A hand stretched out, so it looks like it's holding the sun

It would be a lie if I told you the collages of people’s picture perfect lives gracing social media today didn’t cause me to slam my laptop shut, only to quietly reopen it a few moments later. And repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Please don’t take this the wrong way — I’m truly astounded by your ability to run five marathons this year. And you, with the glass of champagne and that hunk of a boyfriend attached to your hip? You are beautiful and I want you to know that I too, am celebrating the love you share. And goodness, that sweet baby snuggled under the Christmas tree, illuminated by the lights’ golden glow? You may be a new momma, but I know how long your heart has swelled in tender anticipation of this beloved child. Hold him close and be proud.

With each photo, I smile, mesmerized by the beauty that surfaces each year, despite the deep and constant pain that threatens to suffocate our world. But moments later, the impact of that pain seeps through my skin and into my blood, casting a familiar shadow onto my heart. And that is when anxiety speaks, beginning as a whisper and getting louder as it watches me tremble. With glazed eyes and a look of defeat, I settle in for the battle:

“You’ve wasted another year.”

“They don’t really love you.”

“All you’ve been this year is a burden.”

“You can’t do anything right.”

“Your Master’s degree? Who are you kidding?!”

“Who do you think you are?”

“Give up now before you mess things up further.”

“Will there be a place for you in 2017?”

To be fair, 2016 challenged me, and I fought all year to find my footing on life’s rocky terrain. I struggled to create healthy boundaries and felt hurt and alone. I started counseling but considered quitting weekly out of fear and shame. I started taking antidepressants but resented myself for accepting medication. I stopped eating and became dangerously thin, but didn’t care enough to nourish my empty soul. And I slept, dreaming of fast forward buttons and ignoring the calls of my worried friends and family. I blamed and berated myself for every struggle, every slip, every failure… and found even the most joyful moments shrouded from the light.

But now, we’ve been given a chance to breathe in the opportunity for change that comes with a new year. I don’t know about you, but I want to believe in fresh starts, in the magic of hope and the power of courageous living. I desire connection — to feel needed and to be deeply cared for. I long to believe in love, forgiveness, humor and grace. This all sounds nice, does it not? But the wonder of it all is that I can — because I am worthy of another chance. You are worthy of another chance. You are an equally valuable part of our human family. You are capable of a fresh start. You are a living, breathing, magical example of hope. You lead a courageous life, persevering and overcoming hardship. You deserve love, you deserve forgiveness, you deserve to laugh and you deserve grace. And first and foremost, you deserve to receive these gifts — without reservation — from yourself.

Make time to do the things that bring you joy, however small. Gather friends who nourish your soul, heal your heart and remind you of your meaning. Meditate, pray, journal and create. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sleep well, move your body and eat food that gives you energy. Be honest. And forgive, both yourself and others. Handle yourself with care, grow from your mistakes and be your biggest supporter. You are worthy of love. You are deeply cherished. And you deserve only the best care.

Light may at times grow dim and tremble. But upon meeting darkness, it never fails to uncover the beauty that hides in the shadows.

You are light. Come along, let’s learn to love ourselves this year.

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Thinkstock photo via LFO62


Dear loved ones,

I am so sorry for being such a pain sometimes. I know I can be frustrating at times and you just can’t figure out why I am like this. Well I can tell you I don’t even know the answer to this. I guess that’s just how I am wired.

My only hope is my constant complaining and breakdowns don’t ward you off from me because that’s when I need you the most and I don’t want to feel like a burden because it makes it much worse.

I wrote a list to break it down to you to have a glimpse of what it feels like to be me:

  • It’s worrying about millions of things in a millisecond.
  • It’s overthinking anything and everything.
  • It’s when everything around you seems to be so overwhelmingly fast-paced and you just can’t keep up so you shut down from the world in hopes it would slow it down, but it doesn’t.
  • It’s when you constantly need reassurance those you love still care about you because even you sometimes doubt you can love yourself.
  • It’s when taking a “chill pill” was never an option.
  • It’s always being too afraid people will think all you want is attention while all you really want is redemption.
  • It’s when you’re afraid of now, yesterday and tomorrow.
  • It’s when you’re afraid of drowning in sorrow.
  • It’s hating to live like this but you just don’t have a clue how to stop it.
  • It’s when you get told to “let it go,” but you just can’t.
  • It’s living with a mind that thinks for its own and you don’t have a say in it.
  • It’s when sleeping is #goals.

I hope this helps you understand.

Follow this journey on My Online Journal.

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Imagine if you read a lonely hearts ad that looked like this:

Single anxious 30-something, nail biter, fidgeter, lip chewer, seeks partner for constant reassurance. Can sometimes be an annoyance. Paranoid about a lot of things. Big fan of alone time. Will question everything. Apply within.

Would you apply? Do you think they sound like someone you could grow to love ? Or would you move on to someone else and quickly?

Thing is, if I had to write an honest lonely hearts ad, based entirely on my emotions, that ad above would be me. Sound like quite the catch, don’t I? In day-to-day situations, I come across as a bubbly, outgoing person. High-functioning anxiety means I sometimes talk too much, I overcompensate for silences and at least one part of my anatomy is always moving — drumming fingers, flicking hair, constantly in motion. Dating is a whole different game, and it’s hard to even roll the first die.

Four years ago, I’d just come out of a relationship which had sent my anxiety levels through the roof. In the beginning it was a fairytale, by the end a living nightmare. Constantly being lied to and cheated on meant a once manageable anxiety rose to levels I couldn’t even comprehend anymore. For the last few months of the relationship, I felt like I was going mad. A simple question would be met with a lie, an accusation would be bounced back and flipped around, and, of course, it was “all my fault.” I was made to feel like I was abnormal for worrying about someone when they went out, or when they didn’t answer their phone for a few days. Obviously I was “interfering” when he went out with another couple and a single female friend and I wasn’t invited. I wasn’t allowed to go out with my own friends unless he was there, and each night then would end in a blazing argument — he would drink too much and verbally abuse me, usually accuse me of sleeping with someone else, and I would cry myself to sleep. I spent nights lying in bed  convincing myself I was such a terrible partner, that I was overbearing to the point where I wondered why he could even be with me because I was that awful. The relationship ended when I realized, for my own sanity, the only fault that lay with me was not ending it sooner.

And so I reveled in freedom. I didn’t need to settle back down, and I didn’t want to settle down. I had wings again and I could fly as far or as near as I wanted to. I was happy with that. A few dates here and there, nothing serious, it worked for me. I didn’t get involved, I didn’t have anyone to answer to… It wasn’t difficult and it wasn’t scary. I had learned, or had implanted in my head, that I’d never allow anyone to get that close to me again because I couldn’t handle feeling like that again.

And then my best friend invited me to a wedding as his plus one. I’d known him for 13 years, so I felt like it was more of a night out rather than a date, and we had a great time. The next day we both went to work and all day long I thought about him. It was like a lightbulb had switched on in my head. Did I contact him? Out of fear, I didn’t. I didn’t, couldn’t, dare think that I could put myself back into a relationship with someone, so I shut myself away and got on with my life. Then he messaged me and asked me out again… just us two this time and, although I said yes, I panicked so much by the time I met him for a lunch date I was a bag of nerves. It was ridiculous. One of my oldest, bestest friends, and I was a bumbling mess!

Luckily he managed to see past all that and, nearly six months down the line, we are officially in a relationship. But it’s hard. Although I have one foot firmly in the future, one foot seems determined to stick in the past. I worry constantly about getting on his nerves, about being overbearing, putting a foot wrong. I talk too much, I fear that I will be too much for him and that he’ll dump my sorry ass for being… me.

It is the most amazing feeling to be with someone who seems to accept all that. Trust is the major factor — he goes out and I don’t sit at home paranoid that he’s with someone else. We go out on weekends and I can talk to another man at the bar without feeling eyes burning with jealousy on my skin. It’s waking up in the middle of the night in the midst of an anxiety attack and knowing he’s there to hold me until I calm down.

Dating with anxiety is hard. Loving with anxiety is harder. The only advice I can give is don’t settle. Don’t settle for the person who thrives and revels in raising your stress levels. If they make your heart beat faster when you see them, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Because, when you find the right person, it shouldn’t feel like you’ve been running a marathon, it should feel like you’re coming home. And I’m home.

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If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Thinkstock photo via KristinaJovanovic

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

One morning a few weeks back, I got out of bed to use the bathroom as the sun was coming up. My wife was just getting out of bed as well to see the kids off to school. My brain was a little fuzzy on the short walk across the bedroom, but I chalked it up to the small fan I keep on the window sill every night. The white noise and the gentle breeze help me sleep but the sometimes colder air can leave me feeling groggy in the morning if the window is open too much. Maybe it was that. Or it may have been the drink I had about an hour before bed. Or the late-night snack that seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I walked back to bed with every intention of dozing off for another hour or so, but the fogginess of my brain started to transform and really take hold. I felt like I was being pulled from reality, like I was slowly walking backward in a dream. Of course, I knew I was awake, but I felt disconnected and distant. It was as if an invisible barrier stood between me and everything else that was real. Anything other than the growing chaos in my head was little more than background noise. I nervously told my wife I was feeling quite anxious.

Anxiety is nothing new for me. It’s something I’ve dealt with throughout most of my 51 year of life. It’s a genetic gift from my father to me and — with much fatherly guilt — from me to my own kids. Sometimes the damned condition seems to be contagious — even my adopted daughter struggles with anxiety. I can vividly recall panic attacks and generalized anxiety as far back as my memory allows, though back in the early 70s it was simply called “being shy” or “introverted.” I quickly learned complaints of a stomach ache to the school nurse were a prompt ticket home for the day.

In my adolescence and early adulthood, anxiety was often coupled with the dark and dreadful partner, depression. The combination was often debilitating. The trial and error process of finding effective medication can be extremely frustrating. But with therapy, medication, spirituality and an insatiable appetite for knowledge on the subject, I learned many of the effective coping skills that can sometimes help us tame the beast just enough so it becomes a somewhat bearable nuisance. And I’ve been lucky. It’s been this way for the better part of the last 13 or so years. I wear my anxiety on my sleeve like a badge of honor. I talk freely about it with others so people might realize it doesn’t have to be a dark secret.

Something happened one morning a few weeks ago that was very unexpected. The beast was back in my head and I’d forgotten how to cope with it. By trying to control it, I’d given it power and control. I took half of a low dose of medication and paced around the bedroom for a few minutes. With sweaty, shaking hands, I diligently made the bed. I carefully folded laundry. Still bordering on panic, I took a full dose of medication. I was confused by this unwelcome return but I kept myself distracted with physical activity for a while and my mind eventually began to slow down. I was shaken, but I was able to ease into action and I made it through the day without too much further difficulty.

Now, a big concern for anxious people lies in the area of self-control. For me, control over my emotions and my physical wellness often ranks higher than my basic need for food and water and even sexual desire. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating even a little. And I don’t simply let small failures fade away because for me, no failure is ever small. I can turn the mole hill into a mountain just as aptly as I can convince myself a simple tension headache is most certainly a rare and advanced brain tumor. And so it began. The seed in my mind had been replanted.

On the following morning, I woke up feeling mostly OK. But within a few minutes, doubt snuck into the back of my mind. It started with cold, clammy hands and cold feet, followed by tension in my belly and a heart beating in my chest with a little too much beat. And then came the forgotten but familiar scary thoughts, progressively getting louder and faster and more invasive in my brain. The morning turned out to be a beastly repeat of the day before.

Each day since has pretty much been marked by a similar routine. I struggle through the early morning hours trying to keep my mind occupied in activity and the anxiety typically fades into background noise by sometime around noon. I wish a mindful tranquility would come more easily but my wife certainly appreciates the folded laundry, the made beds and the clean bathrooms. Although it’s not pleasant, the morning episodes truly only rate four or five on a scale of one to 10, even though it seems like eights and nines in the moment. I am truly thankful the feelings do eventually pass.

Three or four weeks into it now, I try to take a pill only when I absolutely need to and I try not to feel too guilty when I do. I’m giving myself permission to be human and flawed. More importantly, I try to reflect on anxiety’s return without too much fear. It’s been over a decade since my last encounter with it and I am admittedly a bit rusty. Knowing what it is and accepting it as such are two very different concepts. I read and I pray and I try to exercise daily. I remind myself to stay in the present moment without empowering the feelings of fear with a fight. Instead I simply try to let them come along with me for the ride. I realize I am not alone. I’m frustrated. I’d forgotten how all-consuming the grips of fear can be. And I still have questions. Lots of them. I try to be patient and hopeful while I wait for the answers to emerge. It’s not easy. But I am learning to cope with anxiety. Again.

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I am a huge romantic. My husband is my rock and has stood by my side through my depression and anxiety. My usual response when I have a panic attack or depressive episode is to call him and calm down with his help. He wrote me this letter to help me when I couldn’t get through to him. I think it is one of the kindest things anyone has
ever done for me. I wanted to share as a thank you to him.

Morning Sweetheart,

I know you may be a touch apprehensive right now, but I can assure you that you will do wonderfully today. I know you find it hard sometimes. You get stressed and feel a great weight upon you, but I know you can get through it because you are my Jane. You are a smart, creative, kind and inspiring woman. I loved you when I married you, and I love you more with every passing moment. Take big breaths. Drink lots of water. Have a really good day, sweetheart, and I’ll give you hugs when you get home. I love you.

I would recommend a similar gesture if your loved one is struggling. I think this is one of my most prized possessions, and I know they would really appreciate it. Giving all of you my love.

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Coping with my severe anxiety is an ongoing process. Over the years I have developed a “toolbox of things” which I use to deal with it. Having a variety of “tools” and strategies can be handy because not all are useful or appropriate for each situation.

1.  I work with a doctor for medication. I have two types of medication. The first is medication I take daily to keep my anxiety under control. The second is medication to take as needed when I am dealing with panic attacks.

2. I have a counselor for support and to work on cognitive strategies to change my patterns of thinking. Anxiety attempts to control my mind, and it is important to me that I remain in control of my thoughts and feelings as much as possible. Working with a counselor helps me do this.

3. I avoid extremely stressful situations and limit the amount of stress I am under each week. Stress can contribute to anxiety so I monitor my stress levels and stressful activities and make certain I do only one stressful thing per day.

4. I try to eat healthy foods and exercise so I remain healthy. That involves choosing fruits, veggies, protein and drinking water. I walk, do cardio exercise and lift weights at least five days a week.

5. I maintain a positive support system. My family and carefully selected friends work together to assist me as I attempt to manage my anxiety and navigate dealing with people, places, and things.

6. I meditate daily. To help with this, I have downloaded meditation tapes on my phone that meet my various moods. Some are related to anxiety, some are specific to breathing, and some are basic meditation. They allow me to relax and recharge in 10 to 30 minutes.

7. I do yoga in addition to exercising and meditating three to four times a week. This helps me stretch and relax my muscles which I often tense due to my anxiety. I also must focus my mind on the exercises so anxious thoughts are excluded.

8. I use a weighted blanket. My blanket calms me when I am anxious and helps me feel centered. Some say its weight may help stimulate the brain to release various neurotransmitters that help me feel happy and calm, but I have yet to see a good scientific study.

9. I log off and turn off. When my anxiety begins to act up, I turn away from Facebook and TV and exercise, meditate or turn to my support system. Each of these activities may help to increase positive mood and calm my anxiety. Facebook and TV can have the opposite effect.

10. I hang out with my animals. Patting a dog is known to reduce blood pressure and increase happiness. I have three dogs and two of them work for me. Spending time playing with them can help with my anxiety.

11. I focus on hobbies that require mental concentration. Two of these include writing short stories and knitting complicated socks.  Knitting socks is my favorite hobby when I anxious because it engages my head and my hands.

What’s in your toolbox?

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