware of what the problem even was. I knew I was extremely worried all of the time and didn’t know how to handle it, and that was all the woman needed to hear. She was a volunteer at the University of Akron Student Recreation and Wellness Center. After talking to her and stressing that a prescription was the last thing I wanted, she suggested I spend a lot less time alone. She suggested I spend time in the recreation center, find something that interested me and learn to make a habit of it. That’s when I began running.

After I fit running into my schedule, I began to see my stress decrease. I was feeling better, I looked better and the anxiety began to drain. By the end of my freshman year of college, I was running multiple times a week, counting less of my minutes in the day and shaking a lot less. Sophomore year was looking easier than ever—or so I thought.

When I made the decision to move into an apartment with an old friend and a new, random roommate, I saw easy, independent living in my future. The day I met my random roommate is another day I will never forget.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the key to my first, brand new apartment right across the street from the University of Akron’s campus. As the knob turned, I grew more and more excited to see the new person I’d be spending the next year with. Our movie nights together, our dinners together, our mornings together—they all came to me so vividly. As the door opened and touched the wall, I was greeted by an empty living room. Confused, I slowly walked to the end of the hall where my bedroom was when I noticed the door next to mine wide open. There she was, my new roommate, sitting in her bed, completely uninterested in making my acquaintance.

“‘Sup,” she said.
“Hi! I’m Chelsey! So very nice to meet you,” I replied.
“Yup,” she said.

From then on, my random roommate never said another word to me again, and my other roommate, my old “friend,” decided to spend six days a week at her boyfriend’s party house. A strange living situation and a lonely apartment was all it took to rush the anxiety right back. I stopped running, locked myself in my room and worried about what I would be able to do to keep busy by myself. That summer and a few doctor’s appointments later, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder is defined as excessive, uncontrollable worry about everyday issues including school, work, money, friends and health, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. My sophomore year of college brought the worry out of me more than ever. I was worried about everything. What would I be eating for lunch? What time do I need to leave for class? How much time will I have to do my homework? What will I do in my spare time if no one can hang out with me? It came down to worrying about not getting enough sleep because I was kept up at night worrying about the things I was worried about. After explaining these thoughts to my mother, she said two words: “Come home.”

After I made the decision to move back home, I decided to transfer schools as well. I needed a fresh, new start. Kent State University was a close commute with an excellent journalism school, so it seemed nothing short of an easy decision to transfer. My grades improved, my health improved, my money management skills improved, so it became quite obvious that moving home was the right decision. While the first few weeks back home were the taste of comfort that I needed more than anything, it was never enough to cure my anxiety. That’s when I realized it was a disorder I wouldn’t be getting rid of.

To calm my nerves, I began running again. The running became a healthy habit I stuck with every day and made me further my interest in fitness. Before I knew it, I was working out five to six days a week, and I was in the best shape of my life. My mother awed at the slimness of my figure. She would tell me things like, “You’re a true inspiration, Chels,” or “You’re kicking that anxiety in the ass.” Those were the things that made me think I could beat my anxiety. That I could absolutely kick it in the ass. Little did I know, soon enough it would catch right back up.

It was a year after I began to lose weight that I went from 135 pounds to 103 pounds. A size 7 to a size 0. I slowly went from impressing my peers to worrying them, and it never even fazed me. Thinking back to my weight loss, it started as a healthy habit to improve my mood and slowly transitioned into an unhealthy obsession that made me more anxious than I’d ever been in my life.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, obsessive-compulsive disorder closely relates to anxiety disorder, which some may experience at the same time. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is defined as persistent, recurring thoughts that reflect exaggerated anxiety or fears and manifest as repetitive behaviors or rituals. Although I was never diagnosed with OCD by a doctor, I realized I began experiencing these symptoms when I was counting how many pieces of food I was eating down to every last carrot, pita chip and even granola chunks. It was a huge slap in the face the day I realized it was a problem and it needed to stop.

Two years since moving back home, I now live on my own. I beat my body image obsession, and I am now slowly dealing with my generalized anxiety disorder. Now a 23-year-old senior in my final semester of college, I have learned that the best treatment for any anxiety disorder or depression is learning to talk about it. When faced with a brutal breakdown, I went to my best friend who couldn’t relate. But he listened to me cry and scream—that was all I needed. One of the biggest downfalls of generalized anxiety disorder, for me, was learning how to be okay with expressing the problem. As soon as I expressed how I was feeling and let my emotion out, it didn’t seem too crazy anymore. The anxiety I’ve dealt with throughout my life has taught me one of the most important phrases: “Day by day.” Learning to take life day by day has made me feel more comfortable and content with the future and less worried about what I might face the next day, week, month or even year.

Take online quizzes, prepare questions for interview session, call mom and laugh about how much she hates Mondays. Get started on final paper. Yes! It’s sushi night! Meeting at 8, relax, take a deep breath and smile. Today’s its own day.