A Year with Anxiety
My story with anxiety started the way that many do: denial. It is uncomfortable to talk about mental health despite the efforts of many people to make it less stigmatized. The things that accompany this illness are confusing and strange, and for me, easily dismissed until they become too large to be ignored.
I had my first panic attack the weekend my brother got engaged. It is really unfortunate that these two events, one wonderful and one devastating, will forever be entwined. Oddly enough, I hadn’t dealt with any anxiety until that weekend. Sure, I got the occasional nerves around normally stressful events like traveling and public speaking but I handled most of those with relative calm. I had not experienced the debilitating worry that I had heard others talk about. I was blindsided by it.
I remember the event very clearly. I was lying in bed in my brother’s apartment and couldn’t sleep, something I normally don’t have issues with, when I realized my heart rate felt fast. Soon, I was Googling symptoms (I know, big mistake) and breathing exercises. My thoughts spiralled into worrying if something serious was happening. Should I wake my brother? After hours of trying to slow this worry, I was sweating excessively, dry heaving, and curled on the bathroom floor.
Anxiety is never straightforward, but the events around that weekend were obviously stressful. I had just learned that I wouldn’t be attending a PhD program due to funding, after my second unsuccessful attempt. My boyfriend and I didn’t know where our relationship was going because our last plan, other than getting married, had fallen through. My best friend was moving away. It was the last week of the semester.
The weeks after were fine. I don’t remember anything strange. I dove into grading and went straight into a summer job. The next three months following were odd though. During the evenings, I would feel strangely uncomfortable. Odd chest pain, light-headedness, general discomfort. It happened so sporadically that it was a challenge to figure it out. Was it heartburn? Did it only happen when I ate badly? Was it because I wasn’t at home and felt uneasy? Was I just tired? I tried altering what I ate and where I went, but still, the feelings persisted.
In the Thick of It
I tried to ignore it which is what I tend to do with most problems. It came to a head the day before I was set to leave for two weeks in Europe. Generally when I am feeling bad the night before, a good night’s sleep fixes it. This time, not the case. I woke up nauseous and with chest discomfort. I felt like I was in a fog. I decided I should finally visit a doctor so I did. She listened to my heart and breathing and decided it was likely due to inflamed ribs. After all, I had been doing a lot of physical activity and heavy lifting so this made sense. She prescribed ibuprofen and sent me away.
I took a bottle of ibuprofen and went to Europe. I had a good time travelling around, but remember frequently feeling tired and worried, especially when in new places. I popped ibuprofen whenever I felt uncomfortable and it was okay. I iced my chest. I thought that after not being too active for a while, the pain would go away.
It didn’t. In fact, the pain that used to be sporadic was now becoming frequent. Almost every day there was some kind of discomfort whether it be pain, nausea, worry, or all three. I thought that getting back into a teaching routine would help; surely that would fix things.
Within the first few weeks of school starting, I had another panic attack on a day that I was supposed to be teaching. Again, I woke up sweaty, nauseous, lightheaded, and in pain. I dry heaved into the toilet. I thought maybe I was coming down with something so I stayed home, but felt better pretty soon after sending the email that classes were cancelled.
My mom, who I was living with, had started to wonder if how bad I’d been feeling for weeks wasn’t necessarily physical, but mental. She suggested I see someone; I booked an appointment that week. I had another panic attack on my next teaching day, but I went anyways.
Seeing a therapist helped a lot. As I have said before, the cause of anxiety is difficult to pin down, but I began to understand that my stress wasn’t coming out of nowhere. After recently becoming engaged, I was forced to reckon with the upcoming loss of moving away from my family and home, alongside the logistical stress of planning a wedding and moving overseas. After all, I did have an emotional breakdown in Berlin about missing out on seeing my brother’s future children grow up and seeing my aging grandparents only once a year. This change was not the easy, breezy decision I had pretended it was.
In the months following my first therapy appointment, my anxiety improved. I began doing yoga and learned mindfulness and breathing techniques. I started pursuing hobbies again. I talked more honestly with my loved ones about the pain I was going through.
Unfortunately, habits are easy to fall in and out of. When visiting James over Christmas I fell back into old habits of spending too much time on social media and not spending any time meditating or doing yoga. Through most of the trip, I felt alright, but knew internally that this way of living wasn’t sustainable for my mental health. When out with friends in the city, I had one of the most severe panic attacks I’ve ever had completely out of the blue. I felt like I was no longer in my present body, like I was dying. I cried in public. It took hours to come out of.
After returning home, my anxiety only worsened. I received news that my job’s hours were being cut by a third which threw me into an anxious spiral. I had pounding headaches and couldn’t go a day without feeling physically anxious. After about a week and a half of this, I went and saw my general doctor. He prescribed me anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication that would help me get through the difficulties I’d been having.
Although my anxiety is not something I try and hide from people, I found it difficult to tell people I had gone on medication for it. I felt a deep shame about needing medicine to fix something that, in my head at least, should have been fixable on my own. As if I was simply not strong enough or smart enough to do it on my own. I felt as though I had given up.
But I haven’t given up, in fact, the medication gave me the strength to do the things I’d been wanting to do. I started exercising again. I was able to feel at least somewhat hopeful throughout the mind-numbing process of finding another job. Eventually, I felt proud of myself for doing what was necessary for my own well-being.
Over time, my baseline mood came back up to where it was before anxiety. I felt, although I hate using this word, normal again. Like myself. Even in the face of global pandemic, which I am sure would have thrown me into a spiral, I was able to cope reasonably well with the help of medication and my therapist.
One of the hardest facets of anxiety, for me, is being unable do anything without fear. I am nearly always thinking of what will happen if I become suddenly ill. It is not uncommon to fixate on things when you have anxiety, especially things related to illness. For me, my go-to worry is having a heart attack. Unfortunately, the symptoms nearly perfectly align with panic attack symptoms. Nevertheless, my brain cycles through a series of questions. Who will find me? How will I get to a hospital? Will they be able to help? Will I survive? To an outsider, and even to myself when I am outside of an anxious mindset, this seems ridiculous. I am a young, healthy woman with no known medical conditions. To my anxious brain, however, it is how I cope and control situations.
Before medication, it was rare that a week would go by without something anxiety-related occurring. It is truly astounding the amount of things the body and brain can do. Some symptoms are obvious and common—spiralling thoughts, chest pain, heart palpitations, nausea—while others make almost no sense at all—body weakness, jaw pain, pointed headaches. Of course, medication is not the only solution, and as my doctor(s) have noted, should be used in conjunction with counselling. What medication has done is allow me to return to the headspace I had before anxiety. It has allowed me the energy to pursue activities that help combat my symptoms like exercising, writing, seeing friends, and planning for the future. There are days when I think about how different my life on medication is compared to what it was without it. I am excited that my life has returned, at least somewhat, but worried that I may become dependent. What will happen when I decide to go off it? That is a problem for the future.
Even with my improvements, my anxiety hasn’t just gone away. I have made progress, but it isn’t linear. As someone who is very goal-oriented, it is difficult for me to keep going when I can’t see that something is working. I think I am getting better only to be knocked down again. However, I remember the really bad times. I remember when every day felt like struggle and I was in constant discomfort and worry. I had mostly stopped doing things I wanted to out of fear that something bad would happen, even if I knew my fears were illogical.
I am not “back to normal” nor do I know if I ever will be. It is difficult, as a person who clearly remembers their life before anxiety, not to hate myself. I sometimes wonder why I am not strong enough or smart enough to will the anxiety away, but that is not how this works. My life with anxiety is far from over and it could potentially last a lifetime. In the short time that I have noticed it, I have already seen it shift and change forms. I imagine it will continue to do so.
What has perhaps surprised me the most is how common these issues are. A good portion of people close to me deal with similar issues. Most of these people are white and middle class. If the people who are supposed to be doing the best are struggling, it might point to some additional issues going on. While I am no expert in these issues, I can see very clearly the influence of job instability, health insurance costs, social media, and generational tension has had on mental health. I think it is very much worth it to note that American healthcare is an added source of anxiety, especially when in already painful situations. Many of my worries are shrouded in the question of how will I (or my family) pay for this? It is unfair that anybody feels they should have to choose between their finances and feeling better, but many people in America are forced to make this choice daily. Additionally, it is widely given advice for people with mental health issues to “seek help” but few discuss the sheer amount of work and money it can take for people to find a therapist that is taking patients on their insurance, especially if they themselves are working full-time. All of this adds more anxiety to a person’s life that is completely unnecessary. Therapy usually isn’t cheap either. I’ve only been able to find help through the university I work for because they have reduced rates, but even that was short lived. I then put off the process of finding another therapist for four months because of the sheer amount of work it takes.
All in all, if I had any advice to someone dealing with similar issues, I may say the following. Firstly, anxiety is different in everyone. Just because your symptoms aren’t the same as mine, or what it says on the internet, doesn’t make your experience less valid. Secondly, it is worth it to seek help. Talking to others, especially mental health professionals, can make a huge difference in understanding yourself and your mental health. Thirdly, be kind to yourself. I think this is the most difficult piece of advice for me. I pretty consistently beat myself up for falling into old habits and going backwards instead of forwards. This is okay because this is the way life is. You’re doing great. Keep going. You are not alone. I believe in you.