Anxiety, my oldest friend. It’s been with me my entire life. It’s a crippling, life controlling beast that has trapped me in my own body a time or two.
I guess my first memory of it was being terrified of small, enclosed spaces when I was four years old. I remember being at preschool, and pissing my pants because I was afraid of the tiny bathroom. I pissed my pants a year later being afraid of a big bathroom because it lacked windows! I’ve gotten better about small spaces, but even now, I take my phone with me into public restrooms in case I get stuck and need to call for help. My anxiety in summary: It gets better but it doesn’t go away.
My next stand-out memory of anxiety was when I was six. I remember realizing that my parents, sister, or anyone I loved could die at any moment. I specifically remember sitting in the car at night while my mom pumped gas and panicking, thinking that she could be kidnapped and I’d never see her again. Was this separation anxiety, a normal occurrence during childhood development? Was it me just being a worrisome kid? Or did I lack the appropriate levels of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter produced by the brain?
I had my first full-blown panic attack when I was 11. I was at a park with my two younger cousins, pushing one of them on a tire swing. There were lots of kids around, a lot of noise. I stepped back from pushing her and knocked my head on a wooden beam of the playground. It fucking hurt. I tried to tell my cousins that it was time to go, I thought I had really injured myself. They told me no. Panic mode. I knew I needed to go back to my mom to make sure my head was ok. But my cousins weren’t ready to leave, they were too young to be there alone, and I couldn’t convince them to listen to me. Cue the hyperventilation. I thought I was going to die.
I didn’t even know this was a “condition.” I didn’t talk about it. I just thought it was apart of life. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal for my heart to race when faced with the idea of riding an elevator, or big crowds, or spontaneously losing all access to air even when I was standing in an open space! I often wonder now if my ignorance towards my anxiety kept it at bay.
The real kicker? The cause of it all. I never experienced any traumatic events. I was never actually locked in a small room, no one in my family got kidnapped, nothing. I had an easy, safe, loving and secure childhood. I know that when it comes to my anxiety, the cause is nature, not nurture. Meaning that whatever I’ve experienced doesn’t matter, my anxiety is embedded in my DNA. It’s biological.
I learned that these feelings were in fact not normal during my junior year of college when I was taking adderall to pass my classes. I was working two or three jobs throughout the year and taking a full schedule that included statistics. I used the adderall to focus on studying for that ridiculously hard class. It’s not like I was procrastinating and needed it to get all my work done in one day. I just needed to be able to focus on a subject I wasn’t interested in, so I could teach myself how to understand it. The day of my stats final, I woke up after a day of studying, still not hungry, and decided to skip breakfast and just have coffee. I was driving to class, buzzed off my ass, repeating formulas in my head, when I had a panic attack. I didn’t know what it was at the time, all I knew was that I thought I was going to die behind the wheel of my car. For whatever reason, I went to see my psychologist later that week.
She told me it was a panic attack and we discussed previous life events. I realized something I had never considered: I did have anxiety. These feelings weren’t normal or something I just had to live with. She told me about some breathing techniques and sent me to see a psychiatrist to get medication. I was given Xanax for when I needed it and was told to take Prozac daily. I was terrified, which, coincidentally, is a fun symptom of anxiety! I was too scared to take any medication. I kept my prescriptions in my purse for months, as it got worse and worse. I was at the point where I was terrified to drive anywhere for fear of having an attack. I couldn’t be outside when it was hot and humid. I couldn’t go to public places with crowds. All of these things just sent me into a spiral. I often wonder if I had never learned that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal, would my anxiety have gotten worse like it did? Or would I have been able to carry on, oblivious to my issue?
I was afraid of the medicine. I felt like a failure. How could I not control my own mind? Why couldn’t I just get rid of the bad thing in my life that was making me feel this way? (that thing didn’t exist.) Was one of the potential side effects, more anxiety at first, going to make me feel worse? I felt like if I gave it and took it, it would confirm the truth that I was avoiding: I was dealing with a mental illness.
After exhausting all other options (eliminating certain foods, avoiding caffeine, yoga, running, walking, taking supplements, huffing essential oils, witchcraft (jk)) I finally gave in and took the damn Prozac. It was euphoria. I felt the effects almost instantly, within hours. I remember being so friggin happy, driving without thinking about my breathing or if I had water with me. It was the greatest thing ever. I remember thinking, is this how normal people feel? I wasn’t actually euphoric, but after months of nothing but fear, the feeling of calmness and relief was pretty damn close to euphoria.
I’m not cured by any means. I went off the Prozac to avoid some side effects, and stayed off during my pregnancy, but immediately spiraled into a hole of anxiety and depression (they’re best friends, and super fun to experience in unison) after giving birth. I’m on Cymbalta now which is good on the side effect front but certainly doesn’t just erase my anxious thoughts. Just yesterday I had a panic attack taking my son to the hospital for a precautionary sonogram. I can’t pinpoint the cause of yesterday’s episode, was it the fact that he might have a medical issue, the possibility of riding an elevator, being in a building with a lot of people, being in a part of the city I wasn’t familiar with? There’s always something lurking around the corner, waiting to trigger the classics: heart racing, smelly sweat, dizziness, inability to think clearly, and the best one, a pessimistic spin on every single thought that I have. SO FUN!!!!!!!!!
It took me a while to be open about it. It was definitely embarrassing at first. I felt like a nutjob. There’s a huge stigma on mental health issues, and a bigger stigma attached when people take medication for it. I used to think those who chose medication were lazy and taking the way out and putting a bandaid on their problems. I was wrong and I’m now learning to stop assuming.
But one day I read some quote about how we don’t feel ashamed if we have any other type of illness. We all understand the importance of raising awareness for illnesses. Why is a mental illness different? Plus, I’ve found that talking (or writing!) about it really, really helps! (My mom can attest, she gets a long-winded phone call whenever I’m spiraling.) So, whenever I feel self conscious about it, I remind myself that it’s a medical condition. There’s nothing I did or experienced that brought this on. It’s purely biological.
Anxiety is my first and oldest friend. It’s a friend who I have learned to live with, who will join me to the grave. I’ve accepted you, anxiety, and I hate you.