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When I Try to Remember a Time Before My Anxiety

Life can be broken into segments. I used to separate my life into sections according to school: Preschool. Elementary school. Junior high. High school. Older people may see the segments of their life much differently. A divorcee, for example, may see their life like this: Pre-marriage. Marriage. Divorce. Post-divorce. The human brain tends to place things into groups, to sort things so that they might make more sense, to compartmentalize and condense.

I try to do the same with my anxiety. I try to remember my life before – before my anxious thoughts became too much to handle, before I had my first panic attack. Then I find myself wondering if a “before” even existed.

As a kid, I was always a little more nervous than everyone else. I remember being in grade school and worrying about things my friends didn’t even think about. My mind would run rampant with “what-ifs” about the silliest things: What if no one wants to be my partner in class? What if there’s a fire in the school and I have to leave all my things behind and I lose everything? I remember agonizing over “silly” things for as far back… well, as far back as I can remember. That was my “normal.”

It was in high school that I began to wonder if my “nervousness” wasn’t as “normal” as I had always thought. During my sophomore year, I signed up to take the ACT — earlier than everyone else in my grade. The night before the test, I woke up around 1 A.M., shaking and unable to catch my breath. My mind was racing with anxious thoughts, and it took me about an hour to calm down and finally go back to sleep. It was only one occasion of many, but I remember the paralyzing fear of that incident better than any other.

If I had to pick a single trigger for my anxiety – the straw that broke the camel’s back – it would have to be my first semester of college. I went away to a school I didn’t really want to attend; I had received nearly a full ride, and my family convinced me it was too good of an offer to turn down. I left behind my friends, my boyfriend, and my tight-knit family, only to arrive at a school I was less than excited about.

I was only five days into the semester when the panic attacks began. I would sit in class, my mind racing, my chest squeezing, and run back to my dorm as soon as class got out. I would lie in my bed for hours, trying to fight the gaping pit of dread in my chest. Eventually, I began to skip classes. Sometimes the anxiety got so suffocating, I convinced myself I was going to die. My constant state of anxiety eventually shifted into a black fog of depression. Instead of feeling like my whole body was abuzz with nervous energy, I suddenly felt nothing. I can’t say which was worse.

I got help, eventually. I went to the mental health clinic at school, got on medication, and talked to a therapist. She suggested I transfer to a school closer to home; it was such a relief. I thought maybe if I went home, things would get better.

They did, but not entirely. Upon returning home, my anxiety found new targets. Instead of focusing on being away at school, it honed in on my relationship with my boyfriend, or my aspirations for the future. It has remained with me to this day.

The anxiety comes in waves, but it is always there; sometimes, it’s just a tiny pit in my stomach, reminding me that something can always go wrong. Other times, it’s an endless cascade of racing thoughts, horrible anxious thoughts that take away my ability to breathe. I am getting better at dealing with it; I go to therapy, I take medication, and all of it seems to help. But it is always there.

Which leads me to wonder – was there ever a “before?” I don’t think so. I now believe my anxiety has always been a part of me. I see it as a volcano that sat dormant for 18 years, only trembling every now and then, until it finally erupted with devastating and unforgiving fury. Now, it burns slowly, sputtering violently here and there. But I can live with it.

If there was no “before,” I don’t think there will ever be an “after,” either. I think many people with anxiety will always deal with it to some extent. It might be hard to accept that. But I firmly believe that accepting your anxiety doesn’t mean you’re giving up; it doesn’t mean you’re letting it win.

I think if we accept anxiety as a part of who we are, we will be better able to deal with it. We will no longer ache for an “after” that will never come. And we will thrive.