Dealing With Anxiety: My Story + 5 Key Points
It was May 2013.
I came home on a Friday afternoon after work, unusually tired. The house was particularly quiet. My husband, Travis, was working nights at a local area hospital as an x-ray technician, and I didn't have any pets at that time. The moment I walked into the house, I realized that I needed to get straight to cleaning - which was nothing new. I had never been - nor probably ever will be - a great housekeeper. But more importantly, I thought maybe the activity and accomplishment would keep divert my thoughts. I had been in a loop of negative internal talk to myself all day long. Which, also, was nothing new.
I retrieved the vacuum from the hall closet and began to use it. Soon, I was interrupted by a slight tightening in my chest. Did I imagine it? No, I didn't think so. Then, I began to suddenly feel very dizzy. Totally freaked, I stopped the vacuum and sat on the couch, just to collect myself. Nothing seemed to be calming my insides down. I eventually I went and laid in the bed. I remember telling my Mom, who had just texted me to see if I wanted to go to the movies with her and my sisters - "No, I don't think I should go, I'm not feeling good at all". I laid in the bed, still for a long, long time. I was afraid to move, afraid of what would happen to me. In waves, my body began to physically exhibit all kinds of things. My blood felt like it was boiling, and my breathing became labored, and my heart raced within my chest. I began to manifest thoughts of heart attacks, strokes, and sudden death, which made breathing harder and harder. I was so, so scared - I just kept thinking that here I was dying, and there was no one to help me, because I was alone.
I didn't know it then, but I was having my first panic attack. Or, what I remember as my first.
I mean, there were times in high school, when I had what I coined in my mind as a "mental breakdowns" over seemingly nothing. Hormones, being a girl - that's what I attributed those moments of crying, shaking, and hyperventilating to.
And then there was one time, a few years later, I did something uncharacteristic of me in the middle of the night, making choices that I would have never had made. It didn't hurt anyone, really just my pride - but it is still hard to think about. [Some things I like to keep to myself]
Those are just two examples, vague as though they are, of how anxiety has been following me around my whole life.
In fact, I really can't remember a time when I didn't worry about something. Even as a small child, I worried. I stressed over a lot of things, even though I usually kept quiet about it. I always was unusually concerned about what I was doing, where I was going, what was happening to me, what was happening to people I loved, how people were reacting to things I said. If I was doing the right thing, making the correct choices, how would my choices effect my future, how could I make sure things were going to be ok? Am I dressed right, do I talk right? Am I being imposing? Will we all get in a wreck on this interstate? Will my Dad come home from work if there's an earthquake in the middle of the night? [actual thoughts from age 8]. What will happen to me when I die, what would it feel like? How can I please others, how can I always be favorable to everyone, how can I avoid things, how can I deter, how can I mediate, how can I make this better, how can I save the world.........
If you think reading that is exhausting, it's just a small snippet of how someone with generalized anxiety disorder operates on a daily basis. What I go through on a daily basis.
That weekend in 2013, my Mom ended up taking me to the local rural clinic after I told her the next day I was for sure having a heart attack. They gave me an EKG to check my heart, which was fine. I remember distinctly the nurse practitioner asking me if I had anxiety, or if I worried a lot. I also remember lying to her and telling her blatantly no. I knew I was lying. But for whatever unknown reason, I wasn't ready yet to admit it out loud. It felt intrusive somehow - to let people in on something I had seemingly "managed" for so long, that was routine to me. And really, and more importantly, I was not ready to admit it to myself that I had a problem. It was easier to carry on and pretend like nothing was wrong, to not deal with it. I was THE MASTER of high-functioning anxiety.
After that weekend, time marched on, but more and more significant life changes came to me in waves. Depression set in [yes, anxiety and depression do go hand in hand a lot], and I found myself having panic attacks on a regular basis. Then I got my first dog, my little Penelope, which felt like more responsibility than I knew what to do with - and I broke.
I could no longer hide my anxiety. I could no longer pretend. I knew if I didn't get help, the consequences would destroy me. Figuratively, or maybe literally.
With encouragement from my parents and Travis, I found myself at another doctor's office, spilling my guts about my anxiety and depression. The doctor was unaffected, which I was not prepared for. We didn't know each other - I didn't really have a primary physician at that time - but I thought what I was saying had to be important, right? But when I left with just a Prozac prescription in hand, and no further understanding of what to do, I wondered why I had ever come. I remember driving home, and I just felt so stupid. 'You're just overreacting, you always do this, look at you!' the anxiety whispered to me.
Then a month after, I had a really bad first experience of personal one-on-one therapy. No thank you, I'd like to not follow in your hippie ways, ma'am.
And, not long after that, I went on a visit to an actual psychiatrist. I waited 3 hours in a cramped waiting room to get to see him for 5 minutes, where I heard him say unemotionally say, "youjust have generalized anxiety" - and throw some more prescriptions at me.
It makes me so frustrated now, however many years later, to think of these experiences. All I needed was a little help, a little ounce of understanding - but was met with indifference, weirdness, or they made to feel like my problems were petty. In comparison to some, I'm sure they were. But my experiences turned me off from addressing anxiety further for a long while. The breaking point had passed, life was getting more routine and familiar, and I just worked every day to ignore the 400 lb gorilla in the room that never seemed to really leave.
My panic attacks still occurred at random, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping, but I trudged through. Some weeks were good, some were bad. I would struggle then forget, struggle then forget. Over and over I looped, in a continuous pattern, convincing myself that this was normal. It was just me being me. Anxiety had taken residence in myself so much, that I could barely separate myself from it anymore. It felt like it wasn't just something I had, it was something I was.
Tension inside me built and built, until finally a circumstantial flirt with weight loss surgery landed me at another therapist office two years later, who is still my therapist today. It was the services and relationship that I needed for my mental issues - it offered me hope. I didn't have the weight loss surgery [another story for another time], but I gained a professional that I felt cared about my struggles and was willing to really help me.
I want to say I stayed true with trying to manage my anxiety after that, but no - I had to go through the denial cycle a couple more times before things started to stick.
I educated myself a lot about generalized anxiety disorder, and all its related illnesses, such as aforementioned depression. I eventually started seeing my therapist on a regular basis. I was able to find a physician who was less indifferent towards my plight and get on a medication that actually helped. And finally - finally - I was able to say out loud to my very closest friends and family that I was not okay- and accept that not being okay, was, well ... okay.
Maybe I'd just had enough. Maybe I just grew up, became more mature. But whatever it was, whatever switch that flipped - I am SO THANKFUL that I sought proper help. God eventually lined up things so that a desire could be established to address what was holding me back. From life, from happiness. I've said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again - life is so much better when you are trying!
I really condensed down my story to simpler moments, because it would be too much for you to read, and a lot for me to write.
And I hope I don't sound like I've had some terrible life, because between moments of struggle, I have been blessed so much in my 31 years. But the struggle is real. And I want to be a story of hope.
What I really want to say about anxiety
If you are struggling with it, or think you may have it.....
- You have to live life as though you were your best friend. You'd never let your best friend beat themselves up over something they cannot control. You cannot help it if you have a mental illness, such as anxiety. Like an inherited physical illness, it's just happened. There was and is nothing you could do to prevent it from happening to you.
- The sooner you're able to admit to yourself [and others close to you] that you have anxiety issues, the sooner you'll be able to improve. Waiting around for anxiety to dissipate on its own just does not work - IT ALWAYS COMES BACK. And, statistically, gets more prevalent as you age. Accept that you have anxiety, and own it, but don't be defined by it - it's just a thing you have, not who you are.
- You need to see a therapist, one whose style of help and personality compliments your own. Medication is also important, but I can't stress how wonderfully helpful it is to have someone who will listen to "your crazy" and help you sort and manage your thoughts and concerns, no matter how irrational. Not to mention, they will teach you how to trick your mind, establish new habits and reduce physical manifestations of anxiety. Extra tip: don't just inherently accept the first therapist you try out - if it's not working with a therapist, then move on. They have other clients to see, and you have other therapists to meet.
- Just because you don't have panic attacks or depression, doesn't mean you don't have anxiety. Obsessive and irrational thoughts that interfere with your life and/or relationships frequently - that's anxiety. You're just a few steps away from a physical manifestation, and believe me, you don't want that if it can be avoided!
- Realize that underlying health concerns also can cause anxiety. I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which goes beyond it's namesake, and is notorious for a lot of awful things [Perhaps one day I will write about it]. But one of which is higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Sometimes I feel very alone in my little world of thoughts, worry and fear. But there are over 40 million people with an anxiety disorder in the United States. If you believe you have anxiety, and are hesitant to get a diagnosis and treatment, realize YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that, repetitively. You're not the only one who battles!
I wish I had known what management felt like, back in 2013. Am I perfect now? Absolutely not. I battle the onslaught of negative, intrusive, illogical and repetitive thoughts every single day, in some form or fashion. But it doesn't interfere as much with my life anymore. I've gained some confidence in myself and recognize the control that I am allowed to have over myself. It's freeing, and much more comfortable, and I don't dread life near as much. It has caused me to make goals, achieve goals, and create new outlooks and dreams. It has even improved some relationships in my life.
If you're reading this, and you're in the same type of boat on the sea of struggle, I hope and pray that you get the help you need, that you deserve. God will provide you resources for your sail - but it's up to you to make the trip successful.
As one of my favorite famous women said,