Girl hesitates answering a question

When Anxiety Makes it Difficult to Answer 'How Are You?'

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“How are you?” can be a loaded question for someone with anxiety. Sometimes, when asked, I want to say “surviving,” because it’s true. Other days the one thing I need to accomplish is making it to the end of the day in one piece (or at least not too many pieces). Sometimes I’m OK, and sometimes I’m great! Every time I want to respond with “great,” I struggle though.

It’s no secret to my close family and friends that I have anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not even a secret to my co-workers because of the panic attacks I’ve had at work and the time I’ve had to take off work to try to get my anxiety under control. I know that many — in fact, probably most — of these people are rooting for me and recognize I have a legitimate mental health issue that I live with on a daily basis. These are people who genuinely want to know how I am.

I also know there are doubters. There are people who don’t understand anxiety is a real condition. There are people who assume I cry because I don’t get my way or my feelings are hurt and I want attention. There are people who think I wanted to start my summer break early and that’s why I took time off at the end of the school year. There are people who think my anxiety is fake.

When these people ask me how I am doing, I don’t want to answer “great,” even if I am having a great day. I don’t want them to question the validity of my anxiety. If I have anxiety, am I supposed to have it all day, every day? Am I supposed to always be fighting off a panic attack, barely remaining in control? There is a part of me that feels like I should be; otherwise, is my diagnosis real, or am I just looking for attention?

When this happens, I have to remind myself that my diagnosis is real. I am not faking or looking for attention, nor am I a 30-year-old woman who simply needs to grow up and act her age. I am not choosing to act this way. I do not want to cry or have a panic attack in public (or in private). I am doing everything I can to not have anxiety.

I have spent most of my life with anxiety and most of my adult life, once I realized that’s what I had, trying to overcome it. I have accomplished a lot. I went to a college where I knew no one and made good friends. I have two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree. When I was 27, I moved to a new city where I knew very few people and built a life for myself there. When I was 28, I got a full-time teaching job. I was able to do all these things despite my anxiety, not because I don’t really have anxiety.

I feel like people often confuse the two. “How did you do [whatever it is I did] if you have such bad anxiety?” I can hear the skepticism in their voices, sometimes I doubt it myself. I’ve accomplished the things I have because I fought, because I am stronger than I give myself credit. My anxiety has peaks and valleys, and I’ve had it long enough that I know when to ask for help. I’ve accomplished these things despite my panic attacks, racing thoughts and self-doubt. I did all of this because I am determined to have a successful, happy and meaningful life.

It has taken me a long time to realize that I am allowed to have good (and great) days. I don’t have to struggle every second of every day. I am allowed to be happy, and that does not mean I am faking. Being happy does not mean my anxiety isn’t real. I do not have to let my anxiety dictate every minute of my life and define me for it to be real.

I recently had a panic attack and was devastated with myself because I had worked so hard to get my anxiety under control. I thought I was fine, I thought I was over anxiety. As I sat in tears that day trying to catch my breath, my boyfriend said something to me I have been trying to remind myself of ever since, “Kim, this does not define you. Yes, you have anxiety and panic attacks, but you are so much more than that.” Next time someone asks how I’m doing and I feel like I don’t have the right to say I’m doing great, I will try to remember those wise words.

So, to the world (and to myself) – yes, I have anxiety. But I also have great days, and that does not make my anxiety any less valid or real. It simply means anxiety does not win every day. And that is something to celebrate.

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The Unrecognizable Faces of Anxiety

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You look at me, and you’d never know.

From the outside, I look like your typical, mid-30s mom.

My girls’ lunches are packed and refrigerated the night before.

Outfits hung in preparation.

Breakfast bowls out on the counter.

Almost always late to one function or another.

Trying to tie a renegade shoelace.

Or wipe away a flood of unforeseen tears.

From the outside, I look like your typical mid-30s woman.

Sporting athletic shoes, an oversized bag and the latest-trending jewelry.

Enjoying a glass of wine on occasion.

Working overtime to balance family and career.

Always putting on a “happy face”.

Outside of these four walls.

You see, that’s just it.

From the outside, I appear “normal.”

Like I have it all together.

Like I can laugh my way through anything.

Like a great and supportive friend.

Like a deeply devoted mother.

Like a hardworking wife.

My smile is my best accessory.

As well as my favorite mask.

To protect myself from potential hurt.

Judgment.

Criticism.

Because, if you took a look at me from the inside, I would look completely opposite.

A “mess” of sorts.

Mind whirling.

Heart pounding.

Floating from one worry to another.

Without a breath in between.

I don’t have panic attacks.

Yet, my heart races through my chest.

I don’t act outwardly.

Because I am too busy keeping it all in.

I don’t have trouble concentrating on something.

But my mind never stops running.

And that’s exactly it.

Those of us who live with anxiety?

We cannot be squeezed into a one-size-fits-all mold.

We are too many.

We are unrecognized.

We are more “commonplace” than you’d ever imagine.

We are right next door, and you’d never even know it.

We are your neighbor.

Your daughter’s teacher.

Your son’s baseball coach.

Your youth minister.

Your babysitter.

Your 20-something coworker.

Your patient.

Your team’s star athlete.

Your school’s valedictorian.

Your mother.

Your best man.

Your very best friend.

We are many.

We are unrecognized.

Because this thief?

He doesn’t discriminate.

He will steal happiness and peace from anyone and everyone.

Without so much as a blink of the eye.

We don’t look the same.

We don’t respond to our anxiety the same.

We don’t live our life the same.

Because we are not the same.

And we cannot be put into a “box.”

We are anywhere. And everywhere.

Ready to shake the stigma associated with our mental illness, once and for all.

Image via Thinkstock.

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What Happened When I Started Writing About My Mental Illnesses

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I know for some, reading about my struggles with anxiety and depression may have seemed to come out of nowhere. I did a pretty decent job of hiding my condition for many years. I wanted to seem like I had everything figured out, and the truth is, a lot of the time I’ve managed to maintain a good life balance. Only my closest friends and family knew the moments when I’ve fallen apart, searched desperately for stable ground, and at times, feared life.

I’ve done my best to obtain the help I needed to bounce back when I have bouts of depression or anxiety. However, after having my daughter I found my anxiety became heightened, probably due to a great many factors: The overwhelming responsibility of caring for a little, defenseless life, who I love more than anything else in the whole world. The pressure to keep my home in order and comfortable for my husband, who works so hard for our family. The fact that I had trouble facing the death of one of my parents mid-pregnancy.

Such intense life changes can magnify one’s struggles, as it did for me. When my first article about my struggle with anxiety went live, I can’t accurately express how touched I was by the overwhelming support I received from my friends. Some even stepped forward, feeling comfortable enough to admit to their own struggles, many of whom I never would have guessed fight the same battle. This made me realize how important it is to not hide one’s experiences and troubles. To do so, can make one feel as though you are facing them all alone.

There are others out there who feel the same and who’ve experienced the same things, yet are unable to talk about them. I must admit I was a little afraid when I submitted my first piece about anxiety, fearing people would call me “crazy,” question my stability as a mother and my ability to be a good wife. It’s natural to believe people will not understand, and so liberating to discover that low and behold, there are many who do. Instead of calling me sick, they called me brave and that meant the world to me.

To admit to one’s flaws is a scary experience and to share them with the world is no less than terrifying. You aren’t simply telling a story. You are exposing a delicate piece of yourself, lifting the curtain for all to see and inviting in both criticism as well as praise.

Even more so, we are exposing a part of our family to the world, and this is a big responsibility. I feared embarrassing my mother, my brother and especially my husband by sharing my story. I didn’t want people to look at my husband and pity him for having a wife who struggles with a mental illness because my illness isn’t who I am as a whole.

Being the incredible guy he is, my husband proudly shared my story and declared how brave he believed his wife to be. This touched me more than I can put into words. Knowing he had my back, that he felt pride instead of embarrassment for what I’d written and put it out there in the world was an incredible moment. This is the very embodiment of what real love is.

It is endless support, understanding, empathy and partnership that make the strongest, most beautiful of relationships. The fact that he sees me and loves me despite my struggles, my low moments that come and go, makes me realize how lucky I am. I am determined to never do anything to let it go.

The support of my friends and family gave me the strength to continue writing about my longtime fight with depression and anxiety. They have only let me see more clearly that there is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is not only liberating to finally admit to the feelings I’ve had and the painful moments I’ve faced, but it is also a relief finding no matter how much it may feel like it, I am not alone. Knowing that sharing my stories may help others find a voice as well is the most rewarding. The more we all try to share, understand and relate to one another, the more we can face our difficulties as an army. There is no need to face every battle alone.

Image via Thinkstock.

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The 'Rocking Chair' Analogy I Use to Explain What Anxiety Feels Like

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I am a visual learner.

I have been for as long as I can remember.

Tell me something orally, and ask me to repeat it, solve it or figure it out, on-the-spot, and I will most likely struggle. I will probably ask you to repeat it; most likely more than once. No matter how book-smart I may be.

But, write it down? Draw it out? Or make me a diagram?

And we are onto something.

So, as the courage flooded in a few years ago, urging me to share my own story of my lifelong struggle with anxiety, through my writing and blog, I craved some sort of “visual” that I could impart upon with my family and friends, to help them understand what living with this secret thief really and truly feels like.

And that’s when I stumbled across the quote that would stick in my mind for eternity:

“Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but never gets you anywhere.”

Ouch. To be honest, it kind of stung. Because, I knew, deep within my heart and mind, that worrying excessively was not something I could control. But, on the flip-side, I also found some truth behind it.

Yes, worrying is very much like a rocking sensation.

Back-and-forth.
Back-and-forth.
Panic-and-calm.
Panic-and-calm.
Fear-and-courage.
Fear-and-courage.
Worry-and-trust.
Worry-and-trust.
Potholes-and-smooth pavement.
Potholes-and-smooth pavement.

That’s life for most of us.
You see, the thing is, most people can get up-and-out of the chair.
They can walk through their day.
Wondering, “What’s the use in worrying about this anyway?”
And move freely with a sense of calm and peace.
They may come back to sit down for a few minutes.
Yet, they can still stand up, take a deep breath and continue going. But for those of us with anxiety?
The “image” looks a little different…

When we are in that rocking chair, we feel completely trapped.

Locked in.
Seat-belted.
Handcuffed.
Bolted down.
No room to wiggle.
No way to stop it.
No chance to catch our breath.
Entrapped within our worries.
However “unreal” or “crazy” they may seem.
At the complete and utter mercy of an unseen monster.
Who won’t let us get up.
Who won’t let us loose.
Who won’t let us catch a break.
Who simply provides continuous, uninterrupted nervousness and utter fear.

And when we finally do have the courage to stand up and stretch?
To try to walk away?
And continue on with our work, family and personal routines?
He unknowingly grabs ahold, pulling us right back down into our “seat.”

And the rocking begins, once again.
Worrying?
Having anxiety?
It always gives us something to do.
That part of it? N.e.v.e.r fails those of us suffering.

But, if you don’t think we would give anything in the world, for a moment without our rocking chair in-toe… without hours-upon-days-upon-months-upon years… of merciless worrying… “mistaken” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Most of us, really and truly, would love nothing more than to burn our rocking chairs. Never to be seen again.

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Why I Check Locks

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When I leave the house, I have to always pull on the door knob to make sure the door is closed and locked.

Likewise, when I come home, I make sure the door is securely closed and locked before walking away.

If I am heading out and leaving my children home alone, I will check twice.

It isn’t that I fear for the safety of my two large teenage boys who are fully capable of taking care of themselves; I just want to assure myself they’re locked safely inside. After returning my sugar gliders to their cage, I must always tug at their doors to assure myself they’re properly latched. I am admittedly obsessed with whether doors have been properly secured. This isn’t an occasional occurrence. It happens every. single. time. If I’m not the last one at the door, I will ask apprehensively if they’re sure the door is closed and locked. If not secure in their response, I will run back and check again for my own peace of mind. My ex used to ask if I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD. For years, I tried unsuccessfully to help him understand that my actions were not driven by OCD — they were one of many ways that my anxiety disorder presented itself.

Growing up, my mother did not believe children were entitled to locks on their bedroom doors. If we were getting changed, doors could be temporarily shut; however, doors must be reopened immediately afterwards because children were not entitled to privacy. Our bedrooms did not have sturdy wooden doors. We had flimsy accordion-style doors that could be easily slid open and closed or broken through without much effort. It was this lack of security and safety that led to a childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. My bedroom was never a safe haven from beatings or sexual assaults. Anyone could come in through doors that could not lock, and come in they did.

I check doorknobs and locks because locks mean safety in my mind. I need to know my children are safe, my pets are safe, that my life is safely locked away behind a secure door. I know it is not rational. I know that a locked door cannot protect anyone or anything from all the evils of the world, but I cannot control that apprehension from rising every time I question whether everything has been properly closed. For years, I had no control and no safety. Making sure doors have been properly latched and locked is one way I have of regaining control of my life and the safety of those I love.

My anxiety extends beyond locked doors. It rears its head in any ways. Mental illness runs in my family. I am deathly afraid that my children might be suffering in silence so I am forever checking in, wanting to make sure they’re OK and they know I’m here to listen if they need to talk. Relationships are difficult for me because I’ve been cheated on, abandoned and discarded so many times, I live in constant fear of loss and betrayal. It isn’t that I do not want to trust those I love. Whenever things don’t go completely according to plan, my mind searches for a reason and usually lands on the worst case scenario. I need reassurance I’m loved and not forgotten because I’m terrified of being in that position again. I am forever anxious about money and bills because I’ve been homeless before. I am petrified of doctors because I’ve seen people I love eaten alive by illnesses, dying in hospice not even remembering my name. One of my greatest fears is that something will happen to my children; I am forever reminding them to be careful and safe. Fears with a hundred different faces run through my head on any given day.

It is a constant battle to keep my anxiety in check. When I can maintain even the slightest control, it gives me peace of mind, even if it means obsessively checking locks. I know there are so many things in life I cannot control. That fact keeps me up at night. I cannot tell you the last night I slept peacefully because I’m not sure I ever have. The worst, though, is when one of my fears becomes even partially realized. When I found a lump on the side of my breast a few years ago, I had a complete breakdown because I could not go through cancer eating me alive like it had my father; it turned out to be benign but my anxiety convinced me I was dying each and every moment of every day until those results came back. Each and every time my ex would cheat, my anxiety would charge in, full force, reaffirming my fears of rejection and abandonment. When fears are fully realized, anxiety attacks ensue.

I’ve tried and failed many times over the years to help others understand my anxiety. Again and again, I’ve heard critical remarks from others about how my anxiety is completely irrational. As if delivering some hysterical punch line, I always want to laugh and exclaim “Exactly!” Anxiety is never rational. It never makes sense. Anxiety leaks from past traumas and bleeds into every aspect of life. It digs at us like an itch we can’t scratch, gnaws at us so fiercely that it cannot be ignored. When anxiety puts a thought into our head, it becomes an obsession. When fears become realized, there’s no way to stave off breakdowns or anxiety attacks. I control my anxiety to the best of my ability, repeatedly doing things like checking doors to give myself some peace of mind because, while I know I cannot control everything in life, I need to feel I have even the slightest control over my anxiety disorder and my life.

This blog originally appeared on Unlovable.

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Inside the Mind of a Mom Experiencing an Anxiety Attack in Public

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“Please stop, please stop crying,” I’m telling my 2-year-old daughter as she begins screaming for seemingly no reason in the middle of the restaurant. I stand up and carry her to the lobby in hopes that she will calm down. I’ve been tired all week. I’d barely eaten, and my mother suggested we stop to eat after our shopping. She could see in my face I’d been dealing with anxiety and could probably use some food and relaxation. Unfortunately, the moment we’d sat down in the restaurant, my daughter decided lunch was not something she was interested in.

I walked outside, still holding my crying toddler in my arms, bouncing her, asking her what was wrong.  She was not going to let up. I could feel myself cracking. Of course, she was just acting like a toddler. Nothing I should be surprised with at all, but I’d started today already on edge, and this was the final push.

I carried my child back to the table where my mother was waiting, and sat down. “I’m so sorry,” I said. My mom immediately told me not to worry and called the waitress over, instructing her to pack up the food she’d just delivered to the table so we could leave. My mom took my daughter, and I sat, blank-faced, unable to do much more other than hold back tears. I felt myself shutting down.

I can’t take this. Everyone is staring at me. They must think I’m such a horrible mother. Oh, please. Don’t start crying in front of everyone. I’m a terrible mom. Why won’t my daughter stop crying? I just can’t deal with this. Why am I letting all this get to me? Stop it, just stop it, and get a grip! I’m so ashamed. I can’t even snap out of it. My daughter deserves so much better.

I felt so ashamed, for a moment I could hardly move. I looked over at my mom, who was waiting patiently while the waitress returned with the cartons. She knew I wasn’t myself. “Honey, it’s OK. She’s just being a 2-year-old. Don’t worry,” she reassured me. Robotically, I managed to put some of the food into the empty containers. My mom told me she’d grab the bags and meet us outside.

I carried my daughter to the car and clicked her into her car seat. Safely behind the wheel with the doors closed, I began to sob loudly. I couldn’t control myself. I sobbed because I was stressed out. I sobbed because I was ashamed at my inability to play it cool, something I’m usually so good at doing. Big, fat tears ran down my face where my sunglasses couldn’t hide them. I saw my daughter’s face in the rearview mirror. She looked concerned. “Mommy crying,” she said, and I cried even harder. A few minutes later, I managed to start getting my bearings, wiping away the tears before my mother slid into the passenger seat.

“Mom I’m so sorry,” I choked.

My mother looked at me with that knowing stare. She said, “I knew you weren’t feeling well. You’re tired, you’ve had anxiety, and you haven’t eaten all day. It’s all OK. You’ve done nothing wrong. When babies cry, it can get to you. It’s how it is.” I nodded, stifling back the sobs that threatened to re-emerge. “Let’s go home and try to eat something, shall we?” my mother asked. Finally feeling a bit more normal, I turned on the car and drove out of the parking lot.

I knew I hadn’t ruined lunch. I knew my daughter was just being a toddler. I was used to her having tantrums every now and then. It’s what little kids do. Usually I’m great at dealing with these situations, but not this time.

There are times when I’m simply prone to anxiety. I’d had a rough week, and sometimes it’s not possible to always be calm. Sometimes I don’t have a choice, because I’m not able to fight the feelings that overcome me. When anxiety takes the reins, it’s just a matter of waiting until I can regain control of my mind again. There are periods of shame. There are moments I wonder what others must be thinking, if they can see the panic behind my eyes. I wonder, Do they notice? I can only hope the majority of my worry is in my mind, because this is what it’s like to experience panic in public, and it is far from a positive experience. It comes with feelings of fear, worry, shame, and embarrassment. Though thankfully these days my anxiety attacks are few, and relatively far between, it doesn’t change the impact they have once they decide to surface once again.

It’s difficult not to feel self-conscious when experiencing an anxiety attack in public. The truth is, the people surrounding us may not even notice anything is wrong at all, as much of the trauma is happening within. For mothers, there is an added stress because we often feel we are expected to be super human. With the responsibility of caring for a young one, there is less room for mistakes, less forgiveness from those believed to be standing in judgment. But it’s important to realize that everyone has a low point. People are not robots. We are filled with emotion, flaws, worries, and stresses. Though it may be a challenge, it’s important to try to keep in mind that you don’t always have to display an image of perfection. It’s OK to have a miserable human moment; though it may be terrifying or embarrassing at the time, it’s important to give ourselves a pass. No one can keep it together every minute of every day despite the pressure we place on ourselves.

It’s part of being human — there is no shame in that.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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