The other day, a cousin called me kind of out of the blue. (I love it when this happens, at least if it's a relative I adore, and I especially adore this one! She might even be my favorite. Don't tell the others!) She said, "I was just driving to work, and all of a sudden I felt like I was freaking out, just super nervous for no reason at all. I mean, I know enough to know this is anxiety and kinda how it works, but that doesn't help when it's happening."
My heart sank. My poor sweet cousin. She apparently has the disease I've been battling. The evil a-word. Mine started with no warning when I was 32, right after our third failed adoption. (I haven't a clue if those things are connected or not, but my mother's anxiety also began in her early 30s.) My cousin's seems to have started right now, at 28. At the risk of sounding over dramatic, I have to say I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but especially not on someone like her. She's kind and sweet and super positive and funny and smart, and she got way more pretty genes than me, and she's pretty much a rockstar in every possible way. She also lost a parent a few months ago.
I did my best to talk her through it. I assured her it would go away soon, and we talked about finding distractions. She actually has a degree in psychology, so she understands the mechanics of it, but I can vouch for the fact that that doesn't make it any more pleasant to deal with in the moment. It can be an evil, nasty monster sometimes. I told her to think about sitting on a beach and watching the waves. I told her to take a few slow, deep breaths. I made a couple of stupid jokes. I told her about the technique I just learned recently in therapy - a 'body scan' exercise which helps relax the entire body. "When the body is relaxed, the mind will follow," says my therapist, who is magnificent. And, sometimes to my chagrin, is also always right. Actually, I could write an entire post about what a perfect match she is for me, but I'll save that for later.
After a few minutes, my cousin started to feel better. She had been able to distract and calm herself through an anxiety attack, which is not an easy or enjoyable feat. I was really proud of her. Somewhere in the course of all that, she'd said "I know you have anxiety, because you've posted a couple articles on Facebook about it, so I called you because I thought you would understand how I am feeling."
I should probably say here that as I get into writing about my struggles with anxiety, which is a daunting thing all by itself, that I am writing from only my own experience. Everyone experiences this differently and I obviously can't speak for anyone but myself. So when I generalize here, please know I'm really only speaking my own truth, not anyone else's, and that I absolutely understand that other perspectives are every bit as valid as my own.
It was at this point in my conversation with my cousin that I realized that for the seven years I've been battling anxiety, I really have not told many people at all about it. The husband knows, of course, but even he doesn't know the full extent of it. I do occasionally share articles and posts on social media about it, because somehow that's less scary than telling people about it directly. To actually TELL people about it? Unheard of. Terrifying.
See, that's part of what makes anxiety such a jerk. (And trust me, it is a JERK.) It tells you constantly that you're broken, that you're messed up, that you're a freak, that you're not worthy of (fill in the blank), that you're sick and that you need to hide your condition at all costs, or everyone will hate you and leave you and you'll be all alone with the awful things circling around in your head. And you don't even realize it's saying that. It just feels like a given, like a universal truth. Like something you'd never think to question or challenge. I wish I were exaggerating.
I've been in therapy for anxiety for about a year and a half now. Shortly after it first came on, I sought treatment from my family doctor, who prescribed a medication for me that was initially extremely helpful. I remember telling him that for the first time there were no storms happening inside my mind. I never even knew they were there until they were gone. That medication helped me, virtually free of side effects, for almost three years, until my pharmacy changed generic brands and the new generic made me really sick. I talked to every single pharmacy in town and none of them could get the old generic anymore, so I took myself off of it.
As one would expect, the anxiety returned with a vengeance after I went off the meds. The storm raged on in my head. I white-knuckled it for a very long time. During that time, in an unrelated sort of way, I learned a lot about food and chemicals in food and pharmaceuticals and all sorts of things about what outside influences do to our bodies. I developed a very strong desire to learn to deal with my anxiety without medication. I believed then, and I believe now, that I have the ability to do this, with help. It is a long process and sometimes it's uncomfortable or even painful, but I'm learning, slowly.
One of the pretty significant recurring themes in my therapy is self-acceptance. I've always had a hard time with this. I'm so accepting of other people and their flaws, but when it comes to mine, I'm so unforgiving and unwilling to give any grace. I'm beginning to learn to accept things about myself. My anxiety is one of those things. The harder I fight it and push against anxiety, the harder it pushes back and the worse it gets. For me, the medication-free 'cure' (which is really just a set of coping tools I can use for the rest of my life, not a cure at all) lies in accepting what IS, not fighting it, and perhaps most importantly, not hiding it anymore. Did I mention this is scary? My palms are sweaty just typing this. And I've now been working on this post daily for more than a week.
So, I have fairly severe anxiety. There it is. So what? Lots of people have it. My therapist and my husband insist it doesn't make me any less worthy, or lovable, or smart or awesome than anyone else. They're trying to help me pound that into my own head. Some days I truly believe it, but most days it's still a battle. I'm getting better. Slowly.
What does my anxiety actually look like?
During the several days I spent pondering writing this post and whether I was really ready to 'put it out there,' I tried to really pay attention to how I was feeling, when, and why. I stumbled upon a very good example of what happens when my anxiety flares. Somehow I convinced myself to actually put it on paper, even though it is scary and embarrassing and the anxiety demons in my head are constantly telling me I have to hide this because if I expose it, no one will like me anymore, and because I should be able to control it. After all, it's my own brain, right? I should be able to control it... right? This is probably why my therapist doesn't like me even using the word SHOULD.
Back to my example. It was my lunch hour, and I needed to go to the grocery store to grab a couple of things. Little known fact about me: I usually avoid going to grocery stores alone. I don't just not enjoy the grocery store experience - it makes my anxiety flare like crazy. But I do go when it's necessary. I put on my big girl undies and I white-knuckle it. On this particular day, I was already a bit stressed due to work. I knew before I went in that I'd be much more anxious coming out than I was going in, so I sat in the car for a moment to prepare myself. My Fitbit said my pulse was 82 - up from my normal resting rate of the high 60s. I assume that's because I was anticipating the anxiety.
This all happens very fast - it always does - but I'm going to break it down into the tiniest minutia in order for you to actually walk through it with me, and for me to fully acknowledge all that's going on so I can learn to deal with it.
As soon as I hit the entrance of the store, it starts. I feel my chest tighten. I feel my breathing get a bit shallower. I grab a basket and hold on tight. As I walk across the front of the store toward the items I need, the tight chest and shallow breathing get slightly more severe. I'm about halfway there when I notice how tight my shoulders are. It feels like there is a giant rubber band around my shoulders and upper arms, squishing them together and compressing everything in between. A mild knot has formed in my stomach.
I focus really hard on my destination - the freezer aisle this time - and try to just forget all of my surroundings. I don't typically make eye contact with people in these situations, especially if the store is crowded. Crowds of people make me extremely anxious, so I guess I subconsciously pretend they aren't even there. The lights seem oppressively bright. I find minor comfort in the fact that the store's signs and fixtures are mostly earth toned. Generally speaking, earth tones seem to soothe me.
By the time I get to the freezer aisle, my Fitbit says my pulse is 116. I double check it with my fingers and it's probably right. I'm short of breath, my stomach feels like a boulder, and it feels like every muscle in my body is as tight as it can get. It's the same feeling you might experience in a haunted house when you know something is about to jump out and scare you half to death. But instead of lasting an instant like in the haunted house, this usually lasts through my whole shopping trip, and often beyond.
Out of nowhere, a flush washes over me. I become very warm from the inside out. It feels like my heart may have stopped. I quickly, but as discreetly as possible, check for a pulse. It's still there. I'm oddly surprised. I try to breathe. Deep breaths are impossible, so I try to slow down the shallow ones. I think I might throw up. (Nevermind the fact I have never thrown up in a grocery store or due to this type of anxiety. To find comfort in that fact would mean being logical, and I am anything but logical in this scenario. For the most part, logic is... unavailable... to me until it passes, unless someone coaches me in the moment.) My legs feel like Jello. I wonder if they will carry me back to my car.
It is at this point that the anxiety really takes over my mind. Once I start having these physical sensations, the little anxiety monster in my head gets much louder and is virtually impossible to ignore. He is short, furry and ugly, and he has big angry eyes and oversized, pointy, gross, yellow, nasty teeth. And he's so very vicious. He's probably a kid who was always picked last in PE class. Maybe this is why we can relate to each other.
He screams in my head.
"YOU'RE GOING TO FAINT! WHAT IF YOU PASS OUT RIGHT HERE IN THE FREEZER AISLE AND MAKE A TOTAL FOOL OF YOURSELF AND THE PARAMEDICS HAVE TO COME AND YOU LOOK STUPID AND EVERYONE IN THE STORE SEES YOU AND THINKS YOU'RE CRAZY AND STUPID?! IT'S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW! AND WHAT IF YOUR CLOTHES AREN'T COVERING YOU WHEN YOU FALL DOWN AND EVERYONE SEES HOW GROSS YOU ARE? HERE WE GO, GET READY!"
I should clarify - I do not 'hear voices.' This is not something I can hear. Again, it's like a given. It just comes to me, like when you look up in the sky and notice the sky is blue. "Oh, the sky is blue today." Same kind of thing. It's just there all of a sudden and it feels undeniable.
I do my best to shove the monster away. I repeat to myself that nothing like that has ever happened to me. Being a person who generally appreciates critical thinking, I try to focus on the evidence, or lack thereof, that any of that is actually happening. I try to focus on what I need to buy. I squint my eyes, which feel funny thanks to the anxiety, in order to focus through the very loud distractions.
I find what I need. I buy a little more than I need, because when you have paralyzing anxiety about grocery shopping, you stock up when you go so that you don't have to go more often than necessary. I often find myself buying (non-perishable) things in twos at the grocery store.
At this point I start to feel the slightest twinge of relief. At the moment I head for the cash register, it means I'm almost done with my shopping trip. I get there quickly if possible, preferably the self checkout so I don't have to worry that another person will notice I am breathless and panicky and think I'm crazy. I go through the motions, and head for the exit. I feel a tiny bit better as soon as I step outside. Thankfully it's light outside - this means I have the added bonus of feeling safer in the parking lot. I don't feel truly safe - in the sense that I can actually let my guard down - in many places or situations at all.
I beeline to my car - my safe haven on wheels. I get in quickly, set my stuff down, and lock the doors. Since the anxiety has been particularly bad, I put the sun visors down in hopes no one will see me trying to recover. I lay my head back on the headrest and close my eyes. I take deeper breaths - but at this point I still can't take belly breaths. I focus on relaxing. I talk to myself (silently) like a little kid. "You're fine, it's all fine, it's okay. Nothing bad happened. No one noticed you were freaking out."
When it feels like my heart is beating properly again and my breathing is calmed down and the "OH NO I'M GOING TO FAINT" passes, I drive back to work to continue my day. Unfortunately, my work environment is somewhat anxiety-inducing as well, so full relief doesn't come for many hours yet. But it's definitely better than the grocery store. My energy is drained. I yawn a lot for the next few hours and wish for a nap. I struggle to focus at work at times for the rest of the day.
Finally, after work and after-work commitments and getting a youngster into bed, I collapse into my own bed. I notice my heart rate finally coming the rest of the way down. I stare out at the dark sky and feel grateful to finally be in my sanctuary. I'd like to say I peacefully drift off to sleep, but let's be realistic, I fiddle with my phone and tablet for far too long and don't get as much sleep as I could have.
Hey, I'm working on one issue at a time here!
So, that's what a typical anxiety attack type scenario looks like for me. I don't always feel this way in grocery stores, not at all. But it is not that unusual either. Other circumstances that seem to be common settings for this to play out are parties, social gatherings of pretty much any kind, business lunches/dinners, carnivals/fairs, airplanes (oh my gosh airplanes, that's also a whole other post), pretty much any place where I feel out of control or where there are large amounts of people, especially in a confined area.
I have had to stop writing so many times since I started this post. It is so scary to me to admit all of this. I feel like I'm pretty good at putting up a decent front and hiding my anxiety monster. However, my therapist insists that shining a light on him takes away his power. And with the previous exercises we have done, she has proven that she is right about that. So, here's a new phase we are working on called 'stop hiding it.' I definitely don't plan to scream it from the rooftops or announce it when I answer the phone at work, but this post represents a HUGE HUGE step for me in learning to combat my anxiety without drugs.
There, I did it. Whew. This is hard. Did I already say that?
I'm hoping that at least one person who reads this will feel less alone in their own anxiety because of what I wrote. I hope that people who know me personally will understand me better after reading this and won't run away from me screaming (literally or metaphorically!). I hope that quirks that I have will make more sense to others now and they will understand that I don't ever mean to be rude or malicious to people I care about. Ever.
One thing that has occurred to me a few times since starting this (novella of a) post is that there have been times that people have accused me of thinking I'm better than them, or better than other people in general. I'm guessing whatever they are seeing in terms of my behavior that makes them think this, is rooted in my anxiety. I've only heard this a few times, but it's been from friends and relatives, not strangers. It's both extremely insulting to me and totally laughable because it could not possibly be further from the truth.
Remember that stuff up above about not wanting people to know about my anxiety because they'll think I'm crazy or unlovable? Yes. That. I can't recall ever thinking I was better than another person in my entire life. Well, maybe Dallas Cowboy fans... KIDDING.
If I bump into you in public and I seem like I don't want to talk to you, it's not you. Actually, it's not me either. It's probably just that I'm already engaged in a bitter battle with the anxiety monster and I can't let go of half my attention in order to handle a social interaction on top of that. I promise I'm not trying to be rude. And I certainly am not being sanctimonious. I promise. I don't feel superior to anyone on the planet. I mean that.
Please forgive me for my faults and try to understand that I'm doing my best. I'm working hard - really hard - on learning how to deal with this so it doesn't have such a grip on me. This process is pretty darn difficult and uncomfortable, but I'm determined to keep going, so I can be a better friend, a better wife and mom, and a happier person.
The makings of a disaster
1 day ago