The 3 Words I Finally Said 32 Years After My First Anxiety Attack
I’m never quite sure when it’s going to happen. You would think after all these years, I would have some kind of warning sign before it starts. The situations are different. The settings and people change, but the feeling is always the same.
I was probably 8 years old when I first realized it was there. My older brothers were watching the original “Friday the 13th” movie. I snuck downstairs and watched from the steps. I didn’t quite understand it was fiction. I started having thoughts about someone doing that to me — killing me. Later that night, I woke up in a cold sweat. It seemed to start from inside. My stomach was in knots, my pulse was racing and I found it hard to breathe. I tried to call out for my mom and dad, but I found it difficult to move any part of my body. I was paralyzed with fear.
I had no idea at age 8 I was having my first anxiety attack.
Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Earthquakes were my first major trigger. I used to lie in bed going over my escape plan in case one hit during the night. I was told they sound like a train before the shaking starts. Any noise I heard made me activate my plan.
The rational part of my brain knew there was not an earthquake, but my fear and anxiety always won out.
As I got older, the anxiety became more debilitating. Car crashes, planes veering off runways, home invasions, my parents dying, mass shootings — anything that provokes fear in people, I perseverated on.
Social anxiety, general anxiety, test anxiety, compulsive behaviors, fear, worry, apprehension, nervousness. I’m not sure which one came first. Daily tasks are challenging because I view them through a lens of worry. It takes me longer to get things done. I process more. Spend extra time going over plans — verbalizing them out loud so I don’t miss anything. Repeating myself often, because for some reason, I find comfort in hearing things more than once.
Then it happened. I was finally able to say the three words that seem so difficult to say.
I need help.
I was 40 years old.
I knew she had to ask all the questions. Go over the list of signs and symptoms and check the boxes I answered “yes” to. My eyes traveled down the page and I noticed that most of the “yes” boxes were marked with an X.
I know anxiety has always been something I live with, but sitting in my doctor’s office that day was the first time I saw it on a piece of paper. The first time I realized maybe it has taken over my life.
After she completed the questions, she looked up and asked me to describe what it feels like — how it impacts my life. I found myself stumbling. I couldn’t answer why I have anxiety. I wanted to shout at her, “Have you seen my fingernails?” There’s nothing left of them. Sometimes the energy in my body is so intense the only way I can relieve it — even the smallest amount — is to pick and chew my nails until there is nothing left.
I couldn’t come up with a complete thought — one that made sense after it left my mouth. How do I explain these suffocating thoughts and feelings that occupy so much of my life?
I finally just told her that my anxiety is debilitating — I’m scared. I hate it and I’m not sure it will ever leave me.
She tried to reassure me that with the right treatment plan, I can gain control over this. Control. Isn’t that what anxiety is? Trying to control situations I am afraid of. Control. Something I try to do too much — too often.
Maybe the right treatment plan is to control less.
I know I worry about doesn’t makes sense. Irrational, illogical, emotional, crazy. Those words describe the thoughts in my head.
Sometimes I just wish I could hit the pause button.
I know I need to be reassured constantly. There are many times I want to apologize to the people in my life. Tell them that I’m sorry I need to be told over and over again that it is going to be OK.
I can imagine living with me is difficult, and I’m sure loving me is even harder.
I know what I say and do sometimes is irrational, but it is very real to me.
Sometimes it is just downright exhausting and my body screams relax, but I can’t sleep.
I’m not sure if it will ever leave me. If I will wake up one day and be free of the pressure — the weight. What I do know is that there are days when it doesn’t take over.
I find on those days there is one common theme. I choose to live with hope. My heart wins out.
When I lead with my heart, I find that my body slows down. It’s easier to breathe. My thoughts are clear, my smile is genuine, and my life feels full.
I have learned over the years that my journey can and will be filled with hope. I do not have to let anxiety define who I am.