It’s not easy having anxiety or depression, and it’s definitely worse when you have both inside of you. It’s like they swirl around you head, always looking for a way to get in and take over you for God knows how long.
Sometimes, they come in as one or the other. Depression comes in and then anxiety takes its place. But other times, they like to come in and construct chaos together.
It isn’t easy. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe because of anxiety. Sometimes you wake up late in the day unmotivated to do anything, wishing you’d fall within the mattress and never come out.
It can be a truly a horrible experience. You become scared of when your next anxiety attack or depressive episode will happens.
Fear turns into paranoia.
Paranoia turns into hopelessness.
Hopelessness turns into dread.
Dread turns into negative thoughts.
You begin to think, maybe you’re being punished for whatever wrong you’ve done. Maybe it isn’t worth it anymore. Maybe life isn’t meant for anyone.
Then you begin to have nightmares and wake up feeling numb. The world seemingly endless and dull.
You haven’t beaten me. You beat me up, again and again and again. You kick me when I am down, and you tell me terrible lies. You warn me I will never win. I can’t. I should just stay down. You scream at me and make me feel small and helpless. You are a textbook bully.
But you haven’t beaten me.
I am learning to recognize your lies. Remember when you told me I would never be better? I am better. Remember when you told me you weren’t real? You are.
When you first showed up and told me I was dying, I believed you. You didn’t even need a cause of death. You just showed up and announced that it was all over. You were taunting me in front of my kids. I put on a face for them, but I was cowering.
We’re old acquaintances, but still when you came charging in and running things, I did not recognize you. The old anxiety was small and subservient. The old anxiety was timid. The old anxiety would sometimes spark and fan fear into flames, which leapt about painfully but with minimal destruction. When you charged in like you owned the place, I did not recognize you, and even now I wonder if you aren’t a different player who shares a name.
You screamed at me. “Be afraid. Be afraid of death. Be afraid of pain. Be afraid for your kids. Be afraid for you husband. Be afraid for you parents and your siblings and everyone you have ever loved.” When I confronted each individual fear, you simply invented more and screamed louder.
Until I didn’t know how to argue. Until you were the only voice I could hear. Until your unhinged taunts outgrew my mind. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get out of bed. I tried to cover you with mind-numbing TV, but you just laughed. I was shaking and vomiting. Remember that?
You’re a mean SOB. But you didn’t beat me.
You shamed me. You told me I was weak if I needed help. Surely I was strong enough to send you away on my own.
But it isn’t weakness to ask for help. Asking for help isn’t admitting defeat. I needed help. I needed control of my mind. With my doctor, I stood up to you. We didn’t chase you off the playground; that’s is your bully tactic. We just cornered you. We took your power away.
You can stay, but you are not in charge anymore. You can even have a job. Your job is to help me find problems so I can address them before they grow. But I don’t trust you anymore, and so for now we are keeping you under lock and key. Two tiny pills every night before bed.
She is like looking at myself in the mirror 28 years ago.
Inside and out.
And that’s why I worry.
You see, just as much as she looks like me, she also very much has my heart. My book-smarts. And my anxiety-ridden mind. At just a half-dozen young years old.
It absolutely breaks my heart.
Because I know how it feels to be filled-to-the-brim with worry as a child. And not sure how to function without it flooding and overflowing everywhere. Or, in my case, holding it in with all my might, to prevent the dam from breaking.
By her age, I had already witnessed a younger sibling pass away as a baby. And in just another year, I would see my mother go through months of chemotherapy, after an Earth-shattering diagnosis of breast cancer at such a young age.
So, I watched.
I took it all in.
And I kept it there.
My mind was reeling.
Always on edge, waiting for the next “bad thing” to happen.
My parents had me in therapy. And the therapist told them out of any of my siblings I would be the most likely to struggle with anxiety and depression as an adult — because I did in fact hold so much inside. I never knew that until I had children of my own. And, wow, what truth has come from that statement.
I will never forget her second year of preschool. A week of nightly tears. Every time we tried to tuck her into bed. She couldn’t hardly talk. Telling us she had thoughts in her mind, and she could not get them to leave. As I worked hard to hold my own tears back, I worked even harder to put together a game plan. A powerful one. That was going to overcome this beast. Using every resource available to make sure it didn’t rob her of her happiness as a sweet, young girl. I contacted her teachers. I phoned our pediatrician. We scheduled extra time at her upcoming well-child check-up. I reached out to her caregivers. And together, we worked overtime. To “not make a big deal” out of the little things. And, thanks to her incredible teacher, we had the perfect response to those everyday hiccups:
“Sweetie, unless you see a dinosaur walk through that door right now, you have nothing to worry about.”
She loved it. It made her giggle. So we used it. Constantly.
Together, we had created the strongest weapon we could. A team. A village. Working toward one goal.For one child. To combat her anxiety.
This fight is nowhere near over.
The littlest things spark a whirlwind of thoughts in her mind. And the tears begin. And I begin doing the best thing I know how to do.
Talk. to. her.
Do not dismiss her.
Because when I do… I can see it in her eyes.
It might be so incredibly minute to me. The most miniscule thing to worry about in the entirety of the world.
But to her… at that moment… at that place… in her mind… it is greater than any mountain imaginable.
And I know what it is like to feel dismissed. As though what I am worrying about is “silly” or “nothing.” Because when you have anxiety, those “nothings” are e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. Heartbreaking. Forcing an even more intense bottling-up of worries and emotions, racing on a closed-circuit track through your mind.
With school starting in just two weeks, I can already see a shift in her behavior. Thankfully, kindergarten is out of the way. She knows what to “expect” at grade school. But, true to my own nature, she never, ever wants to make a mistake in the eyes of others. Perfectionism is her game. And her enemy. Because it feeds this thieving monster. And keeps it coming back for more.
We expect some acting out to unfold. Never away from home. And that’s OK. Because we know that this house… our family… these grounds… are all part of her “comfort zone.” Where she can free those thoughts. Anxious feelings. And constant worries. And, as long as she knows what she can/cannot appropriately say when she is letting those fears go, this will continue to be a “safe” place for her to release, always.
On our part, we will continue to comfort her. To listen intently. Not to dismiss. But not to feed into making anything greater than it needs to be. We will try to remind her to keep her eye open for dinosaurs. We will be firm, but gentle. We will keep in contact with her teachers. Her doctor. And anyone who will be a significant part of her life.
And if this crook tries to finagle his way in to take even more from my daughter than he already has? You better believe, this mama is ready. To fight, with every ounce of my being. For her happiness. For her childhood. For her mental health. And to break the cycle of hereditary anxiety. As much as I possibly can.
Because, oh, how I know that our precious girl is destined for incredible things in this life. Already wanting to change the world. And there is no way I am going to stand idly by and let a thieving seven-letter word stop her.
1. For every decision I make, there is a battle raging in my head.
Decisions and commitments are my worst nightmare. Every time I get asked to hang out with a friend, or go out to dinner with a family, or show up for a school function, my mind immediately starts listing pros and cons. And let me assure you, it always manages to come up with far more cons. Most of the time, when I do commit to something, it’s out of obligation or fear of being left out.
2. When I get up and leave suddenly, it’s because I need to.
Sometimes being around people is just overwhelming. Someone may say something everyone else takes as a joke, but it hits right where my insecurities are. When that happens, I just have to get out. Now. All I need is a few minutes away to recollect myself and get my breathing under control, and then I’ll come back. When I do come back, please don’t ask me why I left or if I’m OK. I promise I’ll tell you, but not until I’m in a better headspace.
3. I like to get invited to parties, but I don’t really like to go.
When I don’t get invited to something, my mind starts racing:
Maybe they don’t like me. Maybe they’re all going to talk about me there. Maybe nobody likes me.What if they’re all just pretending to like me. Maybe I’m not as good at hiding it as I thought.
But when I do get invited and go, my thoughts are somewhat like this:
You’re not fun enough. You’re not having a good time like everyone else. You should go make some new friends; people will think you’re a snob if you don’t. Make sure you smile. But not too much or they’ll think you’re weird. Why are you even here? You know you should’ve just stayed home.
It’s an endless cycle of second-guessing myself. Most of the time, it’s just easier not to go.
4. When I ask for help, it means I really need it.
I have a hard time asking for help. And not because I’m cocky or think I’m too good for it, but because I’m afraid of showing you the real me. Too many times, I’ve let my guard down with someone, shown them how needy I really am, and they’ve left. So I don’t do that anymore. I’ve learned to “suck it up,” as they say, and figure it out on my own. Asking for help is really a last-resort type of deal for me. Which means if I do ask for help about anything, I really need you to help me. Or else next time, I’ll drown before reaching out to someone.
5. Just because I don’t respond right away doesn’t mean I’m mad.
Texts and emails are kind of my worst nightmare. I read them over and over, searching for some hidden meaning. Only when I’ve completely overanalyzed the whole thing do I even think about responding. And of course, that could be another 20 minutes of typing and retyping, until I’ve found the “perfect” thing to say that will never be misinterpreted. And then I may send four or five rapid-fire messages after that just to clarify what I mean. So give me some time. I’m not mad, just overanalyzing.
6. When you pull away from me, I think I’ve scared you away.
I know, it’s kinda hypocritical, right? I tell you to give me space and that just because I pull away doesn’t mean I’m mad, and then I turn around and think the same thing about you. But I just can’t help it. Every message that isn’t responded to, every sarcastic reply to something I say, every time you cancel plans we had, I can’t help thinking you are fed up with me and my clinginess. Like maybe I showed you a little too much and you couldn’t handle it. It scares me. And then I get even more clingy, asking if you’re mad at me, or if I did something wrong. Please don’t take it personally. It’s the self-doubt talking. The more comfortable I get with you, the less it’ll happen.
7. The person on the outside is not usually the person on the inside.
The person you see on the outside has it together. Straight-A student, involved in multiple activities, always busy, completes every project on time and to a perfectionist standard. And you probably think, “Man, she has her life together. She really knows how to get stuff done.” What you don’t realize is I have to be this way. I literally cannot sit still. If I do, the thoughts and nervous energy will choke me.
Relaxation is hard, because doing nothing invites what I call “the void.” It invites staring off into space, losing track of time, feeling too much all at once. So it’s much easier just to keep busy, so I don’t even have time to think about anything except what’s next on my to-do list. I’m this way because it keeps me from falling apart, not because I’m put together.
8. There are so many people living like this.
It’s one of the things you wouldn’t know unless you’ve experienced it. I didn’t realize how many people around me struggle with anxiety every day until six months ago, when I finally accepted that I was.
Now I look around, and all I can see are little tells in the people around me. Slightly widened eyes, a hand on the chest, arms crossed tightly as if hugging themselves, the tight-lipped smile and weak, “I’ll be right back” that really means they need to be anywhere but here, and fast.
So many people live this way. And all we want, for the most part, is compassion. Just a gentle voice or act of kindness that shows you understand we’re struggling. Seriously, one moment of kindness goes a long way.
I just graduated high school this year and I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally be done. When I look back on these past four years, I see marching band (the best thing about high school) and anxiety (the worst thing about high school). Each and every day was like going to battle against myself and all of the feelings that would flood me as soon as my alarm went off in the morning.
Freshman year started off well enough. However, feeling like a boss after leaving middle school behind and entering high school didn’t last long. It wore off in November when marching band ended. After that, my mental health was in the air. I missed a lot of school because of my anxiety. I would fake sick, referring to it in my head as “a day off.” These “days off” were usually spent worrying about going to school the next day, but for the most part I had less anxiety than I would have had at school. And that was my ultimate goal.
I held each and every breath for Christmas break — a break from attending that school of horrors. However, I spent all of Christmas break dreading every single day of the rest of the year. Who knew what fresh horrors awaited me on the other side of that new year? My brain thought it would be a good idea to worry about each and every day all at once. (That was definitely not a good idea.) My brain tried to take on too much at once, and I desperately needed something that would turn the anxiety down for a bit.
This first happened in January when I picked up the book “Divergent” by Veronica Roth. I started this book and instantly fell in love with it. (Though, to be quite honest, I did tell a friend of mine it was boring because my anxiety caused me to worry she would think I was ridiculous or nerdy for reading it.) But my endless love for that book started an endless love for literature. I loved “Divergent” so much, I now own three copies of it. (First edition hardcover, movie tie-in paperback and the collector’s edition. Also, if someone would like to donate an ARC (advanced reader copy) of it to me, I will happy accept. I’m kidding here — but I certainly would love one.)
After I flew through “Divergent,” I headed straight to its sequel, “Insurgent,” and finished that book within a number of days. That’s when I started to realize that reading during school took all of the pain away. I opened that book and went to some place where anxiety couldn’t tackle me down and where I was completely free. The main character’s problems became mine. Somehow their problems always seemed more desirable than mine — even if they were fighting an evil dictator in a dystopian world.
I was always the kind of student who got their homework done in class. School came relatively easy to me, so I made a deal with myself: get your homework done as quick as you possibly can, and then you can read now and later at home. I would solve those homework problems in minutes, each part of me itching to find out what happened next in the book that sat under my pencil pouch, waiting for me. I didn’t even care if my answers were correct. I was determined to read that book no matter what.
I found so much inner peace while reading these stories. I wasn’t worried about when the bell was going to ring or how long it would take me to get to my next class. For once I could be out in public without caring if people were looking at me. That’s the effect of reading that has meant the most to me, because I rarely feel so comfortable and carefree in public. Books are the only things that make me feel like a “normal” human being. In a way, they were and continue to be my coping mechanism. I read book after book during the second half of my freshman year and all through my sophomore and junior years. I read so many fantastic books.
This is the part where I say I’m thankful for my anxiety. “Thankful?!” you may ask. Yes, I am thankful at this current moment. I would be a different person without my anxiety — probably someone who doesn’t read books. Books have done so much for me, so here is my praise and gratitude for all the fantastic authors out there. Without your books, I wouldn’t have had any magical fantasy lands to run off to while in the midst of pure panic. I’m so thankful for them. They helped me get through one of the toughest stages of my life — and I know they’ll help me through many more.
I’m standing over a porcelain toilet bowl, the contents of my stomach spilling out before my eyes. Vomit hits the water. The taste of bile fills my mouth. I feel a deep emptiness.
This is my fault. I am disgusting. I am a burden. I am ashamed. I am out of control.
Would I choke? Would my son Elliot be scared?
I imagine it.
I suddenly fall to the floor, parts of my body taking turns shooting straight up into the air as other parts are forcefully slammed downward. A seizure. My eyes are closed, rolling backward.
This is my fault. I am embarrassed. I am a burden. I am out of control.
Would I black out? What would happen to Elliot?
I imagine it.
I wake up soaked in my own blood. I am warm. I look around and see white sheets now stained a deep red. I am trying to scream, but the sound will not exit my lips. I am trying to wake my husband Andrew up to tell him what I already know: we lost the baby. Miscarriage. I am trying to wake Andrew up, but I don’t want to. I don’t want him to see. I don’t want to watch the pain fill his eyes.
This is my fault. I made some kind of mistake. I am incapable. My body is out of control.
Would we survive this? Would we tell Elliot some day?
I imagine it.
I am driving. I feel the car moving faster. My foot fumbles around for the brake. I cannot find it. I am accelerating faster, faster, faster. I am spinning out of control. I am Out. Of. Control.
This is my fault. I am careless. I am stupid. I am out of control.
Who would tell Andrew? Would Elliot remember me when I’m gone?
I imagine it.
We are standing on top of the play structure, and Elliot steps too far too fast. He falls hard and does not cry. I am waiting to hear his cry. I run to him fast and pick him up into my arms. I am covered in his blood. I have tears streaming down my face. I am screaming help me, help me, help me.
This is my fault. I am stupid. I should’ve been more careful. Going outside wasn’t worth the risk.
How could I be so careless? Would he live?
I imagine it.
I round the corner and see Andrew’s feet hanging off the edge of the bed. He doesn’t respond to my question. He is quiet. I go to him and see he’s no longer breathing, his skin is blue, he’s gone. I am screaming, but no sound is coming out. I am screaming help me, help me, help me.
My favorite professor in college said something that has not stopped rattling around in my head: Your weaknesses are your strengths out of control.
Creativity is my strength. I dream up ideas and realities. I think of endless possibilities.
My creativity out of control has manifested itself in anxiety.
I take refuge in little blue pills and pints of chocolate ice cream.
How could I ever tell someone? How could I even describe it? I am often lost in my own world of imagination – worst-case- scenarios and what-ifs. My thoughts run faster than I could ever express them. I am distracted from real life because I’m lost somewhere in my mind, lost somewhere in the possibility of trauma.
I know why.
Most of my imaginations have one thing in common: a sheer lack of control. Control is my desire, my pursuit, my idol. I will wash my hands and take showers and Clorox wipe every surface to feel like I am in control. I will run the numbers and obsessively Google and stay at home most of the time to feel like I am in control.
In my undergrad psychology class, I learned that when a young mind experiences trauma, they are trained to believe it will happen again.
I know I’m just waiting. I’m in survival mode – waiting for the next attack, trying to anticipate it, trying to protect myself, trying to prepare. I know I am trying to control.
But still, I imagine it.
Several times each day, I imagine puking and seizures and miscarriages and death.
But somehow still, amidst all this, I can imagine something different.
I can imagine a world without my little blue pills. I can imagine a world where I have peace, where I am content. I can imagine a world without all my little obsessions, a world where my mind is free to think and believe the best things are yet to come. I can imagine a world where I can live in confidence, knowing control is not my ultimate need, that tragedies are inevitable but that it is not my job to anticipate them, that it is not my fault they occur, that I am free, free, free.