"Here’s what’s worked: nothing." Scott Stossel writes with resignation in the cover article for the current issue of The Atlantic, "Surviving Anxiety." (Inside the magazine it's headlined "My Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life".) The story, adapted from Stossel's forthcoming book, tells of his life with anxiety disorder; how he remains high-functioning despite it, and maybe in ways because of it.
The Atlantic editors invited readers to send in stories of their own experiences with anxiety. We said that "several" stories would be selected for publication on TheAtlantic.com. As you'll see by the length of this post, I failed handsomely at paring it down to several.
We got so many interesting submissions, and there was even more that I wanted to share than is here. Rather than run three or four people's stories in full, we decided to run parts of many. Forty-three. I also pulled salient quotes from most of the excerpts along the left margin. People interpreted the writing prompt very broadly, so some of it is lighthearted, and some of it is tragic. There is some advice on what works, how to keep perspective, and what makes things worse. In aggregate I hope it reads like a mixtape that reflects how widespread all of this is and how deeply it resonates.
I'd like these to mostly speak for themselves, but I will call out a couple recurring points. Anxiety is not a choice. Don't tell people with anxiety to "stop worrying." Do reassure them. Don't leave them alone. Talk about your anxiety with friends and family. Be attuned and empathetic to it in others. Own your own.
Unlike Stossel, many people have found that certain treatments, behaviors, and ways of thinking about their anxiety can be helpful. Okay, here are your stories.
It started when I was eight after my great aunt had passed; seeing her in the open casket freaked me out. Inwardly, I was so afraid—and it manifested itself when my parents were away in Florida, and the babysitter suddenly found me running around the house screaming, "I'm dying, I'm dying!"
My heart was beating so fast and I was breaking out in a cold sweat. Over the years this would happen again, but as I grew older I learned to say to myself relax ... relax. In my professional work years, looking at the nonverbal communication of coworkers would give rise to these attacks, until I learned to take off my glasses in meetings so that I could not see others' reactions to my comments. (That did the trick. Plus, the people I did not like would be out of focus.)
If you knew me, if we had a drink together one evening, you would notice that I have the perplexing habit of taking my pulse the way a runner might at the end of a race (two fingers at the neck, under the jaw on my right side), even though I am seated on a stool with a scotch in my hand, not crossing a finish line clutching a small paper cup of water.
I do this, the pulse-check, because I fear I'm not getting the oxygen necessary to keep my frail human machine going. I've been convinced of my own slow suffocation for at least the last decade, and the steady beat of blood beneath my fingers makes me feel relaxed.
It is reassurance that I'm still alive.
If we were friends you'd know that vacations are not my forte, because I am someone who needs to be busy. Very busy. You see, when I'm not, when things are quiet and my mind is unoccupied, I inevitably feel the rush of panic: hot pins down my back, hands going white with cold, head swimming, knees weak, reality coming apart at edges, nothing feeling totally real—not "me" or "you"—just a sense that we're all temporary, meaningless blips.
My boyfriend tries to understand, and he is supportive about it, but he thinks it's "silly" to worry about things that are out of your control. He might be right, but that doesn't make it possible for me. Sometimes I go days without anxiety, without noticing. When it comes back, it's such a shock.
I know I shouldn't feel this way—I know I should seek help—but I don't have a doctor in this city. I don't know this medical system very well. And the idea of finding a doctor—of describing how I feel and trying out different treatments, whether it's therapy or drugs—paralyzes me. It freezes me in place so it becomes easier to do nothing. To continue to cope badly in the hope that one day I'll just suddenly be better.
Because suffering almost every day is somehow easier than asking for help.
I laugh when I recall a day at the mall with my daughter when she started to head for the elevator, and I held her back. I couldn't do elevators anymore, I told her. Now, we had to use the escalators. Holy cow, I’ll never forget the way she rolled her eyes at me!
I was, just to name a few [phobias], afraid of going into the movies, of not sitting in an aisle seat, of not knowing exactly how to get out of somewhere, of being in a locked car, of seat belts, of not having access to drinking water, of pools, of using airplane bathrooms, of using bathroom stalls that I couldn't crawl out of, of driving out of my neighborhood, of heights, of swallowing pills, of open spaces, of busy places, of distancing myself from the car in parking lots, and so on, and so forth. I’m over them now. For the most part, I'm not aware of how it happened. But in the case of tunnels and bridges, I accidentally came up with what turned out to be a winning strategy for me, which I'd like to share. Hopefully others will benefit from my experience.
For many years, I lived in a South American capital, which has a long, winding highway down to the airport. This road also has a very long tunnel at the bottom of a prolonged slope. For years I never thought twice about going through it until one day when it suddenly loomed at me like a dark mouth waiting for me as I approached it. I swerved off the road, with palpitations. I was so confused and felt ridiculous, but the truth was that there was no way I was going into the tunnel, and I knew it. I had a real problem on my hands.
Fortunately, I had pulled over into what was the parking area of a National Guard station. The officers that noticed waited to see what I would do. An idea occurred to me, so I rolled down the window and summoned one of them. It went like this: “Hello. How are you? I have a dreadful fear of tunnels. I really can't go in there. Do you think one of you could ride through with me, just to the other side?” I could see they had never had such a request, but no matter. I'm sure I looked as desperate as I felt. That's how my strategy started.
Whenever I went to the airport to pick someone up, I would pull over right at the entrance, go through the whole routine again and was always lucky enough to have a National Guardsman who was willing to do the part. Of course, I'd talk up a storm during the two-minute ride. Silence would have been unbearable. I didn't know it at the time, but I was onto something important for me.
It so happened that one day there was only one guard who could leave the post, and he had a motorcycle. He couldn't ride with me. Dilemma! "Would it be okay with if I followed behind his bike?" he asked. I had no choice except to agree with the arrangement. Once inside the tunnel, I started to panic right away and intuitively began talking out loud to myself, but then it evolved into an imaginary conversation with the guy on the bike ahead of me. I was doing the talking for both. I felt okay. I believed my own lie.
This has since worked for me in tunnels and on bridges: I stick close behind a car that is carrying my "friends," with whom I talk up a storm for the duration of the ordeal, and I firmly believe one of them will help me if I ever have a problem. To be truthful, sometimes I just drive along and don't even have the need to do it anymore.
It wasn't until the last year or so that Marvel portrayed Dr. Bruce Banner ("The Hulk") as someone who accepts that his condition needs to be managed, rather someone who has a disease that needs to be treated. His story then moves from the Hulk, who is pursued by every single government entity in the world, to Bruce Banner, who works as a scientist for the government; the Hulk is summoned when the government needs his powerful capabilities to deal with the threat of the day.
To bring the Hulk story full-circle: I used to be extremely upset at myself for lashing out at people during many anxiety-driven outbursts. I would feel really bad after each episode—creating more anxiety in the process—until it all cascaded into another explosive episode. What made it worse is that I was totally aware of what was happening, but was not in control of the situation.
Once I accepted that I have anxiety and have to live with it, I learned several things that made my life a lot easier:
1. I realized that I wasn't the only one who had anxiety problems. Everyone has some form of anxiety, and it manifests differently from one person to another. Knowing that everyone has to deal with anxiety makes it easier because I don't feel so alone in facing the condition.
2. I learned to forgive myself for my actions stemming from the anxiety. Instead of focusing on a complete prevention of the outbursts, I focus my efforts on two things. The first is why the outburst occurred the way it did (and how to recognize the stimuli that leads to outburst in the first place); the second is what to do to recover from the outburst if it does occur. Think of it as a typhoon management system: you use experience to figure out when a typhoon is coming, and you rebuild immediately as soon as the typhoon passes.
3. I started to discuss my condition with the people I love and trust. After I shared my experiences with them, most finally understood why I behaved the way I did when I was younger; they rarely understood that they had unintentionally triggered an anxiety event. In my experience, people are more than happy to give you room to work with as long as you're nice about it.
4. I joined activities that help me focus my mind better. I chose martial arts and emphasize the mental-conditioning aspect of the art. Mental conditioning helps me focus and gives me confidence that I can take care of myself—and generate less anxiety along the way.
5. I strive to be as proficient as I can in whatever I do. I realized that a major source of my anxiety is from making mistakes or fear of failure, but being good at something helps to balance out those negative feelings. I now embrace that failure is part of learning, and learning makes me stronger. And the stronger I am, the less anxiety I have in this world.
Bay Area, California
I seriously have considered being knocked unconscious before boarding a plane, to be revived when we land.
It all started when I uprooted my life and moved to Denmark to be with my new husband. I had just graduated college and was looking forward to a new chapter in life. I had no idea I was capable of feeling such anxiety. I don't know why the anxiety developed, but it must have had something to do with moving to a foreign land and leaving the life I had known for the previous 22 years for an entirely new one. I guess I'm a natural homebody, not meant for risks or extreme change. I had to find that out the hard way.
Emetophobia, fear of vomiting, is a trip. It is such a strange phobia. It's more self-centered than the others; it's there all the time. You can't "retreat" from it, because it's in your stomach. And then a war breaks out in your mind: "It's nothing" versus "It's DEFINITELY something." The unforgiving cycle of anxiety triggers stomach discomfort, which triggers further anxiety, and so on. It's a particularly troubling mental conundrum that, I've found, requires a great deal of willpower and strength of reason, which is not often readily available.
After reading Scott's article, I feel something different. Almost an indifference, or acceptance of my anxiety and phobia. I certainly feel less ashamed, which is truly a relief, since I hide my disorders from almost everyone except those who are very close to me. But I don't feel as strongly about hiding them anymore. In fact, I feel a growing sense of appreciation for the anxiety.
Don't get me wrong—I wish and hope everyday to be relieved of my suffering. But there is an attractiveness to the idea that anxiety could be correlated with my intelligence. What if anxiety is what makes me hear music the way that I hear it? What if it is responsible for my creativity? I remember when I wasn't anxious like this. I was more depressed, and I wasn't as nice. I'm not depressed at all anymore (even though my phobia sometimes makes me feel like giving up on life). In fact, during the past year, I have started learning how to accept myself. It's been really refreshing.
More than anything, though, I guess I feel as if the urgency of finding a cure, or a suitable treatment for my anxiety and phobia, has faded. I can accept thoughts like, What if I am a homebody for the rest of my life? Or, What if I end up not eating out or traveling as much as other people? Perhaps I'll build a very nice home. Perhaps I'll become a very good cook. That doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world. That's how I feel right now. I'm not sure how I'll feel in the future, but I don't have to know.
Meanwhile I'll continue to breathe through my abdomen.
I haven't gotten a haircut in more than a year-and-a half because the last time I did, I ended up telling the hairdresser that I was the caretaker for my 30-year-old mentally-challenged brother. This is a problem not only because of the uncomfortable over-share, but because I don't have a mentally-challenged 30-year-old brother.
Typically, I adopt the path of least resistance in every single social interaction. As a person who is constantly nervous, having a strategy is necessary for everything—especially casual encounters—but also because it tends to end the conversation as soon as possible. So, when someone assumes something about me, I just go with it. If I prolonged the conversation, that would mean talking longer, and the longer I talk, the more horrible it gets.
This began immediately after I met Rick, the bleach-blonde hairdresser in my hometown of Frederick, Maryland. He was very enthusiastic about life, despite being a hairdresser in the middle of farm country. When I sat down at his station he said I was "a blank canvas" which, I assume, is cosmetologist speak for "your hair is terrible we need to fix all of this."
As he got started in with a comb, he started asking me about myself, which I can usually handle. I rattled off the facts as he brought them up: college in Boston, studying writing, currently interested in magazine journalism.
“Oh, like for Cosmo?” Rick asked, holding the comb over my head.
Even though it was obvious with my terrible hair, the acne puckered around my face, and the fact that Rick just had to explain to me the difference between a “cool blonde” and a “warm blonde” that I wasn’t really into beauty and upkeep, Rick was hoping I was a Cosmo girl. The truth is, I would be more into the astrological sex positions than I would be into any of the fashion and make up in Cosmopolitan—that is, if I could get past the penis tips (“tips” in this case referring to helpful hints) long enough to even pick up a copy.
But the path of least resistance won out and I said, “Yeah, like for Cosmo!”
The exclamation point in my voice rounded out the new persona that had been carved out for me: future Cosmo writer with terrible hair. I could do this. This was working.
Things were going great. My highlights were being painted into my hair; the soft crinkle of aluminum foil filling up silences Rick and I just couldn’t keep up with. This is where I lost my focus: the key to the path of least resistance is quick thinking. Staying on top of the conversation was of the utmost importance. I had to treat the small-talk like it was a rabid dog about to eat my newborn child: if you let it get away from you, it is over.
“So, what are you doing over the summer?” Rick asked me.
“Oh, not much,” I said. “My brother just had a baby, so I’ll be taking care of him.”
In my head, this is where things switch into slow motion, and I imagine Future Me bursting into the hair salon and tackling Rick to the ground. Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to travel through time, nor do I have the confidence or moxie required to tackle someone from the ground, especially when my past self is sitting right there.
So time kept marching its deadly battle, and Rick responded with, “How old is he?”
And I said, “He’s thirty.”
A mark of uncomfortable horribleness crossed Rick's face. Me, still unaware of what I had just happened, blissfully gazed at my partially metal head in the mirror.
“Did you say he’s thirty?” Rick again had paused, this time the little highlighting brush hung in the air.
“Mhm,” I nodded.
“And you have to watch him?”
At that point, I realized that there was some kind of misunderstanding. A normal person would have said something like, “Oh, no no no, my brother isn’t a baby. My brother has a baby!” That normal person and Rick would laugh and laugh and the two of them would become closer than ever, enjoying not only a pleasant haircut, but a lifetime of friendship with each other.
Not me. I figured out that Rick now thought that I had a “baby brother” who is 30. Not only that, but I was tasked with caring for him. I took the path of least resistance.
“Yeah, it’s pretty stressful,” I said, trying to change my what the fuck am I saying face to an I have a mentally challenged 30-year-old-brother face.
“I’ll bet. And he’s always been like that?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It’s just always been that way.”
I must have really sold it, because the look that came across Rick’s face said something like, We need to end this haircut now before this gets even weirder.
That is why the path of least resistance always works. Rick and I silently endured the quick chop-chop and snip-snip of my blank canvas hair, and I got ran out of there as fast as possible. Instead of calculating a tip, I just handed over all the money that I had at the time and I walked out, the tinkle of the welcome bell echoing in my wake.
I'm getting my hair cut again next week, finally, and wondering what kind of horrible situation I'll get myself into this time. Maybe I'll lie about cancer or another debilitating disease? Or maybe my parents will be getting a divorce? Or maybe they’re getting a divorce and they have cancer? Who knows!
The path of least resistance will always guide me.
The primary focus of my OCD since late adolescence has been anxiety over sin, also known as "scrupulosity," which is generally categorized as a religious obsession. Some helpful Jesuits and Benedictines in college helped me to understand my condition.
Sometimes I would be anxious that I had an obligation to go back into the college chapel after Mass to make sure no crumbs from the Eucharistic bread had fallen to the floor. After an hour or so of various mental contortions, I might decide that no, I didn’t have to go look—but be immediately beset with worry that I might have consented to feeling jealousy against one a classmate that had stayed in the chapel to pray longer than I. Once I convinced myself that I had not committed a sin of envy, my fears focused on the possibility of the mortal sin of lust for some passing sexual image or thought. My fears were always about mortal sin, traditionally defined as turning away from God, thus risking eternity in the flames and loneliness of hell.
The worries would go on and on. I wasn't getting much studying done, or much of anything else either. On occasions when I could forget myself and my fears enough to enjoy a moment of conversation with a friend, part of me would feel that I should excuse myself by saying, "I need to go worry for a few hours."
Now that I teach English at a small liberal-arts college, I speak rather freely about these struggles. The other day a student said to me that she had never heard an adult say that he or she has OCD. When I was young, I yearned for an adult to share this sort of experience with me; I wanted to know that I could still have a decent and creative life, that I could make a contribution. When I talk with students about these things, I emphasize the importance of seeking help from professionals. Counselors and medication have been crucial for me. I speak freely and listen as openly as I can. We share our very human stories.
A bottomless bin of toy figurines, a bulging suitcase of costumes for aspiring prima ballerinas, and a sleeve of sparkling cinnamon graham crackers. For many, these items evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, a warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies memories of childhood friendships and simpler times. Not for me.
Instead, this seemingly innocuous list throws me into a state of panic, as I am plagued by endless questions, swept up in a whirlwind of self-doubt: Are mass-produced, made-in-China toy figurines an indication of my shameless consumerism? Have I perpetuated gender stereotypes by providing my daughter with an abundance of tutus, primarily of the pink variety? Am I promoting unhealthy eating habits by allowing the occasional sugary snack to win out over carrot sticks? The anxiety was born with the birth of my daughter. And now, as my daughter attends preschool and the playdates are in full swing, my nerves are entirely fraught. Now, my parenting choices are on display for all to see. Now, I find myself tackling a bizarre set of proportions every Saturday morning: What is the ideal ratio of Cinderella to Sid the Science Kid? Of tiaras to doctor's kits? Of cookies to cucumbers? I haven't come up with any solutions yet, but that doesn't stop me from staying up all Friday night searching for answers.
I have been medicated and yes it works for me. Some days I could use a bit more kick, others a bit less. I see a doctor weekly and discuss "my feelings." I am always asked "what I am feeling right now." I feel a lot, but cannot describe it most times, and would truly give anything to not feel anything at all, most days.
I have read that individuals like me experience life on a much more magnified level, that normal feelings are amplified or we experience them as such. I mean, who wouldn't think that the end is near every time your heart begins to race, or you feel the slightest bit dizzy or strange. I have learned to recognize the signs and what brings on that good old fight-or-flight response. Growing up, I never had an "Incredible Hulk" moment when I was bullied or got into a fight at school, but now I get them when pulling into the parking lot at work, or booting up my computer to check my email in the morning?
Recognizing that this is a medical condition provided some solace. I know that I suffer from a "normal" problem, and that I am healthy physically, but my mind would like to think otherwise at times. I see the same struggle in others and am happy that I can provide advice, just as those that I know who suffer from this have helped me by sitting with me and not leaving me alone when I get hit with an attack. It is now common practice for me to be honest with others about my condition.
I seemed to be living the dream. I had full scholarship for rowing at the University of Alabama, an above-average GPA, a luxurious off-campus apartment, and a perfect car that I had purchased all by myself. I had it all, and I took pride in my incredible accomplishments in athletics, school, and my active personal life. From the outside, it was impossible to discern any of my inner turmoil.
Like Scott Stossel, my anxiety and depression stems from a combination of genes and my parents' messy divorce. My parents divided up the time I spent with them exactly equally in my early life; I switching houses two times each week or more. Every day was just another day in anticipation of The Switch. My belongings would get unevenly distributed, or something forgotten, and I'd need to figure out how to get my retainer/soccer jersey/critically important essay to the other end of town.
I was not old enough to have a cell phone or operate a moving vehicle, which made the logistics incredibly stressful to coordinate. Add in a parent's frustration and things got extremely messy. And while my dad remarried a few years after the divorce to my wonderful stepmom, my mom's love life was not nearly as successful or neatly put together. My mom was always moving, jumping from boyfriend to girlfriend to boyfriend again, always moving into their houses. I had moved nine times by the time I was in high school, each move bringing unbelievable anxiety with it.
During a move in first grade, I had a paralyzing fear that one of the pine trees outside the classroom window was going to fall in on the school. I had visions of the tree breaking the glass and crushing my classmates and me. My fear was crippling. I was constantly distracted, always looking over my shoulder at the ominous pine and jumping whenever the tree creaked. I was completely obsessed. After a meeting with my parents, my teacher moved me close to the front of the classroom and my parents put me in therapy. The therapy didn't last long.
Years later, my mom was moving again. Around the same time, we took a vacation to Hawaii, funded by my grandfather. He took us out to Ruth's Chris steak house on the second night we were there. While sitting at the table, I felt the same inexplicable feeling that we were all going to be crushed, but this time I was convinced the ceiling was going to fall in. I ran outside crying, my mom and grampa embarrassed at my antics. Frustrated that they wouldn't heed my warnings of impending doom, I sat outside, sobbing uncontrollably and rocking on a retaining wall while they ate overpriced steak and baked potatoes. These are just a few examples of the anxiety attacks that I have experienced over the years. More moderate anxiety manifests itself into my life in a few other ways, like my debilitating fear of being late, or my perfectionist tendencies leading to procrastination. If I can't do it perfectly, then why do it at all?
After graduating from college, I spent the summer looking for a real job, and landed myself two interviews. The first, a publishing company, asked me what I saw myself doing in the next few years. I naively told them I could see myself at their company for a year or so, and then likely move on to something new. I did not get that job.
During my second interview, a law firm, I tried the opposite attack and lied through my teeth about everything. Was I passionate about the World of Law? Of course. Would I be willing to work overtime and weekends for no additional pay? Sure. I got that second job, moved to Chicago, and promptly lost my mind.
I began suffering panic attacks every day, all day long… If you have never had a panic attack before, the best I can describe it is that crazy rush of adrenaline you get when you’re on a roller coaster, during those few seconds right before the ride transitions from the slow, creaky climb to sudden free fall. Your limbs tingle a little, and your stomach knots up in anticipation only to be released in a matter of seconds. That feeling is intense, and for most people, it’s exhilarating because the feeling is temporary. You’ve only tricked your body into reacting to fear.
With a panic attack, that primal, physical reaction to fear is constant. There is no relief, no sense of exhilaration. Your blood pressure rises, causing your heart to beat a mile-a-minute, your limbs go numb. Your stomach starts sinking, only there is no bottom floor for it to hit. So it keeps sinking, and sinking, and sinking. Every physiological alarm your body has for fear is firing at once, and your mind becomes consumed by a panic that defies all logic.
But worst of all, even though you know your body is playing a trick on your mind, your mind is trapped inside the fun house with no exit, and no idea when the ride will be over.
How I make important phone calls:
1. Write down whatever I have to say.
2. Practice over and over.
3. Call the number.
4. Hang up as soon as someone answers. I wasn't ready or I jumble up my words.
5. Wait an hour or so and hope I don’t get the same person.
6. Wait some more because I was not ready an hour ago.
7. Call again (I may go though steps 3 though 6 again)
Until I read Scott's story, I had never considered my fear of vomiting as an actual disorder and its impact on my life. (I haven't vomited since third grade and sweat profusely at the hint of it.) After reading this story, however, I realized that fear was probably at the root of my inability to bear children.
I can still remember the panic I felt when I found out I was pregnant in 1996; I immediately knew mine wasn't a normal reaction. My friends were filled with joy at the news of their own pregnancies, but my own positive test result filled me with sheer dread and panic. I immediately became obsessed with the thought of morning sickness and a gripping fear that anxiety would kick-in in the middle of my pregnancy and cause me to harm myself or my baby. The thought of walking around in a panic attack for nine months was just too frightening. My head was spinning with dark thoughts, not onesies and strollers. So when I miscarried after 3 months, I felt overwhelming relief. And that made me feel even more ashamed and abnormal. I felt the same relief after my second miscarriage—and never tried again. …
I have two master's degrees—in journalism and in public health—and have always had interesting jobs: in publishing and TV, at the U.N., for a top medical university—worked in Japan for a few years—but it seems I'm only able to move horizontally, not vertically. I always start strong and then become filled with crippling anxiety that keeps me from moving forward. While I have had some success as a journalist, my anxieties have caused me to lose out on many opportunities presented throughout my career(s). Working in the newsroom of a major NYC tabloid was exhilarating, challenging, and gratifying, but my anxiety and insecurities got in my way. I consider myself a great reporter—I'm resourceful, curious, can find info fast, a great interviewer, and have great story ideas, but anxiety sometimes fuels my dread of face-to-face interactions.
The ironic part is that many people think I am so confident and able; even my close circle of friends have no idea how I struggle with anxiety that makes my head spin, and spin my insecurities out of control.
I also come from a family that escaped the Holocaust, but never connected my anxiety to my family history. My mom was born in Germany; she and her mom lived in Paris while my grandfather was in a labor camp in Marseilles. They came to NYC when she was 10. Looking back, I can see how my family members have masked their anxieties and passed them down to me and my two sisters—none of us have had kids!
Throughout my life, my anxiety has lessened in severity, then amplified, then attenuated again. It's the sine wave of suffering I endure. I refuse to take anxiety medications because I despise how the drugs make me feel. The feeling is like I just left the bar after a three-hour tour of the good stuff on the top shelf. Oh! Then the relief and simultaneous let down when the anxiety drug wears off! The sober realization that I'm chronically anxious stinks. As a reward for heroically toughing it out, I get to manage my clenched teeth, pounding heart, acid reflux, and chest tightness.
I try to make friends with my anxiety and jokingly call it my “super power.” Like a teenage X-Men character learning to avoid burning holes in buildings, it takes practice to get it under control. I have the help of therapists, mentors and a patient wife who knows that sometimes I just need to burst out in tears on the couch, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Tomorrow is another day and it may get ugly. I can handle it.
North Bethesda, Maryland
I have a 7-year-old child. I work from 7 to 5 pm, then I become my own housemaid. At nights I work on an online master's degree. On Saturdays I teach an English class. The tingling, the insomnia, become the way to do it all without stopping. But on Sundays, I always feel like crap, its hard to leave the bed, hard not to cry about every little thing. Making myself tea or making the bed becomes an extreme sport, my body is a numbed animal that comes back to life every Monday.
Sylvia Aguilar Zeleny
Telling people about my anxiety disorder typically goes something like this:
1. Try to remember how to breathe.
2. Breathe in. (Off to a good start, I think, ever-optimistically. We’ve got this breathing thing down. Breathing like a pro.)
4. Try to remember what words are, using the writhing morass formerly known as my brain.
6. Panic, as time stretches out and blood begins to rush in my ears.
7. Eventually figure out the right words and say them.
8. Caveat aforementioned words with all sorts of reassuring additional words to prove I'm not crazy, unstable, or unhinged.
9. Babble extensively and near-incoherently, providing plentiful evidence to contradict (8).
10. Hope for the best. The irony isn't lost on me: talking about having anxiety, as it so happens, gives me anxiety.
Anxiety is not a choice; some accuse me of enjoying the act of worrying or creating unnecessary drama for myself, and have called my affliction merely a “phase,” “season of our friendship,” “not trusting God enough,” or a “hard time in my life.” Unlike their advice, I cannot merely “get over it” or “stop worrying,” because anxiety is a daily battle that I fight against.
Anxiety is the condition in which your mind plays a tape of your worst fears on repeat. Habitual circular thinking, muscle tension, and constant worry are an anxious person’s norm. It is a humbling experience to recognize my occasional need for someone to gently help point out to me my pattern of thinking something over and over and over again. It is even more difficult when I am on my own to catch myself before I begin to fall. Learning to recognize my thoughts on my own is exhausting because it's paradoxical: You are trying to catch yourself before the anxiety attack happens in the first place, and the anticipation of your own anxiety attack is anxiety-inducing in itself.
In order to cope with anxiety, it requires of me a constant choice to be in the present. Anxiety is a ubiquitous but manageable part of my biological makeup. Anxiety makes up a part to a whole and complete human being who is just as normal as you are. We have our own dreams, our own joys, and our own fantastical escapades that have us running around, loving and experiencing the magic of life—it’s just that those instances are seemingly rare in the midst of our anxious episodes.
I don’t particularly favor terms such as mental illness, crazy, disorder, disease, or condition, not because I fail to recognize that something is “wrong,” but precisely because I have suffered enough from my anxiety and thus refuse to allow it to label or define me. I have learned that anxiety is but another aspect to being myself, just as my infectious laugh or my love for life are engrained within my being.
I do not easily share about it, not because I am ashamed of myself, but because I know that anxiety can be difficult for others to accept or comprehend. Even entertaining the thought of putting my last name on this piece gives me chills, for I fear that one day, a school or parent could Google me and in reading about my honest, anxious struggles, deem me too “mentally unstable” to teach their kids.
I particularly hate quiet, long meetings where I can obsess so much over whether or not my stomach makes a noise I won't hear a word that's being said. The only exercise that ever worked for me was to write down everything I could possibly fear. The list varied with everything from a bug in my shoe while driving to nuclear war. As I read the list, I laughed so hard because it all looked so silly. It helped me see how ludicrous it all was... until the next day when I shook out my shoes before driving again.
I should mention that I have good reason to check my shoes. Once while I was on the air, working at a local radio station, I actually discovered a dead cricket in my shoe. I tried to maintain a calm, composed voice, while flipping the shoe off so hard it hit the back wall. So again, this was a case of, It happened to me before. It might happen again. To this day I'm relieved I didn't notice it while driving. I would have wrecked for sure.
Imagine each stressor as a blanket. The day-to-day stress is just a sheet, covering you as you lay in bed. Most people sleep with a blanket or sheet each night. This is nothing new; it's comfortable and normal.
Then you get a flat tire. Add a blanket. Then your job is in jeopardy because a grant may not be renewed. Add a fleece throw. Your child is sick. Add two duvets.
You start to feel the pressure. You have to take off the covers one at a time to stay comfortable—to help you breathe. To save you from sweaty, sleepless nights.
Imagine this, but your bedroom is 98 degrees at all times. Like a hot, humid, Miami day (without the cool beaches and strong drinks). Now add the blankets back on. This is what life is like for me.
Once all the blankets are on, everything becomes a nightmare. Chewing noises from my husband. The sound of a keyboard clicking. The way the air blows on my face. The sound of a fork on teeth. My chest feels tight. Every time, I'm convinced I'm having a heart attack.
This is what life is like with anxiety. I'm convinced I could have a heart attack any day. I read books about stress. Stress causes ulcers. Stress causes high blood pressure. Stress causes weight gain. Stress causes headaches. Stress can cause heart attacks. I'm sure I'm going to die every time. But somehow I survive.
I had a backup plan for everything. If you gave me an apocalyptic scenario, I’d give you a plan to survive it. Zombies? No problem. I was resourceful. Once, I was abandoned by a friend two days after moving in with her in Eugene, Oregon. She left for vacation and never came back; I was evicted, lived in my car, worked and saved money for deposit and first on a studio, the left the state 15 pounds lighter a year later. I’ve lived in a van with my boyfriend on the street in ghetto-land, and shared a 650 foot trailer in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ve eaten ramen for 10 days straight and spaghetti noodles for a month. I splurged for spaghetti sauce and lime soda…
I have to tell myself no to negative thoughts. I have to run and train for half-marathons. I have to go out of my way to be social. My reward? I sat in my car the other day and realized that this time next year, I’ll be doing what I’m doing now, watching episodes of Doctor Who with my cats, teaching, eating, and living. I don’t have to move if I don’t want and I don’t have to eat ramen again on principle.
San Jose, California
One day I felt that there were three crows following me on the street and became scared. I saw an awful therapist who told me that the "bad spirit" that inhabited my mother's body was trying to get to me, and I began having panic attacks. I couldn't sleep without a movie playing on my laptop in my bed. I felt more alone than I'd ever felt in my life; as if an invisible wall separated me from other people.
I realize now that I was so scared of being hurt that I couldn't let people get close to me. I made it through the year after my mother's suicide by setting goals for myself, as well as being gentle with myself. My grandfather had been Buddhist and I started practicing meditation and yoga in earnest. I made sure to get exercise every day. I took classes at the local community college and decided to apply to "real" colleges…
I still deal with the anxiety that became nearly intolerable after my mother's death. But I work through it, and I remind myself that everyone, to a certain degree, deals with anxiety and fear about life. Life is scary. But I also want to enjoy the beauty and accept myself for what I am, anxiety and all.
The English language needs a word for wanting to be dead. Not for wanting to kill yourself; it has a word for that. But I don’t get suicidal. I spend no time writing farewell notes or considering alternative plans to ending it all. I don’t want to kill myself. I just want to be dead, desperately, because it is terrifying to reside inside my own body.
The Bible wrote of demons. Edgar Allen Poe called it madness. Shock-therapy prescribers of the 1950s referred to nervous breakdowns. A present-day psychiatric nurse diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and panic attacks. It feels more like demons.
My “disorder” is of a complex and cumulative nature. As a sufferer of fructose malabsorption, I routinely battle the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The cramps, hot flashes, muscle weakness, and frequent urges to rush to the bathroom sometimes make it challenging to keep my game face on in my classroom full of high school students awaiting their next instruction. On March 26, 2009, when a panic attack added hyperventilation, dizziness, heart palpitations, and numbing sensations to the usual fare, it became impossible.
My first panic attack landed me on the floor of my classroom followed by the couch of a psychiatric nurse who prescribed Klonopin, Xanax, and Zoloft. My husband says I was a mess. He says I needed the medication. I don’t disagree with the first statement…
School was my safe haven. ... In the classroom, it all melted away. I knew many of my students experienced as much or more chaos in their homes as I did in mine. I became attuned to it. So I maintained a place we could all feel safe and supported, intelligent and cultured. We studied Shakespeare and Swift, Dickinson and Twain. We read and wrote, digested and discussed. I distributed school supplies, granola bars, and winter jackets to the kids who came to English class with needs that stretched far beyond literary awareness and basic writing skills. My classroom was a place of peace and hope and learning. Until it all came crashing down.
I spent four weeks at home after my first panic attack which hit me right at the start of first period on some random Thursday. I couldn’t surrender my students to a substitute who didn’t love Nathaniel Hawthorne the same way I did, so I continued to write lesson plans and grade papers, but I couldn’t do the actual teaching. The triple-tiered medication program I had been prescribed left me listless and confused. I spent more time drooling than ambling around the living room, which is as far as I ventured to go for three weeks. I felt stuck, not only in my home, but in some surreal region between life and death a station kind of like purgatory, only not as nice and without any promise of a better future.
I felt trapped on a strange plane of spiritual nonexistence wherein my physical body continued to be reflected by a mirror. The claustrophobic feeling I once had as a child climbing through caves with my dad now overwhelmed me again, only I wasn’t in a cave. I was in my own body, and I couldn’t get out, because I wasn’t actually suicidal. Instead, I lived; with the constant and terrifying knowledge that I was stuck in my still-breathing body which floated in a plane of spiritual death, I lived. Yet absolutely nothing mattered now. ... It was as though I had plugged one too many power cords into my nervous system, and a circuit had blown. My emotional state of being had been overloaded, and my physical body had just delivered the news.
Frequently during those four weeks, the undercurrent of terror broke through in the form of another full-fledged panic attack, but gradually, reality seeped back into my unreality at the corners and around the edges. I returned to school and weaned myself off of all of my medications. I obtained a clear diagnosis for my digestive problems and began to figure out some of the triggers to my intestinal attacks. ...
Yet my anxiety symptoms continue to have a feather trigger. Stomach cramps that threaten to make me call in sick, holiday arrangements that produce shared custody arguments between my daughter and her ex, everyday work and home life stresses, natural menstrual cycle fluctuations, or even the sudden slamming of a textbook on a desktop can awaken my demons. Suddenly I’m sweating, my tongue goes numb, and my mouth tastes metallic. If I accept it and ride it out calmly, it may subside in less than an hour, leaving behind only a week or two of the residual effects of shakiness, muscle fatigue, and general anxiety symptoms mild enough to cover up in public. If I fight it, I’m right back to wanting to be dead.
Talking about it scares people. They think I’m suicidal. My score on a stress survey given at a recent educators’ stress management seminar even proclaimed that I was. Other participants visibly shuddered when I, in turn, reported my score aloud. Colleagues aren’t the only ones freaked out. My children become bewildered when I slump into one of my “moods.” A well-meaning friend suggested I admit myself into an institution where “this thing” could be conquered once and for all.
I don’t know what “this thing” is, or if it can be “conquered once and for all...” I only know I am not alone. ... We are often silent and hiding out of shame and embarrassment, but we are here. I may be proclaiming this reality in seemingly stark solitude, but I am not alone.
I leave the house less and less. Social interactions are more and more stressful. The drinking I had given up for more than a year is coming back with force. I take melatonin every night to sleep because it's the only thing that shuts my brain up. Of course my depression is coming back because I feel terrified to leave our home most days. When I do it's only familiar places. Did I mention the ectopic pregnancy in August of this year? Yeah, it sucked. And screwed me up even more.
I'm looking for a new doctor, hoping to get some help, but at this point I have a very hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And my brain just never stops. The term is “catasrophizing.” When someone figures out how to control it, please shoot me an email or something.
I'm still battling it, but thanks to therapy, medication, a supportive family, and a new, exciting job offer, I no longer feel the weight of my self-doubt. There are moments where I panic, but I don't let it completely wash over me like it did before.
Changing one thing in my life didn't do it. Overcoming my anxiety and depression was a slow, gradual change that took everyone in my life and all of my strength to overcome. I had to learn to notice when I was handling a situation well, and to give myself credit. I had to learn how to articulate my feelings to those around me, and not shut off completely. The process of retraining your brain is a grueling and exhausting one, but it can be done.
I'm so glad The Atlantic is doing a series on this because too often when I attempted to reach out for help, the only piece of advice I got was "just try to calm down." It's so much more than that. We are not powerless, but we have to start thinking about anxiety in a new way.
Exercise is usually touted as a way to ease anxiety and depression. Studies prove its efficacy and the doctors all recommend it. What happens, however, when it is exercise that causes you to have panic attacks? What is the treatment plan then?
I’ve been afflicted with panic disorder since childhood, except I wasn’t officially diagnosed until after college. I have always been an active person. I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly guys, so you either played ball with them or didn’t play outside at all-and I had speed, so I always was a contender in races. The full-blown panic attacks didn’t start to occur consistently until I started to run competitively in junior high. For a while I had an inhaler because they thought I had exercised-induced asthma. However, it probably doesn’t take a medical degree to realize that when you suddenly start to sweat, can’t breathe, and have chest pains in the shower at the age of 12 that my shortness of breath wasn’t caused by constricted airways, rather, a malfunction of neural pathways.
Several decades worth of panic episodes while exercising which, in me, triggers an instant attempt to alleviate the perceived breathing difficulties by grabbing at and lifting up my sports bra at the sternum has left its mark not only on my psyche but also in the form of a bruise-like callus on the breastbone (this also lends itself to even more panic with every new boyfriend to whom I have to explain the crippling panic episodes that happen while attempting to walk the dog).
Like most people with anxiety, I’ve tried all the drugs, counseling, read all the self-help books, and taken yoga classes; therefore, the only thing that is left is to just grin and bear it and try to force myself to run through the panic that sets in as soon as my heart rate increases, I start sweating, and my body goes into full-on panic mode. Lately, most runs have ended in frustration, tears, depression, and inevitable weight gain, but every now and then I’ll get in a good workout. So, I’ll be lacing up my shoes and heading out again because I’m stubborn—I’ll keep trying because I am determined not to let anxiety get the best of me. And the dog needs the exercise.
My personal hell to knock on the door of was HIV-hypochondria. I went to get tested every three weeks. Of course I had always had a condom on. All the tests came out negative, but I was sure I could be in my window period, or it could be a rare strain of the virus, or whatever else my fevered imagination could come up with. An anxious person can't be bothered with common sense.
Most people have experienced stupefying fear, I guess, so I'll spare you the details. It was nothing more than such a period lasting 2.5 years. I wasn't able to get myself together, either waiting for my test results to pop up in my mailbox or reading countless pages of issue-related forums. Temporary asylums in yoga, psychotherapy and trips abroad helped me to gain strength and remain functional now and then, but the effect never lasted.
I had been killing myself for some 30 months until the fear started leaving and then deserted once and for all. The piece of advice, “Instead of adding years to your life, try adding life to your years,” I had read and understood long before reached my heart. But I accepted it at last! It was the right time as I had been running out of blood by then. I could have donated it for a good cause but wasted it on tests trying to curb the fear for my precious life. If you are experiencing anxiety, just keep living with it day by day, and your mighty mind will sort it out once. Make yourself walk a lot and work out, seek professional help and keep looking for the way out yourself. As Susan Sontag put it, “It's hard not to be afraid. Be less afraid.”
Sundays were always the day of torture because school followed and in school I was anxious, nauseous and miserable. These Sunday feelings followed me until retirement when the day melted into the others. And, it wasn't only Sunday, I was always anxious with that pit-in-the-stomach feeling most of my life, except when I was making food.
When I was 23 years old, I got married and the entire day I was so thick with dread that I could hardly speak to anyone. There were several hours between the actual religious ceremony where we were married and the reception. My new wife expected us to be spending that time together. However, I told her I needed to go home and sleep before the reception and left her at her parents' home, baffled and angry at my seeming insensitivity. But I was so exhausted from fear that I simply couldn't function…
When we got a dog, I couldn't sleep at all the first night he was there. When I started a new job, I had to drive around for two hours the night before to calm myself down. When my son went to Scout Camp for the first time, every time the phone rang I expected it to be someone reporting some horrible thing that had happened to him. I hate attending parties, I get nervous talking to strangers, I get headaches and stomachaches, I sometimes struggle to sleep, and I constantly anticipate that one horrible event (death/illness/loss) that will utterly destroy me physically and/or psychologically.
And the greatest irony: a colleague of mine said he admired my ability to always remain so calm. That is a persona that I have cultivated for a long, long time. In fact, as I typed up this account, my teenaged daughter walked by. I quickly switched to another Internet page.
On top of anxiety, I used to wet my pants when I laughed really hard as a child, which led me to fear hanging out with my funniest friends during lunchtime. On really bad days in elementary school, the nurse would give me a change of pants and send me home with my original, drying pants in a brown paper bag. My only real therapy for this came in college, years and years after the problem went away.
Fooling around with a beautiful girlfriend, I made a wet spot in my pants for an entirely different reason. I told her the story above and she obliged me by putting my pants in a brown paper bag. I'm not sure what I wore home, but somehow this simple and absurd act made me less neurotic. Not only did my girlfriend not head for the hills after hearing my story and request, but also the absurdity of it all helped me overcome much of my anxiety. It helps to remember that *life* is absurd, I suppose.
The first time I had a really bad anxiety attack, I was a sophomore in college. I'd figured out by then I probably had some sort of generalized anxiety disorder but I wasn't insured and the campus counseling center seemed too strapped for me to go there when I felt like I could cope pretty well with the anxiety (in reality, I couldn't: I started becoming dependent on Nyquil to sleep, I drank A LOT of alcohol that eventually caused me legal trouble, and I wasn't the nicest friend to have, although I tried to convince myself I was).
I lived in constant anxiety but I was so used to it, it felt normal. But I had my first real anxiety attack one afternoon after someone I had been seeing left town for an extended period of time. This person had become a sort of rock for me, who seemed to not mind me getting too drunk around him and somehow managed to make me feel like he supported my career and school while also not making me think about it too much. He was, for all intents and purposes, a boyfriend I never called my boyfriend.
I spent a lot of time with him, and the day he went out of town was an unseasonably warm day in January. I walked home from class to take a nap before an evening class but as soon as I got to my room, I started having trouble breathing. And then I started crying. I didn't know if my roommates were home, so I turned on the TV and put on Spongebob Squarepants. (It was the loudest thing I could find.) I tried laying down to calm myself down but it didn't work. I kept crying and it was still hard to breathe. I assumed I was upset about my "boyfriend" leaving, but I found myself getting upset about things that happened years before. Eventually, my breathing went back to normal and I got my crying under control but I was shaken for the rest of the day. I did go to class, but I left early to lay in bed. I haven't had anything like that happen to me since, but I'm also more aware of the conditions that lead up to it: there are days of me wanting to be alone, feeling really lost in my own thoughts about things that don't matter anymore and being very sensitive and easily irritated. When those things start to happen, I let myself have the space and time I need, which I think has let me avoid having another severe anxiety episode like the one I had.
You may have found it odd that I referred to anxiety as my "buddy" and "pal" however, that's just how it is. See, I've accepted my genetic predisposition, as well as the early life stressors that set that predisposition into motion. And when I take it all into account, anxiety's presence in my life doesn't shock me in the least. I mean, how else would I expect to be?
Rochester Hills, Michigan
At age 73 I had a mental and physical breakdown that consisted of, initially, an extreme onset of high blood pressure that woke me up in the middle of the night and a trip to the ER… I had no idea of what Ayurveda was, although I’d studied and practiced Yoga for at least 15 years. I’ve been working with the practitioner and have followed an Ayurvedic regimen for a year and a half now.
I was ready for some kind of alternative or holistic approach and when this came along I followed it, and it affected a complete change of lifestyle that has helped me physically and mentally although I’m not cured. However, there is no cure for old age. I will turn 75 in 2014, and this is possibly the best I may ever feel given the changes that have occurred in me physically and mentally but I’m hopeful about getting even better although progress is slow... I don’t have panic attacks anymore, and I have mild “flows” of anxiety at times that come and go. I no longer take medication of any kind except eye drops for glaucoma. My blood pressure, although higher than “normal,” I suspect the health care industry regarding what’s normal, and have little trust in conventional health care because it’s intensely profit driven. I sleep okay but characteristic of old age elements of insomnia. I’m able to do yard work I couldn’t do at all years ago, and I’ve lost about 25 pounds which helps with everything.
I have only a rudimentary understanding of Ayurveda, although I continue to learn more, an ancient Hindu practice that combines a cultural, religious orientation with an age old, divinely inspired medical regimen and philosophy. I was diagnosed by my practitioner and treated with herbs; a form of massage and bodywork called Breema, therapeutic yoga, and have changed my diet and life style completely. I only eat foods that support my constitution as understood by Ayurveda, maintain a strict routine of going to bed early and early rising, and spend about two hours a day doing yoga, pranayama, Chi Gong, meditating, and walking. I’m also intently aware of stressors and addictive elements of all kinds and avoid whatever I can that is stressful and/or has the potential for addiction.
The intent of Ayurveda is to put the body and mind back in balance after disease and to maintain this balance toward health and longevity. The idea is to activate and distribute prana, the life force, Chi, in Chinese medicine to maintain health in the mind and body.
In the midst of all of this I found love on the Internet and am in a committed domestic partnership with a loving and supportive woman.
Southern Pines, North Carolina
I didn't sleep for more than three hours per night for months. I was so afraid that something terrible would happen when I slept. I was always afraid that something terrible would happen to the people I loved. That was the crux of my anxiety, something that started with a tiny thought that became a full-blown obsession, a repetition that forced its way into my consciousness every minute of every day. "What if something is wrong? What if you lose them?"
There's a lot of stigma against anxiety. It tends to be dismissed as just a transient feeling, a disorder that isn't real, something that you can get over if you try hard enough. None of that is true. If it were an imaginary illness, I would not have lost sleep, I would not have hurt myself, I would not have scared everyone I knew and driven away others who couldn't deal with it.
Yes, those feelings I had that drove me into the ground were caused by faulty wiring in my brain, by terrible patterns of thought, but they were very real.
Mahopac, New York
A Kenmore Two-Door Elite refrigerator is my arch nemesis. Not just any old Kenmore. Our Kenmore. The one that lives in the kitchen shared by my husband, our two kids, and me. That bright white behemoth scares the metaphorical pants off me... More often than is reasonable, Kenmore defeats me—I lose the courage to open him up and take inventory of his inscrutable interior. This makes no sense, as I am armed with several higher degrees and opposable thumbs. But you never know what spore colonies may lurk inside him, and as it happens, I am also morbidly frightened of mold. I know this is illogical. I know that if I don't eat it, mold can't hurt me. But still, it scares the crap out of me.
When we are reduced to eating crackers and dry cereal for dinner because I cannot look into Kenmore's dark belly, [my husband] performs an angry fridge intervention, throwing out deceased vegetables and solidified dairy products and liquefied/petrified foodstuffs of indeterminate provenance, all the while giving me his two cents about wasted food.
Inaudible biological blows had borne down tracks of endless harpoons that had punctured my tangible skin, pierced my Roma eyes and carved this once wild-waking and organic psyche into corridors and angles. The better angels had been slumbering whilst violent geometry goose stepped what little soul of man was left into corners of perdition. Nature, riven from its awe remained upended: alone within a matrix of obdurate distrust and disconnect from daylight and discussion.
Vacations are the worst. You would think that they would be times of relaxation; but with unstructured routines and circumstances prime for being alone, vacations are situations where I bask not in sunshine, but in my own unsettled thoughts. Vacations bring on a plethora of anxieties that cram every moment of the 10-12 hour wakeful day of every supposedly "vacation" day with worries, fears, hand tremblings, heart palpitations, and head aches.
It is as if my over-energetic and creative brain is searching out for the next reason to be anxious or nervous. And yet, I sometimes don't even have the energy or drive to get out of the house or change my daily routine and do something that will help alleviate the burden of this condition. My family has had enough of me; they are tired of the panicked calls and anxious dramas. If I hint my worries to friends, they either deny my feelings or keep me at a safe distance. It is a burden to them, as it is to me.
Cold, hard facts are helpful. I search the Internet to find answers. Answers about the flu (I am sure I will catch it and die), cancer (I am sure that spot is cancer), heart attack (I am sure that pain in my side is a warning), Dengue Fever (I am sure the bug bite on my grandson is from a mosquito carrying the disease), unhealthy food, water, environment. The list goes on and on. I read constantly about healthy habits and how to avoid unhealthy ones, to avoid those situations that may trigger another panic attack concerning my health or the health of my family.
I go to counseling; this doc says that it is a situation where I have identified anxiety as me, I have allowed it to become my personality. Fine, but I still tremble and fret.
I refuse meds; totally unhealthy. The strong phobia after effect is more enduring than the current panic.
I hope that a religion will resonate with me so I search the faiths to find a truth that will allow me to let go of the anxieties. But then I need to summon my meager stores of energy to get dressed formally and travel outward to the faith center to socialize alone in a new and foreign situation; and it is so easy for me to create an excuse to remain where I am safe in my own home.
Thank goodness for my passion for teaching students with dyslexia. I can relate to the daily struggles that these children endure to engage in the “simple” acts of reading and/or writing. I can leave my home, and with complete engagement, sit down and dig in to the laborious, challenging, sometimes frustratingly slow, work of educating a student as to how to read and write. And I am thrilled with each and every small step of progress that they make. And it is bittersweet when the time comes when they say thank you and they leave me, with skills, abilities and confidence, to fly on their own.
Gosh I wish I had someone to do that with and for me, to help me overcome my anxiety.
I have to say, my life has gotten a bit better since I started taking pills and talking to a therapist. I take Zoloft, an SSRI. I don't know if it does anything for me, and I don't think psychiatry actually knows why it would do anything. But in any case, it's nice to have that sense of control, however illusory, and I take Zoloft every night as part of my bedtime routine.
Anxiety (as well as its physical manifestations) are also routine; what Billie Joe Armstrong described in a 90s pop-punk song as a constant worry about nothing and everything all at once. Its effects are so embedded in my life that on one level it defines me and on another has become entirely mundane. On a daily basis, I feel tension, like an aching desire to move or stretch, all over my body, but especially in my jaw. Consequently, I take a lot of walks and frequently chew gum.
For more than a month I struggled to take a full breath, and always fell short of feeling satisfied. Thinking it was something to do with my usually dormant asthma, I scheduled an appointment with student health. But when they tested my peak flow, my number was above what was considered normal for not only women, but for men my age as well. After some probing from the RN, she told me it was anxiety, gave me a script for lorazepam and sent me on my way. Armed with the knowledge that I was only going "crazy" and not suffering from respiratory failure, I slowly calmed down and began to breathe again.
Fast forward to my last quarter in college: too scared to post required comments and ideas on my education class' online forum or talk to the professor about it, I end up failing the class. My first "F" ever. I spend the last months of my school career trying not to curl up into a ball and barricade myself in my apartment.
After graduation, it steadily gets worse. My student loans are looming and the thought of even submitting applications for jobs makes me feel panicked. I ignore the phone calls, emails, envelopes and I lie to my father about how often I'm looking at job listings (never) and how many applications I've submitted (none). One night I wake up at 4:30 AM and launch straight into a panic attack after a dream in which I read a student loan payment due notice.
I basically only leave the house during the day to go the library, because I don't have to talk to anyone there. I can't even tell my best friend that I'm breaking down; the only people not related to me that I talk to are friends from a close-knit online community that I am a part of; they don't know either. Every morning I wake up and cannot function because I have to distract myself from the weight of the anxiety sitting in my chest. I watch six 24-episode seasons of Supernatural in less than two weeks. This is not the only series that I consume in this way. I can't even read anymore; it doesn't provide enough distraction. Every day I tell myself that I will call the people who manage my student loans the next day, and never do. I default on my $30,000 loans even though I could have gotten an extension because I was unable to find a job. I just couldn't make the call.
A year and a half out of college, days before the 2012 election of a man who now makes me anxious, the thought that runs through my head on a loop all day, every day, is that I don't want to be here anymore. I want to die. What I really want is for someone else to kill me, but I start planning my own death because I know that's not likely to happen. I know I can't last much longer. I fear making a doctor's appointment as much as my student loans, but I somehow do it.
I cry and shake in the waiting room. I cry while the nurse tries to take my blood pressure. I cry waiting for the doctor to come in to the exam room. I cry while she asks me questions. I am still crying when I head downstairs to pick up my new sertraline (Zoloft) prescription from the pharmacy. A month later I cry through my intake session with the psychiatric department, and then through my first sessions with my new therapist and psychiatrist.
A year later, and I am stable. I maxed out on my dosage of sertraline, so my psychiatrist added another, venlafaxine, better known as Effexor. My dosage on that is still going up as I still struggle occasionally, but the side effects have gotten to be too much and I am planning on going off of it. I am finally able to apply for jobs and go to interviews, but even now anxiety and depression keep me from doing as much as I can. Probably because of my long-term unemployment, an abysmal credit rating, and lack of experience, nobody has wanted to take a chance on me so far. My dad, who has supported me since I graduated, is losing patience. At family get-togethers I still feel like crying every time an older relative asks me what I'm doing. It isn't over yet.
Los Angeles, California
The best thing that ever happened to me was to be surrounded by friends with mental illness. Depression, anxiety, manic depression; you name it, I had a friend in college with it. And because my friends shared their struggles with me, I suddenly had a name and a condition for what I had.
I had a name for the crippling stomach issues and feeling frayed and exhausted: it was anxiety eating away at my vitality. I was comforted to know it wasn't just me going crazy when I felt that I could cry so readily, and for what seems to be the simplest things.
You see, the most dangerous thing about anxiety is believing that you're the only one who can't "pull yourself together" or that you'll be shamed for having this issue. It makes you more alone, and that secret saps your strength almost as much as your illness does. And if you don't recognize it as an illness, and attempt to trudge through, it's a rough journey that might not ever end.
So to this day, I make a point of talking about my anxiety to my friends, both old and new. The amazing thing is, so many of my friends open up and share about their experiences, too, and they say it's a relief that they have someone who knows them. All of them.
When both my elderly parents were transported by ambulance from their home on the same day, never to return, my severe anxiety in the form of hypochondria began. My hands would ache terribly or they would become numb. I went to three doctors in one week convinced I had a brain tumor and every night I would study a medical encyclopedia and send my husband to my family doctor with a list of ailments I was sure I had. He would hide the encyclopedia from me, but I'd demand that he give it back, which he always did. Finally, the doctor called and told me to get hold of myself. I was at the height of severe anxiety.
When I was growing up, my dad was an alcoholic and my mom was bipolar; she later developed Alzheimer's disease. Although I had five brothers, I was the child that they looked to to make them happy and, in a way, rescue them from our parents' illnesses. I had always been able to "save" my parents in the past, but I could not prevent them from dying, so I became overwhelmed with fear, a great sense of failure, and anxiety.
My parents passed away long ago but every day is a struggle to a degree. I can go days without a hypochondria attack and then out of nowhere I am gripped with the fear that something is wrong. It can be anything from a lump somewhere on my body to being convinced that my teeth are moving around in my head.
When an attack comes on, I talk myself through it or I tell my husband and he uses his gift of great common sense to calm my fears. He often tells me that I am the kindest and most caring person he has ever known. Each time he tells me, I am surprised.
I have spent most of my life not enjoying praise but, instead, being full of worry and self-doubt but on the other hand I am intensely aware of the feelings and fears of others and to me this is a blessing that comes of my anxiety.
I am now in counseling and take medication on a daily basis and am better but have more work to do. I do not believe I will ever be free of anxiety. What I believe is more important is that I accept myself and realize that I deserve to be happy.
I like to think that I'm anxious because I'm sensitive and highly attuned to thoughts, feelings, and issues concerning me and others. It makes me a caring and conscientious person, and despite years of feeling like I'm flawed and somehow not as good, I realize now that everything I do is simply amazing and worth celebrating because it hasn't come easily. Every victory for me has been hard-won.
Thank you for being a part of this discussion. I hope it keeps going.
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