Just hearing or reading the word “anxiety” used to simultaneously make my mind race and stomach knot. For the better part of a decade, my talking about anxiety and panic attacks was taboo. To openly discuss it was to acknowledge its existence and to, therefore, welcome it into my life again and again. I don’t think I talked about it willingly with anyone until they were virtually non-existent, managed by medication. If it sounds relentless and powerful, I assure you, it is. 9/11 is the referential event I use when I talk about the roots of my anxiety. I had panic attacks and anxiety for probably a year or two before, but I know that by the time the towers fell, I was full-fledged and mangled in an anxious hell. I specifically remember that whole day being the worse day of 5th grade.
There’s this Modest Mouse lyric: “The years go fast but the days go so slow”. This is the epitome of my life with anxiety. My days away from home (five of seven being school-aged) drug out for what felt like forever until I got to go home. Then, just like that, I was older and looking back wondering how it could’ve gone on for so long. I think it’s the routine; something so second nature that it just hitches a ride with life.
How it comes, how it goes:
Anxiety lingers. It sleeps with an eye open. It waits for vulnerability—any inclination. For years, my days started and ended the same way. I had the same wish for each day: “Please just one day without an attack”. Some days started more promising than others. Most of the time, however, I knew they would inevitably end the same. Everything starts out fine; my mind is occupied and focused on outside stimuli, everything’s normal. Then a triggering thought enters my head—either by outside stimuli or mind wandering (which I do a lot). The thought constricts; routine thinking is at a standstill. I backtrack but I can’t shake the thought. I know this thought provokes panic attacks and I try my hardest to distract away from it. I try for minutes to focus on outside stimuli (if it’s a familiar environment) or I try and think of calming things. 97% of the time, I fail to redirect my thoughts. Physical symptoms start to set in. My heart starts racing, I feel hot, and my stomach is in knots. My mind is a skipping record, stuck playing “what if’s” and “go wrongs”. I try to keep my composure—I don’t want people to think I’m crazy. I try and remove myself to a quiet, safe place. Often times a bathroom. I hope no one knows this is happening to me. I dress down if possible to try to get rid of my hot flashes. I sit on the toilet and try relieving the pressure in my gut. I rock back and forth trying to trick my body into thinking my rapid heart rapid is from physical exertion. I try some deep breathing. I repeat: “This, too, shall pass” over and over in my head. I don’t stay in the bathroom long—the last thing I want is to bring attention to myself. I return either feeling better or still trying to manage my inner war. Either way, I am exhausted. Until I am able to be home, alone, in my safest of places, I am teetering on the edge of another attack. It’s in the back of my mind. I try to keep busy and focused, as not to wake the monster while he restlessly naps; preparation for the next attack is surely underway.
This was my normal. Some people use the word “anxiety” lightly. I do not and never have. When I refer to anxiety, I know full well the depths it reaches. But at nine or ten years old, I knew no better. I didn’t have the words to describe this unwelcome sensation happening to me so I settled for: “I feel sick”. These are the words that had me pegged a liar, a truant, a rebel, a pubescent girl—at ten years old. I was none of these things, of course. A proper diagnosis proved these to have been quickly made misconceptions. But I wouldn’t get a diagnosis—or treatment—for another couple of years. Unfortunately, the way I see it, the damage had already been done. Self-fulfilling prophecy has a funny way of making things happen. Within 5 years, I would be all of these preconceived things and more. Anxiety had manifested itself and brought with it a few of its closer friends.
I am not proud that I allowed anxiety to take control of my life for so long. I had very few friends in the latter half of elementary school into middle school and the ones that I had knew something wasn’t right with me. They would pass it off that I was something of a scared hypochondriac—always sick, always gone. I often times left sleepovers early though I’d come packed for the night with the intention to stay. I truly yearned for deep friendship—anything to help me to feel like a normal kid. But it wasn’t easy to come by and I still struggle with being social (though booze helps, I’m not an alcoholic though, I swear). I’ve been told at first impressions that I can come off aloof and I’ve been told I have a mad resting bitch face. I can only think that my anxiety has instilled some social defense mechanisms within my being to keep others out. It’s like my subconscious knows I have too much going on already and couldn’t possibly handle anymore. It’s probably done me a lot of good in the past, but it’s an unfortunate burden now. So, if I’ve ever given the impression that I am too self-invested—well I am, but not in the way you’d think. I’m just always hard at work upstairs, still figuring out who I am. But I’ve digressed.
As of the age of seventeen, I have made the decision to do away with medication management for my anxiety. I have grown to accept that it is a part of who I am and that the best thing I can do (like other phobias) is go through it, get to know it, and learn to manage it independently. Luckily, by this time, I’d had a great deal of experience and had a much more defined sense of self. To this day, new experiences are a surefire way of bringing on some unwanted attention from anxiety. But by now, everyone that matters knows about it and won’t make me feel bad for missing out to take a mental health day. Thinking back to where I was as opposed to where I am now brings all kinds of emotions. There was a period of time that I preferred death to life. I get emotional thinking about what I wouldn’t have experienced—I’ve managed to achieve, gain, and become things I never thought would happen for me. It’s been surreal getting to this place.
Now that I am older, I’m frankly pretty pissed off that I felt abnormal for so many years. I missed out on so much. I grew into a “scary world-conscious” person way too soon. My path in life could’ve taken a totally different course had I just understood or had someone that did. I totally get that adults probably didn’t deem it necessary to talk to kids about disorders in the late 90’s/early 00’s, but I hope that there is a more open dialogue between parents, professionals, and other child stakeholders on the matter nowadays. I plan to be honest and open about mental health with my kiddo. Besides, it’s entirely possible she will be genetically blessed with “crazy” herself and I don’t want her to ever feel as alone as I did. With how common mental illness is—I don’t think anyone should be made to feel alone with it. Ever.