“I hated myself as a teenager. A diagnosis helped me understand why’

A February 2023 CDC report found that nearly three in five teenage girls in the United States constantly feel sad or hopeless. One in three people had seriously considered attempting suicide, an increase of nearly 60% from a decade ago.

Although this report draws attention to a mental health crisis, it provides statistics without putting a face to the problem.

I am one of the teenage girls who have experienced overwhelming depression and anxiety during the pandemic. I was a member of the class of 2020. I had no prom, no high school diploma, no college freshman beyond Zoom classes. My life was frozen and fractured.

Carrie Berk is a journalist and social media creator with 3.8 million followers on TikTok. His first solo book, My Real-Life Rom-Com, will be released in September.
Nigel Barker

At the start of 2020, I was on cloud nine. I lived in LA for a month, attended New York Fashion Week, and went on a date with a guy I liked. But then the pandemic hit.

For a while, I did surprisingly well in quarantine. I temporarily moved to the Hamptons and took advantage of the alone time to write, shoot videos and work on my fitness regimen.

But in August, something in me changed. It was a feeling that was hard to explain. I was sitting on the couch when suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath. It didn’t make sense, I was watching an ’80s rom-com with my mom – what the hell could be going on? I asked my dad to take me for a COVID-19 test, but he was negative.

That’s when my mom suggested it might be anxiety.

For me, anxiety was just another word for stress, like the butterfly feeling I felt preparing for a final exam. I was never taught about mental health in school, so I struggled to understand what was happening to me. It was completely different from the jitters before the quiz.

My breathing was shallow and I struggled to find my balance because I felt weak. The anxiety started out as purely physical symptoms. I woke up fragile, my hands were shaking under the covers. At one point I was so shaking in the morning that my breakfast fell out of my hands.

I didn’t know that anxiety could manifest both mentally and physically, until the unexpected revelation from a friend. She had struggled with anxiety and depression to the point of hurting herself. I wanted to be there to offer support. But when I saw the scars on his wrist, the world stopped.

“Is this what happens to anxious people? ” I thought.

Starting that evening, I had occasional flashes of intrusive thoughts. My brain would place terrifying messages in my mind. It wasn’t until the winter holidays that these thoughts became more of a concern. I obsessed over them, wondering why they were there, if they were real, and why they wouldn’t go away.

One day, I found myself staring at the ceiling of my bedroom. My heart leapt out of my chest, pounding out of control as it struggled to find its way home. My mind was spinning. 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.

Carrie Berk Action
Carrie graduated from high school in 2020. She didn’t have a prom or graduation ceremony. Her freshman classes in college were held on Zoom. Stock image.
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The fear of what I might be capable of terrified me. It was like I had a disease that I couldn’t get rid of. Even though I wasn’t physically sick, I felt like my brain was infected and needed healing.

The confusion was frustrating. A constant track ran through my mind where I tried to rationalize my way out of the situation. When I was most afraid, I withdrew into an escapist thought: “Life is beautiful. Your family and friends love you. You don’t really want to hurt yourself.

But my intrusive thoughts seemed so real. Most of the time it felt like there was a hole in my head that I couldn’t crawl out of. People tried to talk to me, but it was like I wasn’t really there.

My surroundings were blurry. I was stuck in my brain, detached from the world. I did everything I could to feel more “alive”. I filmed dozens of TikTok drafts, started cooking, and watched more Marvel movies than I could count. Still, I felt like a robot, methodically going through my day. I forced myself to move on. 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 fine. “My brain is noisy,” I would 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 in my head made sense. Every fun experience was followed by an overwhelming flood of emotions. I suddenly remembered all the anxiety I was dealing with, as if my brain was making sure I didn’t forget she was there. It was as if I had forgotten how to be happy. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I looked at images of me from the past, and I didn’t recognize myself.

The eighteen-year-old body I lived in seemed strange and unfamiliar to me. I was looking for a ray of hope, a sign or a reminder that I was still the same girl as 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 started to understand what I was going through.
When I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), all the pieces fell into place.

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In August 2020, Carrie began experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety. Stock image.
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My therapist told me that OCD not only causes physical compulsions — think about over-cleaning, washing your hands repeatedly, or organizing your kitchen — it also places unwanted thoughts in my brain.

Learning about OCD gave me a sense of comfort. It helped me to realize that there was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t the only one feeling this, although I often did.

I now know that anxiety is a series of ups and downs. One day I’ll just have a few moments with my intrusive thoughts. The next day, I’ll be distracted and unfocused every hour, internally screaming 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, it’s impossible to forget what I’ve been through. The difference is that I now have the tools to fight 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 have become a stronger, wiser and more compassionate person. I now prioritize personal growth and mental health above all else. I proved my power to myself and I listen to my heart when I need to breathe. Only you can control your emotions. Sure, my parents and my therapist were a great rallying team, but I had to be my own cheerleader.

I’ve come a long way since that day when I sat shaking on my bed. At first, I wasn’t able to vocalize what I was going through or even say out loud the scary words that were flooding my brain. I thought I was alone in my struggles, but now I realize that everyone is going through something. I’m still a work in progress. Intrusive thoughts occasionally arise and physical compulsions persist as well. But I have grown a lot. I’m proud of how far we’ve come.

My anxiety made me hate myself and my life. I didn’t know how to get out of bed in the morning. I did not want. The sun was shining, but I only saw the darkness of my thoughts. I looked up at the sky and prayed for motivation. I was looking outward for help when I really should have been looking inward.

As soon as I recognized my anxiety and took active steps to understand it, I began to see my life in a positive and more empowering light. I started to fight for myself.

The above is an excerpt adapted from Carrie Berk’s first solo book, My Real-Life Rom-Com (Post Hill Press; Simon & Schuster) which will be released September 19, 2023.

All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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