Before I Knew It Was Anxiety, I Thought I Was Dying

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I went to class today with a stomach ache, deep in my gut. A stomach ache I recognized from countless nights and mornings before. Times of nervousness. Times of change. A stomach ache, that no matter how much I try, I can’t seem to ignore. While it goes away at times, it likes to hang around for entire days at a time. Today was one of those days. That pain in the core of my stomach has a name. It’s not the flu. It’s not digestive problems.

That stomach ache is called anxiety.

My earliest memories of this pain are from third grade. Almost every single night I experienced some sort of stomach pain. The pain made it difficult to sleep, and I woke up exhausted almost every morning. At the time, I thought I was sick. I thought I had some sort of terrible illness that was slowly killing me. I couldn’t figure out why I felt sick all the time. This continued intermittently through elementary and middle school.

Two years ago, it was awful. Stress doesn’t always cause anxiety, but it certainly makes it worse. And junior year, I was under a lot of stress. I got those same stomach aches as the earlier years of my life. But I didn’t know what they were. I thought that coffee was eroding my stomach lining (I used to drink up to 4 cups a day). I tried to think of physical excuses for the daily stomach aches that plagued me constantly. I knew I was stressed, but I had no idea that anxiety could cause physical symptoms. Even panic attacks, when I felt like my heart was exploding out of my chest and I couldn’t breathe; when all of my regrets and responsibilities flooded my mind without ceasing. Even with these, which I experienced several times a week, I had no idea I had anxiety.

Now, I know. Sometime in the past year, I started learning about anxiety. I started reading about it. The increased heart rate, the sweating, the stomach pains, the exhaustion at the end of every day: it all sounded familiar to me. Now, with a doctor’s diagnosis under my belt and regular counseling, I’m starting to learn to deal with my anxiety. I’ve been able to control a lot of it recently. I’ve become skilled at stopping panic attacks in their tracks. I’ve learned coping mechanisms to work through my general anxiety. And I’ve gotten a lot better.

But some days, like today, I feel it all again. I feel the pain deep in my gut, my heart beats faster and harder than usual, and by the end of the school day I’m completely exhausted. I can’t tell you what brought on my anxiety today. But I can tell you that after a nap after classes and avoiding people at all costs, I’m feeling a lot better. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel tomorrow. But I can tell you that I’ll survive.

So what does anxiety look like? It looks like a girl. A girl who probably looks pretty normal on the outside. A girl who attends school, gets her work done, and survives. But to her, it looks like pain, fear and self-hatred. And sometimes, it looks like hopelessness. Because all she can do is live day to day, and hope and pray anxiety doesn’t attack again.

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To the Entrepreneur or Business Owner Living With Anxiety

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You are not alone. You can be successful.

If you’ve just started your journey running your own business, don’t panic when the honeymoon stage is over. You’ve created a website and started emailing companies you think need your help. You’ve inhaled every business book and blog in the market.

Then, suddenly, everything feels like it’s falling apart.

No one is replying to your emails.

No one is following you on social media, and you’ve practically shouted from your e-rooftops who you are.

Needing some inspiration, you dig around the web and become bombarded with business coaches and gurus who say:

Accept rejection and move on. To you that means, you’ll have to somehow stop your brain from ruminating about what went wrong, if something could have been done better or if you could be better.

Be mentally tough to make it as a business owner. Now you start to roll your eyes. You click around from site to site, seeing the same well-dressed and perfectly manicured gurus saying to be strong.

Ha — I’m sure it’s pretty simple for you to stay strong when you don’t have to take a sedative every night just to fall asleep.

And the toughie: You finally make your mental fragility known — you tell a colleague or mentor. They tell you: Never talk about anxiety or any kind of mental illness when you’re an entrepreneur online. Potential clients could read it and decide not to work with you.

As a black woman with an unusual name, chances are people will click away from my website with bigoted and negative assumptions about my work ethic, attitude and intellect. I certainly can’t hide those parts of me.

So why should I hide my story?

Not to say you need to have “Freelance Writer With Anxiety For Hire” written on your business cards, but the beauty of entrepreneurship is that you don’t have to explain your bad days with a supervisor. You can have them and keep pushing forward. I’m open about my anxiety (and I’m actually writing a book about entrepreneurs with anxiety) because placing this mental illness within something tangible makes me feel as though I’m owning it. I’m not letting it get in the way of my dreams as a writer and virtual assistant.

Having anxiety is one part of who you are. It doesn’t lessen your business savvy or creativity. Everything the average entrepreneur possess for success, you have it, too.

You may have to overcome some larger hills because of your condition, but the destination is the same as everyone else. Looking backward, you can congratulate yourself even more for what you’ve accomplished. What you’ve been through will seem extraordinary.

You are not alone. And you are successful.

Follow this journey on Nerdy Thirty Something.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a love letter to another person with your disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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‘Humans of New York’ Features Man Who Thought Anxiety Wasn’t ‘Real’

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You never know when life will turn the tables on you.

Today, Humans of New York, the wildly popular photo-based Facebook page, posted the story of a man who made fun of a woman with anxiety in high school. What he learned since then made him give her a call.

“I knew a girl in high school that always complained about having anxiety. I used to make fun of her a little bit. It...

Posted by Humans of New York on Wednesday, February 17, 2016

 

The entire post reads:

I knew a girl in high school that always complained about having anxiety. I used to make fun of her a little bit. It looked like nothing to me. So I assumed it was nothing. And I dealt with it by trying to convince her that it was nothing. I called her recently to apologize. I’ve had really bad anxiety ever since my father died. And it’s definitely not nothing. It’s the indescribable fear of nothing.

Perhaps it’s never too late to grow and make amends.

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When I’m Worried I Don’t Pray Enough When Life Gets Chaotic

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My first thoughts in the year 2016 centered around prayer, mostly that I don’t do enough of it. My paths are paved with the best intentions. Each season of the year I dutifully pick up the accompanying prayer book from church and imagine my family gathered around the dinner table, opening up to the daily prayer and reading it together.

Then life happens. Dinner is chaotic, we are in a rush and the seasonal prayer book remains unopened in the drawer.

Attending church feels more tense than prayerful. At present, our family is usually separated with Dad and our youngest in the cry room (and my son Kyle at the respite center) while I sit in church with the older two: listening to their whispered questions, handing them tissues, urging them to stand or kneel at the appropriate times, trying to prevent them fighting, attempting to diffuse their tiffs without making any noise, or sitting in my seat quietly fuming, embarrassed or exhausted. Aside from my insistence on singing and reading along with the readings in the book, the experience doesn’t often leave room in my mind for quiet reflection or deep prayers.

Most nights by the time I force myself into bed, I am too tired to remember to pray. My brain only stays conscious for moments before drifting off. In those moments if I do remember prayer, it is in thanks for all of my many blessings and quick prayers of protection for my family. If my prayers go further than that, I often get wrapped up in anxiety of all the “what-ifs.” In the past when I prayed for my children at night, I would pray for them to avoid specific ailments and harm. Those thoughts would spiral into detailed imaginings of the harm, leaving me in a fit of worry. As a person prone to anxiety, this is not a good way to begin a sleep cycle.

Like most people, I start out the year thinking of ways I would like to change for the better. Praying more is a great way to start that process. But prayer doesn’t have to be scripted. My second thought in the new year: love is a prayer. Even though I don’t voice the words in my head, each time I embrace my children and feel love surging through me, it is a prayer of thanks to God for my blessings. I don’t doubt that He hears it.

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The First Time Anxiety Convinced Me I Was Breaking

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The first time I experienced acute anxiety I was 20 years old and sitting on the couch watching television. The storm of anxiety snuck up on me, and I was suddenly in its eyeball, my body lifted up from the cushions and whirled frantically around like a rag doll in a cyclone. There were people just next door in the kitchen, but I was all alone. I was helpless (or so I was convinced) before a force of such intense physical power I felt like the only way to escape would be to run with all my might.

Except, as I said, I was sitting, on the couch, watching TV.

My friend rang to talk and I asked her if we could go out. Maybe, I thought over the frantic beating of my own heart, a change of scenery would help. She took me to the beach. The drive only made things worse. The windy roads took on a surrealist, nightmare quality. My seatbelt felt like a chain tying me down. Maybe a walk would help, I hoped on arrival at the tourist-beloved waterside. So we walked, of all places, to the icecream parlour on the boulevard. And as those around us laughed and took in the summer night breeze with ease all I could think was: I need to go to the hospital, I need to go now. I was sure I was either going “crazy,” or having a heart attack.

That’s the first time the Big A convinced me I was breaking, not in two, but in a million little pieces, dispersed to the beach wind, flying unbound like grains of sand over the great depths of the ocean. And, what was worst of all, I thought that I was the only one in the world to feel like this.

What I didn’t have yet was information. I’ve since learned much more about what was happening to me. And understanding has been one of the major keys to learning to live in the wake, and sometimes still the presence, of the Big A.

I’ve learned that rather than a unique experience, my feelings were sadly common.

I still remember the pamphlet my general practitioner gave me when I took my walking-fear into him. It was one of those medical cartoon type depictions made to educate the everyman about biological processes. It had this figure of a man, and all these arrows coming out from different parts of his body. At the tip of each arrow was a bodily description, and as I read through the labels I ticked them off in my mind: racing heart, nausea, sweating, inability to concentrate, stomach pains, feelings of loss of control, weak legs. And then, at the top of the man, like a banner over his head, were the words that were to speak the title of a major category of my life from then on: Symptoms of a Panic Attack.

I’ve heard anxiety attacks described in a variety of ways. One of the best is that of the great imposter. If anxiety was an actor — it could win Grammys. A con-arist, it could make millions. Its power lies in its ability to convince that what is happening, all those bodily sensations, and the accompanying mind-images that follow, are actually real threats.

This is not to say the feelings themselves aren’t real. They are. Anyone who just says get over it, or think positive, has never been caught in the white of Big A’s iris. Feelings are powerful. Powerful enough to cause the body to react. But not powerful enough to do what they threaten. The feelings are just feelings, but they are nonetheless feelings keenly felt. Acute anxiety is not worry.

Acute anxiety has been my thorn in the flesh for more than 15 years now. Thanks to faithful friends, an amazingly empathetic and loving husband, and wise counsel, not to mention prayer, I have come a long way. Most days these days, my anxiety does not come knocking at all. But when it does, it is never polite.

I know I am not the only one who has had this most insatiable caller arrive at their door. Statistics, and years of conversations with others, tell me many many people have met this foe. Women, perfectionists, 20-somethings, artists, grievers, sufferers, high achievers, even athletes, anxiety is not overly-particular.

The Big A is both all-inclusive and intrusive, but it is not all-defeating. Despite everything it may have told me, anxiety has not stopped me living, loving, having children or completing goals. And the more I share my story the more I see how talking about it helps. The more it is exposed the less sneaky anxiety becomes, the more able to be dealt with, lived with and the less likely to catch by surprise.

This story originally appeared on Spilled Milk and Sunsets.

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When Your Childhood Is the Elephant in the Room

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In the first 25 years of my life, I suffered two mental breakdowns and countless bouts of depression and anxiety. It took me many therapy sessions to discover and come to terms with why I was so monumentally “messed up” as a young adult.

The beauty of the human mind is in its ability to block out trauma, but sweeping our troubles under the carpet in the hope they will disappear almost always leads to future heartache. It’s never easy or pleasant, but it’s high time we started openly talking about the elephant in the room.

My first breakdown came at the end of my first traveling expedition.

When I was 22, I was fortunate enough to take a three month sabbatical from my job, and travelled around Thailand and Australia for three months with some old flatmates. The Thai segment was largely spent lazing on beaches by day and boozing by night, with a large smattering of the readily available pharmaceutical drugs we took for fun chucked in for good measure.

We must have been the only travelers there who weren’t diving, which seems absurd now, but at the time it wasn’t a problem. I had convinced myself that I was living the dream, but in reality I was merely trying to escape the pain I was feeling by getting trashed. Being in Thailand simply meant having nicer surroundings and not going to work.

By the time I got to Sydney for the last few days of my trip, I was in all kinds of a mess. Although I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained, sensible was not my middle name. So I did what I always did and headed out to an all night party with the friends I was staying with.

A handful of us continued on to the after party, by which point I was absolutely wasted having taken a cocktail of uppers and drinking on top. I got chatting to a Thai girl in the toilets who had fled a few years previous, escaping a life of abuse, sex slavery and misery. Her story was compelling and had me in tears.

When the tears wouldn’t stop, I realized I wasn’t crying for her any more: I was crying for myself. 

At just 22 I already had a serious drinking problem and “recreational” drug habit. Soon after this incident I would start coming to terms with the reasons behind why I was so out of control. I would start to see I had been hiding the pain of a severely dysfunctional childhood. That the wounds I had been masking ran so deep it took getting completely obliterated every single weekend just to feel good about myself.

How could it have possibly been any other way after what I went through as a kid?

Sexual abuse. Check.

Emotional abuse. Check.

Bullying at school. Check.

Living in a constant state of anxiety caused by moving house every 6-12 months. Check.

Leaving home at 15 with no money or qualifications. Check.

The list could go on and on, but this article would be too long. The fact is that no-one escapes the psychological damage of a childhood like mine. 

When I returned home from that I trip I made one of the best decisions of my entire life and started seeing a counselor. She opened my eyes to how toxic my relationship with my family had become, and how I needed to redefine the rules if I were to continue having them in my life. She helped me see I deserved to be loved, and taught me if I didn’t respect myself I couldn’t expect anyone else to.

She helped me deal with my demons, and start the long journey of recovery. I began to face up to my past so I could truly make peace with it, and over time, it would eventually stop destroying my chances of future happiness.

Nothing that is worth doing in life comes easily though. It will likely be a painful process, but as soon as we’re ready to face up to the skeletons in the cupboard, I believe we’re halfway to burying them.

Follow this journey on Mummy Tries

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