Anxiety Queen: This BuzzFeed producer is changing the face of anxiety

Earlier this year, I hit an emotional brick wall.

For most of my life I’ve dealt with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Although there have been rough patches, for most of my 20s I had been taking a medication that worked for me and seeing a therapist regularly. I felt good for the first time in a long time.

Everything changed when I had a panic attack unlike anything I had ever experienced before. There was no crying, no sweating; It didn’t look like a “normal” panic attack. I suddenly became completely detached from my surroundings, and felt as though I was dreaming. Nothing seemed real, and I froze, tense with the belief that I had officially lost my mind.

In late 2017, I was diagnosed with derealization and depersonalization, dissociative disorders that completely threw me for a loop. I became angry that after years of managing my depression and anxiety, they shape-shifted into something beyond my control. With the ringing in of the New Year, I threw my hands up in surrender and called for a time-out from life.

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During a leave of absence from work, I fell into a YouTube video spiral and came across Kelsey Darragh, a producer at BuzzFeed whose videos have been streamed by millions of people around the world. The 28-year-old is funny, outgoing and charming, the “cool girl” you want to have drinks and swap wardrobes with; she also happens to be the only person I’ve ever come across who has experienced dissociative panic disorder.

In 2015, Darragh created a video for BuzzFeed for mental health awareness week, revealing her history with mental illness, specifically anxiety and panic disorder. In the video, Darragh describes her first dissociative panic attack when she was 17. “My Pill Journey” was the video that gave me goosebumps. Like me, Darragh was on an airplane when she had her first dissociative panic attack. I listened as she described feeling as though she was detached from her body, living in what she described as “a video game.”

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

I began following her content closely and was introduced to an entire online community that has been cultivated by Darragh’s willingness to share her story with the world.

While most people would be satisfied with the legions of social media followers and YouTube fame, Darragh is using her platform to create a dialogue about living with chronic pain and acting as an advocate for human rights and mental health. Through her content with BuzzFeed, her podcast, “Adult Sh1t,” and her clothing line that raises money for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Darragh is the Anxiety Queen giving hope to an entire generation.

I spoke to Darragh while she was on vacation with her boyfriend at Orlando Studios in her home state of Florida. Like in her videos, Darragh is energetic and bubbly despite talking about some of the darkest times of her life. She’s eager to share her story, but never preaches about the one way to cope with mental illness. She just wants to talk about it, normalize it, and end the stigma that keeps so many people from getting help.

“It was this thing that followed me everywhere to the point where I was afraid to literally do anything,” Darragh said of her anxiety. “I became an agoraphobe and was so afraid to leave my house for months on end. I was too afraid to talk about it if I was dating someone new, I couldn’t tell my teachers about it. I would fake being sick all the time. I think I faked three grandmother’s funerals to cover up panic attacks because I was so desperate to have someone vouch for what I was going through. It was one of those things where people say, ‘just shake it off’ or ‘just wait it out’ but the things I was experiencing weren’t going away.”

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In the 10 years that she’s been living with anxiety, Darragh was misdiagnosed as bipolar, and saw firsthand the dangers of Big Pharma, as doctors freely wrote prescriptions for numerous psychiatric drugs. Despite her struggles, she credits therapy, doing her own research, and social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr with helping her make sense of her illness.

“The internet was a big part in finding the confidence to talk about it (anxiety) because at that point, I knew I wasn’t the only person that was going through this.”

Over time, Darragh learned to take living with anxiety “day by day” and became more open with the people in her life about her mental health. When she began working at BuzzFeed, a place she calls “open and understanding,” she felt ready to create content that reflected her experiences with anxiety.

“I knew I had to be a fire starter amongst people my age for it to happen. It was scary as hell. I thought I was going to be judged,” she recalled. “I wondered if I was doing this right and giving justice to the topic. I didn’t know. I wasn’t cured, but there was an insane fire within me, maybe it was anxiety, that was pushing through it. I knew that if I didn’t start talking about it publicly I would have gone ‘crazy.’”

The response to her video, “My Pill Journey” was overwhelming. When asked if she had set out to become a mental health advocate and activist, I could almost hear Darragh shaking her head on the other end of the phone.

“I had no idea the response I was going to get,” she said laughing. “So many people reached out to me and said, ‘This is my story, this is my journey.’ There was so much support and connection that I received. I had no choice!”

Darragh suddenly became a go-to person for young people, in need of advice and guidance.

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“I would always say, ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m still figuring my own stuff out.’ But I knew I could be supportive and a voice with the platform that I have, and the following I have,” she said. “It’s the least i can do. If I don’t use my platform for that, then this is a waste.”

The YouTuber received a tidal wave of attention in May of this year after she shared a list she created of ways her boyfriend, music producer and DJ Jared Lucas a.k.a. Kap Slap, can help her during a panic attack. It was retweeted more than 12,000 times and was picked up by news outlets internationally.

The list included tips like, “Find my meds if they’re nearby and make sure I take it,” and “Know that I’m scared and won’t be able to explain why, so please don’t freak out or be annoyed with me.”

“After that list came out,I just thought I would put it out there for everyone to see because I wish i had this in my early 20s and teens,” she explained. “I wish I could have given this to my parents and my friends — and thought maybe people can give me tips, too.”

When Darragh talks about her partner, she touches briefly on the very real fear that many people with anxiety and mental health issues have about dating: That anxiety and depression make you unloveable, that it’s too much for a partner to handle.

“I’m lucky that he was even able to understand it, and listen to it and it didn’t turn him away from the relationship,” she said. “He was just like. ‘Oh, ok. It’s just a part of you. I’ve got weird stuff about me too.”

The list became a resource, not only for Darragh and her partner, but for the thousands of people online who joined in on the conversation and started conversations of their own with the people in their lives.

“I was so embarrassed I wasn’t able to articulate what was happening to me at the time. After that list came out, I just thought I would put it out there for everyone to see because I wish i had this in my early 20s and teens. I wish i could have given this to my parents and my friends — and thought maybe people can give me tips, too.”

Whenever talking to anyone with mental health issues, the subject of taking medication can quickly become a story swap between war buddies who lived to tell the tale. Darragh is open and honest about how she stopped taking all medications nearly two years ago when she began getting weekly acupuncture treatments as a form of alternative medicine.

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“I always tell people that I’m not on medication but I absolutely 100 per cent believe in the power of medication,” she said, noting that medication has benefitted her in the past. “I absolutely needed that medication. I would not have functioned, I probably wouldn’t have survived without it. I always tell people that whatever works is fine – so long as it’s not harmful to you or someone else. If it’s video games, working out, going to the movies — whatever makes you feel better, just do it.”

Despite her stance on not taking daily antidepressants, Darragh told me that she does carry Klonopin with her — just in case she suddenly experiences a panic attack.

“I’ve learned with panic disorder that a panic attack can’t last forever,” she told me. “The sooner I can nip it in the bud, the better. If breathing exercises work then I’ll do that, but if Klonopin is going to take it out the fastest then, girl — you best believe I’m taking a Klonopin! I’m not going to consider myself a failure for taking it. I’m not going to consider it a set back.”

In talking to Darragh, I was reminded of the feelings I had when I first watched her videos and began listening to her podcasts: There is hope for people living with anxiety. It’s been just over a year since I had my first dissociative panic attack, and while they do occur less frequently now, I can’t help but go back to feeling like I’ve gone “crazy.”

“I’m trying to make peace with those days,” she told me. “My way of finding relief is to have someone, an internet stranger, my mom or anyone say, ‘I’ve been there.”

Girl, I’ve been there.

We ended our call by talking about the future, what we feel needs to be done to help people living with mental health issues. It turns out the answer begins with talking and sharing our stories.

“No matter the age, race or gender – we should be able to have a non-judgmental conversation about anxiety and recognize that it affects different races and different classes in different ways,” she said. “There needs to be affordable treatment options for people. It should be a priority. Having visibility about anxiety from a place of love rather than judgement because it’s a scary thing to talk about. But if you come from a place of love with these conversations, it helps. Being believed and having conversations is the bare minimum we can do.”

While my journey with sharing my story about anxiety is just beginning, Darragh is formulating plans to help promote alternative forms of therapy, and shine light on the problem of pharmaceuticals in the United States.

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“Western medicine is slowly starting to come to the realization that Eastern medicine – yoga, acupuncture and mindfulness has something to it. Pushing that message is something that I wish I had available to me earlier. Pushing that narrative is my next big goal.”

We said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch. Darragh went back to her vacation and I sat making notes in an empty conference room about our conversation.

Anxiety manifests itself differently for so many people, it’s impossible to paint everyone’s experience with the same brush. To have people like Kelsey Darragh, who is successful and vibrant share her experience with the world helps not only further the conversation of mental health, but helps those struggling to remember that there is hope.

I walked away knowing that even on my very worst days, there’s at least one other person in the world who knows how I’m feeling. Our conversation was honest and brief, but on that day it was enough.

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

Abacus Data, a market research firm based in Ottawa, conducted a survey for Yahoo Canada to test public attitudes towards anxiety as a medical condition, including social stigmas and cultural impacts. The study was an online survey of 1,500 Canadians residents, age 18 and over, who responded between Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.53%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region.