side profile of stressed woman holding her head

There are times in my life when my head connects one dot to the next dot, which is way over a billion of other dots, other scenarios — scenarios that seem to be more likely to happen than the one my head has already settled on.

I’ve argued and felt discouraged by speaking about my anxiety to key people in my life, such as people I’ve called “best friends” or plainly family.

I don’t expect these people to understand now. I don’t expect them to understand this in the future (or I hope they don’t ever have to struggle with this at all). I don’t expect them to understand why my head overthinks simple situations or things that have yet to happen. I don’t expect them to understand the internal debate I have sometimes on how to greet strangers before I come in direct contact with them, such as greeting a cashier while paying or asking for help and not seeming pathetic or awkward, which can sometimes leave me pondering or working myself up for minutes at a time. (It sometimes takes hours to call someone for a simple check-up on my violin.) I don’t expect them to understand how my head simply goes from A to Z in a matter of seconds, passing by each and every letter at the speed of light, plus adding other letters unknown to the English alphabet into the mix. I don’t expect them to understand how I panic or stress out to the point where I have a panic attack, where I feel consumed and suffocated by every little thing, where I’m crying and having trouble breathing.

I cannot just be “normal” or do what you may view as simple “normally.”

You may not be capable of understanding this, and I accept that. It’s time for you to also accept that you cannot understand, whether it’s my anxiety, stress or even my moments of grief from a loss of mine.

No human is perfect.

I am definitely not perfect.

I don’t have everything together, even though physically it might seem that way outside of closed doors.

And sometimes, I struggle to let myself know it’s OK and that my future is going to be OK.

It’s OK not to be OK.

I have to read self-help books in order to keep the peace in my head, to remember where I am in this life is OK — even if in hindsight it’s frustrating.

For example, I have to remember what Jamie Tworkowski wrote in his book “If You Feel Too Much” every time I feel like I’m working myself up to a panic attack:

“This life — it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win. It’s [OK] to slow down. You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by. This life is not about status or opinion or appearance. You don’t have to fake it.”

What I do want from you — maybe — is to give me time and ease up on subjects involving the future — my future. I know it may worry you. It worries me impossibly, because I’ve probably already thought of it in every single way imaginable, because it is my life. This happens every day; it sneaks up on me every waking moment in the back of my head, only to attack me in the late hours of the night.

I don’t want to hear your judgment of why can’t I be “normal.” I just want support. I want to hear, “It’s OK. I’m here. I don’t understand, but I want you to know it’s going to be fine.”

It’s that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

And maybe — just maybe — that’s really all I need. Just a simple resting place for this unknown answer of when or how, and instead just being OK. Knowing I’m not alone.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Sometimes I just want to get in a box
and stay in there
pray in there
scream because there’s no air in there.
I wanna call out
“this isn’t fair, this mask I wear,
this fake grin-and-bare-it smile I share.”

It’s dark in here
and unclear
if the thoughts themselves built the walls here.

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Stock image by Andrey_A

I woke up yesterday with swollen eyes, hair matted to my forehead and cheek, my pillow still drying from many, many tears shed Tuesday night. I’m shell-shocked. I’m utterly devastated. My hope is at an all-time low. Grief stricken, with trembling lips, I got up and washed my face. I hoped the cold water would wash away the remnants of Tuesday night’s panic attack.

My skin still felt hot and the pit of my stomach rock hard. The lump in my throat was choking me. I put my makeup on, only to cry it all away, not once, but twice. I grasped my bathroom counter for support, breathed deeply and looked in the mirror. I saw a broken person’s reflection, nearly unrecognizable. Anxiety and depression has come calling loudly today, but for once, it feels warranted.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how difficult this election has been as a person who has anxiety and depression. I drifted between extreme worry, incessantly checking the polls and extreme apathy, turning everything off in disgust. My emotions ebbed and flowed with the headlines of the day. Now, it seems like my anxious half was absolutely right, surprisingly rational and very appropriate given the outcome. I am deeply resentful of that.

You see, I go to a therapist weekly, a psychiatrist monthly and have been doing so for the better part of three years since my Dad died in 2013. Losing him dropped the Earth from beneath my feet, and I felt like I was in total free fall. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, in part due to my unhealthy obsession of thinking and fearing things like losing other loved ones, illness or even simple things like any hint of change. It has not been an easy road. I’ve spent the past three years identifying irrational worry, and using every tool I’ve learned to quell the fears and shun the panic.

But everything is changed now. My anxiety has been devastatingly emboldened. The election of Donald Trump, in spite of his divisive rhetoric and arguable misogyny and bigotry, has given my anxiety a footing I’m not sure it ever fully had until now. I feared a day like today would come, and he would be elected, but I banked on those fears being irrational. I banked on them being just another anxious day.

How wrong I was. How right my anxiety was. And how lost I am now. I think a lot of people are feeling anxiety and profound sadness today, but for those of us who knew those feelings before today, it makes the shocking election results nearly unbearable. I’m crying at work while writing this.

I anticipate quite a few more panic attacks in the future for me. My anxiety feels totally
justified. My worst fears have come true, and I am helpless to resolve them.

My depression feels totally justified. On my “side of the fence” of what appears to be a deeply divided country, there seems to be so little to hope for in terms of the future.  But after listening to Hillary Clinton’s incredibly articulate and inspiring concession speech today, I can’t help but think that is the last thing she wants from women (or anyone for that matter) like me. Rather than stew in gloom, and let it destroy me emotionally, I think the most honorable tribute to her, to show her my deep admiration of all she represents, would be to take this emotional pain, anxiety and depression, harness it’s power, and use it as strength to help shape a future of which I can be proud. I’ll start this difficult, yet valuable process by quoting another two of the most graceful and eloquent women:

“When they go low, we go high.” – Michelle Obama

“We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated.” – Maya Angelou

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My therapist changed my life. Actually, my therapist helped me change my life. What I couldn’t do and avoided for 30 years was drive on the highway. It may seem like such a simple thing, but it was a huge barrier in living my life. It was like having a self-imposed prison ankle bracelet, with the travel radius defined by my anxiety.

I couldn’t take jobs, go to classes, seminars, doctor’s offices, parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, shopping malls or travel in and out of the state. The list is endless of what I had to say no to. It not only affected my confidence, but my self-esteem.

For most of my adult life, I would have so much anxiety surrounding highways. I would have to keep my eyes closed just riding as a passenger in a car. If I didn’t close my eyes, I would look at the floor or at a book. Anything to avoid what was terrifying around me, being in a car on the highway. I would avoid side streets if they had a sign for the highway, just in case the road only led to a highway on ramp. I would drive hours out of the way on side streets, often driving in bad parts of town just so I wouldn’t have to go on the highway.

Mostly, I just didn’t get to live the life I wanted. I made excuses why I couldn’t go places. I declined countless invitations to do things. I frustrated my children because everyone else’s mom could drive places and I couldn’t. Occasionally, I would admit my fear to understanding friends, and they would let me ride with them. If we went as a group, then I was always eager to sit in the backseat. It is a little less terrifying back there, and it is easier to hide my fear.

My heart would race. My stomach would have butterflies. My hands would sweat. Heck, my whole body would sweat, but mostly, I would be so scared I wanted to cry.

Then, one day I was faced with a problem with no way out. I had to get to Providence, Rhode Island, and there was no way around me not driving there. I looked into the train and the bus, but the schedules wouldn’t work. I had no one else I could ask to drive me. I looked for every way out I could find, but there was none. I had to get over this fear.

I manned up to my problem, and I asked my therapist, Dan, if he could help me with my anxiety. I had four months until I had to drive to Providence, and I needed a miracle. I told him about my fears.

It started as a simple list. On ramps, trucks, big trucks, changing lanes, feeling trapped, driving fast and “not knowing where I am.” Also, did I mention being on ramps and merging onto the highway? Ramps felt like walking to a firing squad. There was no turning back.

The plan was exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety. If I knew he was going to make me actually drive on the highway with him in the car, then I never would have signed up for this. I had, in some fantasy, thought I could solve my fear sitting safely and comfortably on the couch in his office. I was in too deep now, as much as I wanted to chicken out, I had to persevere.

Dan first taught me to breathe. Who knew I was doing that wrong? Then, he taught me how to challenge my anxious thoughts. Then, we hit the open road. First, just getting on the highway and getting off the next exit. Eventually, we were driving farther and on different highways. He knew just how hard to push me and when I had enough. He became my biggest cheerleader, encouraging and believing in me even when I doubted myself.

Dan gave me homework. I have always hated homework, but who wants to get an F in their own therapy? So I diligently practiced driving between appointments. I would write my thought challenges and anxiety down in the journal he had given me. The hardest part was remembering to breathe when I felt anxious. I would bring my dog with me when I practiced sometimes, hoping she would help keep me calm. Mostly, she just drooled on the window, but at least I wasn’t alone.

I would conquer one aspect of driving, slowly pulling off that layer only to expose another fear. I had once thought being on ramps was the biggest obstacle but “not knowing where I am” ultimately proved to be the greatest hurdle.

As the date to drive to Providence approached, I still wasn’t sure I could do it. It was the overwhelming fear of “not knowing where I am” I was struggling with. My therapist and I decided to do the drive together the day before I had to do it myself. He understood there was no way to simulate going to Providence. I had to go there to see that I could do it. He blocked out four hours in his day, as it should take us a little more than three hours round trip.

We drove. I crossed state lines into Rhode Island with little fanfare. There was no marching band and confetti waiting for me at the border, but the significance of crossing into another state was monumental for me.

As we approached our destination, I had a panic attack. Dan helped me get through the panic attack. We got lost. I made us go back to the place we left from before we got lost to do it right. If I was going to do it on my own the next day, then I needed to know how to do it without getting lost.

We made it back to his office, and I was exhausted. The trip had been draining, but also empowering. I accomplished a goal I hadn’t been able to reach my entire life. I drove to the state of Rhode Island!

My trip was never going to make the evening news. I hadn’t scaled Mount Everest. I had not completed the Iditarod dog sled race or flown solo around the world. I did what millions of people do every day and never think twice about. I just drove on the highway, but it changed my life. For that was the beginning of me living the life I had wanted, where anxiety didn’t have to win.

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My dear friends,

Before I began sharing about my anxiety, I was terrified to open up to you. I worried that disclosing my anxiety would darken the light, cheery nature of our friendships. I wondered if “anxious” would gradually become my sole identity, overshadowing the many traits that comprise who I am. My greatest hope was that you would understand that anxiety challenges me but does not define me.

The moment I disclosed my anxiety, my fears dissipated. I am incredibly thankful that choosing to be vulnerable about my anxiety has strengthened our friendships, created inextricable, deep connections and brought us closer than I could have ever imagined. Moreover, I am extremely grateful for your presence in my life and for the numerous ways in which you have supported me through the most difficult times.

Thank you for understanding whenever I arrived late to meet you for coffee, my hair disheveled, my eyes wet from an onslaught of panic, and my slight figure clad in an old, shapeless sweatshirt. I appreciate that you never commented on my anxiety-ridden appearance and always took the time to listen to whatever was on my mind as we sipped our drinks.

Thank you for your willingness to learn what I need when I feel particularly anxious and to respect boundaries. When we were roommates, you were always understanding of my need for space in times of anxiety, sending texts peppered with hearts, “I love you’s” and “It’s going to be OK’s” instead of entering my room. You came to know that sometimes, all I need is to know that someone is there for me, even if they are not physically close. More importantly, you always respected that.

Thank you for reminding me that the worries consuming me are unimportant in the grand scheme of life. In college, you were always by my side to reassure me that an “A minus” midterm would not affect my ability to graduate college Summa Cum Laude, obtain the job of my dreams and attend law school. Thanks to your encouragement and kind words, I now fully understand that small missteps cannot prevent me from achieving my goals.

Thank you for laughing with me when I make light of my overly-neurotic, irrational, anxiety-addled mind. In the worst moments, humor is my most effective coping mechanism. Your willingness to laugh at my self-deprecating remarks instead of shying away means the world to me.

Thank you for understanding whenever I am unable to do something. You have never treated me any less respectfully when I am overwhelmed and overloaded, and I love that you recognize and accept that I have limitations, just like everyone else in the world.

Thank you for pulling me away from my stressors for pure, unadulterated fun. “Legally Blonde” movie nights, lunches out, beach days, shopping trips and “Hamilton” sing-along sessions have all provided a welcome diversion from the anxieties that are prone to creeping into my mind. I am grateful that you have taught me the importance of taking breaks to refresh and refocus my mind and body.

Thank you for supporting me through the most difficult night of my life, for comforting me when panic completely overtook my mind, for treating me as compassionately as you always have and for encouraging me to prioritize my mental health. To this day, my health is a top priority, and I am willing to slow down when I feel overwhelmed.

Thank you for reassuring me when anxiety causes me to doubt myself. When I worry that I will never be gainfully employed, second-guess a piece of writing I sent out, or wonder if I am “the annoying friend,” you never fail to remind me I am strong, capable and loved, dispelling the pervasive “what-ifs.”

Thank you for reminding me I am never as alone as I feel. The stories you have shared about your experiences are a powerful reminder that there are a vast number of people in the world who share the same challenges. I have learned that if we support each other, stand together and share our stories and experiences with one another, not only will we become stronger and more resilient in the face of adversity, but we will also feel less alone.

Thank you for showing me how loved I am. Whether through your words or your actions, you never fail to express your love and support. Although you understand that anxiety is only one piece of me, you are always supportive when my anxiety challenges me, and you accept me exactly as I am, which is the greatest demonstration of love. I promise to stay by your side in your darkest moments, loving and supporting you just as you love and support me.

I love you immeasurably. You mean the world to me.

With love,
Your friend

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