The Books That Help Me Face the Anxiety That Used to Keep Me at Home

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I live with anxiety and depression on a daily basis. This is something I have to live with for life now, which I haven’t quite accepted yet. This also makes the thought of traveling to the other side of the world quite daunting. I’m scared of leaving the handful of extraordinary friends who understand me and love me despite everything. I started to think about when I was at my worst and what got me through it, other than those wonderful people. When I was at the peak of my breakdown, the thought of leaving the house would reduce me to tears. During this time I couldn’t find comfort in anything. I couldn’t focus on TV or movies because my thoughts were screaming so loud I couldn’t even hear what was going on. I couldn’t confide in friends because I believed they hated me and wouldn’t miss me if I was dead. Everything was dark and pointless. However, one day I had been shopping with my mother and happened to stumble upon a book. A real, paperback, bright yellow book. This book was “Mad Girl” by Bryony Gordon.​​

“Mad Girl” is the story of Bryony growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and trying to have a normal life while thinking inside that you’re losing your mind. I fell in love with this book from the moment I started reading it. She faced similar challenges to ones I had come across in my short 25 years of life. She spoke in such a refreshingly honest light about these issues (abusive relationships, self-destructive behavior and mental illness) and how it somehow always seems be reflected badly upon us when we actually had very little control over it. It was the first time ever that I felt like someone else in the world understood how I was feeling and that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t “going mad” after all.

Bryony is so open about her journey and her mistakes. She spoke about her attempt with antidepressants and how in the end therapy and meeting her husband slowly made her feel better. Reading about Bryony’s experience made me feel better and worse in some respects. It was amazing to read someone’s thoughts which were so closely related to my own. But it also made me quite sad in the fact that Bryony had very supportive family and friends and I felt at the time I didn’t have anyone who really understood and supported what I was going through — but I hadn’t in fact really tried to tell anyone. That’s when my journey of being open about what I was going through really began.

After finding such comfort in “Mad Girl,” I began searching on Amazon for books in a similar field. I wasn’t really sure what genre it was, but I knew I needed more of it… now! I finally clicked on “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig. I had heard of this book before, as it is in fact extremely popular. However, all the images I had seen of the book tended to just show lists of things, so I assumed it was a book full of listed reasons why this world is so amazing. Oh how wrong was I? I bought this book during a very distressed episode, and I think the poor woman in Waterstone’s feared for my life due to the title (and possibly rightly so). I cried all the way home, made a cup of tea, curled up in bed and began reading. I had never ever felt such a rush of emotion in my life. It was as if Matt was sat on the bed next to me, explaining what was happening in my brain and that it was in fact, normal. He explained that he too had felt like he wouldn’t make it through the next 10 minutes of the day, never mind be writing a book about it years later. He explained that every single person has a unique brain, but they can all “fail” and “break” in different ways. He explained why depression is so difficult to open up about, describing my thoughts and fears almost word for word. He also suggested why it’s so difficult for our loved ones to accept it and handle it. For the first time, I felt like what I was feeling was perfectly OK. I wasn’t going mad, and I wasn’t alone. I read this book from cover to cover in about 12 hours and sobbed uncontrollably for most of that time. Not because the book was sad, but because it was so unbelievably full of hope. It gave me hope that maybe, dying wasn’t the only way for this feeling to go away. There was, somehow, a way to feel better.

At this point in time, I had only opened up to one absolutely irreplaceable friend about how I was feeling, and luckily he was the most supportive and accepting person I have ever known. He encouraged my reading, which then encouraged my opening up to others. I had to be honest with the people around me, and if they were true friends, they would listen and help however they could. I’ve read this book about four times now, whenever I feel a dip coming, I read it and feel less alone, and today I’ve started reading it again. I can’t express my gratitude for Matt sharing his story with the world — because it saved my life, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

​​After finding these two books, I couldn’t stop reading. It was the only thing that stopped my thoughts drowning me and made me see light, somewhere in the distance. This might not be the end of me. I decided to join the local library — that way I got to read books for free but I had to leave the house to get them. It took about 30 minutes of standing at the front door before I plucked up the courage to walk to the library, but when I got there, there was the saying, “Everything is going to be alright” displayed in lights on the front of the building. I am a big believer in signs from the universe, and the comfort I felt in this reduced me to tears once again. I walked inside and heading straight for the H section in search of more from Matt Haig. This time it was a fiction book that I found from him. “The Humans.”

“The Humans” is one of the most wonderful books I have ever come across. It’s a fictional story about an alien that has been sent to Earth to destroy a family who may have discovered the most unbreakable formula in the world and could basically lead to the end of civilization. But that is not the main point of the story. The story is really about the alien’s journey into human life and trying to figure out why we do all the seemingly pointless things we do as humans — for example: love, wear clothes, live with animals whom we can’t communicate with, the list is endless. It is such a touching and humorous tale of what it truly means to be human and that although it is extremely painful at times to live in this world, it is worth it for those exact things. Again, Matt reduced me to tears for the majority of the book but not for a bad reason. Matt has an incredible ability to write experiences so full of hope and compassion for other humans who may be suffering. Reading these books encouraged me to share my experience; they helped me have the courage to finally go the doctors and accept the help that was available out there, which then led to me finally beginning to feel better and realizing my dreams of travel, love and connection with other people.

After joining the library, a friend from work also brought me a huge pile of books to help distract me from my thoughts. Not only did fiction help, but I also started to realize I liked to research and started planning things for my trip to Florida. Researching and planning helped occupy my time and help me feel productive. I’ve said in my previous posts, Disney World truly was a magical place that made me feel alive again and inspired me to continue traveling. That is when I started to research other places you can travel to and finally booked my flight to Australia. But now I’m faced with the fear of taking all of this with me to Australia. What if I get hit with a wave of depression? What if no one around me understands what I’m going through? What if my anxiety strikes and I can’t leave my hostel? What if I get hit by a bus or my plane crashes? The reality is, all or non of these things could happen. But they could also happen here in Preston. So I started to think of things I can take with me that will comfort me while I’m 12,000 miles away from the people I love — and the list started with my books.

Have you found any books that have helped you through your struggles? Please comment below and let me know!

Follow this journey on Travel Bear.

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What a Conversation With the Dalai Lama Taught Me About Anxiety

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The first time I met His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, I was invited to ask him one question. He tends to go on and on, his people told me. So one question only. Of course, I fretted. One question.

I was interviewing His Holiness for a magazine column I wrote in which I explored ways to have a better life. The column was one of my smarter orchestrations. Anxiety-related illness had planted me in a spot such that I was too sick to hold down a “normal” job, and I was too broke to get the healing treatments I needed. So I confected a gig where I tested different ways to heal myself. Two birds, one stone.

I deliberated for days. How would I reduce things to “the question” that would provide a salve to all us Westerners seeking a more meaningful path through the foggy, heart-sinky angst of life? The choice left my head spinning and chattering. What is it exactly that we need to know? Are we here to evolve into higher beings? Why are we so alone? Is there a grand scheme to our allotted 85 years on this earth?

When we met a few weeks later, His Holiness kissed my hand and tossed his thongs aside. We sank into adjacent hotel room lounge chairs. I still didn’t have my one question. So I asked the most authentically pressing thing in that exact moment:

“How do I get my mind to shut up?”

You know, to stop the fretful chatter that makes us so nervous and unsettled and unable to grasp the “present moment” at the end of yoga classes when the instructor talks about it as though it’s something you can buy off the shelf.

His Holiness giggled and blew his nose. “There’s no use,” he told me. “Silly! Impossible to achieve! If you can do it, great. If not, big waste of time.”

“But surely you can do it,” I said.

I thought to myself, I mean, is the Pope a Catholic? Can the Dalai Lama still his mind?

“Noooo. If I sit in a cave for a year on mountain, then maybe I do it. But no guarantee.” He waved his hand. “Anyway, I don’t have time.” He has better things to do, he told me. Like teaching altruism to massive crowds around the world, I thought.

His Holiness then told me about his recent trip to Japan, how he hits his running machine at 3 a.m. every day and talked to me all about his anger issues (yes, the Dalai Lama gets cranky!). But he said nothing further about the torturous human experience of having a fretful, frenzied mind that trips along ahead of us, just beyond our grip, driving us “mad” and leaving us thinking we’ve got it all terribly wrong. It was as if the subject bored him.

I left feeling deflated and anxious. I didn’t exactly have a pearly insight for my column. But a few days later, I was defending his seemingly easy response to my close mate Ragni, and suddenly, I realized what His Holiness had done.

He’d given me a response that came with a screaming subtext: You’re OK as you are! He’d given me — and everyone else out there whose whirring thoughts keep them awake until 4 a.m., trash-talking their poor souls into agitated despair — a big, fat, red robed hug. It was perfect.

Now, a strange thing happens when you realize some gargantuan, looming issue you’d been fretting over no longer needs to be fixed. I took a deep, free breath, expanded a little, released my grip and got on with better things.

I suspect you might be reading these words here because you are also someone with a mind that goes too fast, is too high and too unbridled. And, like me, you might have tried everything to fix this fretting, because people like us often try really, really hard at everything. They may also tend to think they need fixing. And like me, you might have wondered if there’s another way. I’d like to say this up front. I write these very words because I’ve come to believe that you can have a fretful and chatty mind, be awake at 4 a.m. every night from your thoughts, try really hard at everything and have a great life.

Hey, the Dalai Lama told me so.

A version of this piece appears in, “We Make the Beast Beautiful” by Sarah Wilson, published by Pan Macmillan Australia

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Photo via Dalai Lama Facebook page.

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What a Difficult Horse Riding Exercise Taught Me About My Anxiety

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Today was one of the first days in a long time that my anxiety got so bad it was interfering with my love, passion and work. It was like a huge brick wall was stacked straight in front of me with no ways to go under it, or to the sides. The only way I could get over it was through jumping over it and past it.

Today my horse trainer, friend and boss was having me jump an exercise that was challenging for myself and my horse. Yet it was not impossible.

So it’s the weekend and usually, I only jump my horse when none of the clients are around. I’m not nearly as good as many of them and a lot of the girls look up to me. It’s awesome that they like me, but also so anxiety provoking. Am I good enough, am I the type of person they want to look up to? Can I hold myself to that standard of a role model? Can I hide my depression and anxiety from them?

So today my boss had me jump the same exercise the middle schoolers just finished and they were so excited to see me be able to jump. This exercise seemed simple but was technical. The first time I went through it, I completely messed up in front of all those girls. The second time, the third time… different mistakes after different mistakes. After a few more tries my horse was frustrated; I was frustrated, anxious and beating myself up. All these negative thoughts were racing through my head. My eyes started to well up and for the first time, instead of letting myself get worked into a state, I decided to take control and push through.

Last time I got this nervous, I had to start back to the basics and it set me back years in training. At that moment I had two decisions — push through it or give up. Today I chose to push through it and channeled all my nervous, anxious energy into a positive outcome. I know not everyone can relate to riding horses and jumping, but what I hope y’all can gain from this is that with all the anxious feelings I had, I made a choice to not let it overcome me. I chose to redirect this energy into something positive. Trust me, it was one of the hardest things I have done. It was so mentally draining, but I am hoping that since I was able to do this once, maybe I’ll be able to do it again in the future.

As for all the girls who look up to me, what they see as this awesome young lady. They give me the strength to strive to be the person they believe I am every day. When I fall short of that expectation, I just have to remind myself that part of me is the mental illness. It is an illness that does affect me from time to time throughout the day, and I can either let it define and take over my life, or I can take small steps every day.

Every day I try to please everyone and think I should do things perfectly on the first try. I know that’s not logical, but I get so anxious if it’s not perfectly every time. I guess that’s why I love riding so much; I can never be perfect all the time, not even half the time. There is always something I need to work on, but the reward is so much more. It gives me the confidence to go on to the next day, next week, next year.

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When Anxiety Makes You Feel Like You Have to Always 'Be the Best'

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I am someone who from the outside, looks like I have it all together. I went through my childhood and adolescence with great success, always doing remarkable in school and excelling in whatever I put my mind to. I have earned by Bachelor’s degree and now am at the end of my Master’s in Social Work. I was able to accomplish all of this because of something innate inside me called anxiety. I have always been the anxious type. I make lists, I remake lists, I go over things constantly in my head and nothing is ever good enough until it’s “the best.”

For me, there is no option but to excel because anything less is simply “unacceptable.” When an assignment is distributed in school, I have to analyze it right away and finish it at least a week before it’s due. If I get a new job, I must impress everyone with my work and take on as much as I can. When I make new friends, I am sure to constantly assess my behavior and how they perceive me to make sure it is just as I want. Everything I do must be the best because that’s just a part of who I am. As an only child, I was always told by my family that I was the best, so I had to live up to that title and my anxiety gave me the perseverance to do so.

Now I may have just made anxiety sound like a really great thing to have. I mean, it did drive me to get a 4.0 in grad school, but while anxiety has driven me to many successes, it’s something that constantly wears me down. It’s exhausting analyzing and reanalyzing my every move. Having to be 10 steps ahead of everything makes me feel like I spun myself around for hours. There are moments when I feel such a pit in my stomach and tightness in my chest for what seems like no reason at all but then I burst out in tears from frustration. My mind is constantly thinking and analyzing every step I make. I judge myself harder than anyone else could and doubt how I socialize, how I dress and even how I think. So often at night my mind won’t turn off because it is making to do lists for the next coming week and telling me I’m behind on everything I have to do.

So while I seem like I “have it all together,” inside, I feel like a disaster. I know on paper I am doing so well, but the path to getting there is a constant battle. No one sees it or notices how bad it is because of how well I do in everything I’m involved in. That makes it even harder to talk about. How do I explain to someone how bad my anxiety is when from the outside, my life looks perfect? How can my anxiety be real if I am doing so well? These thoughts play over and over in my head convincing me that maybe my anxiety isn’t real, maybe I’m just making a bigger deal of it than it really is.

Up until recently, I could go without talking about it or having to admit it. In the past few weeks, my anxiety has worsened. I no longer can ignore how it makes me feel and what it does to me. I began crying randomly throughout the day from feeling so overwhelmed by it. My heart would feel like it was going to beat out of my chest and I wanted to escape out of places like work or school. I knew it was all bottled up inside me and I had to let it out. But how could I do that and admit something was wrong? No one would believe me and if they did, that meant I was weak in some way. Even worse, I felt like a fraud. I am getting my Master’s in Social Work in order to become a psychotherapist and treat people with mental illness. How could I treat others for anxiety if I couldn’t help myself?

I finally broke down one night and told my boyfriend of six years how I was feeling. He was shocked by how bad it had gotten, but comforted me. He told me I didn’t have to be Wonder Woman and that it was OK that I couldn’t do it all. Even though I knew what he was saying was true, I heard myself respond, “But I have to be the best.” I now realize my anxiety is what can make me or break me. It has driven me to accomplish so many things in life, but now it’s beating me up inside. How could something be good and bad all at the same time? How do I treat something that helps me yet hurts me? My head tells me if I treat the anxiety, then maybe I won’t have the drive to be successful. But I know that’s the anxiety playing a trick on me.

It’s an interesting perspective being a therapist in training and experiencing anxiety myself because I recognize my thoughts as the thoughts I hear from my clients. When my clients say things like, “I have to be the best” or “I can just handle the anxiety, I don’t need medication” I work with them to be more open minded and accepting of themselves. So why can’t I do the same for myself? I know all the tricks and how I would help treat someone with anxiety, but for some reason I won’t help myself or let others help me. Realizing all of this has given me a new appreciation for myself and given me the time to reflect on who I am and what I think of myself. I am opening up to the idea of getting help without feeling like a fraud or failure. I’ve realized I can be Wonder Woman, I just might have an Achilles heel called “anxiety.” I have to constantly remind myself that yes, anxiety has driven me to do some amazing things, but if I let it take over, it could break me. I’ve chosen to refuse to let that happen.

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The Disparaging Conversation I Overheard at Work About Mental Illness

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Today, this is what I overheard in the Senior Leadership room in a primary school:

“Another TA has been signed off long term with…” (cue disparaging tone) “anxiety and depression.”

I didn’t turn around so can’t be sure, but the sense of inverted comma hand gestures hung in the air. I took a deep breath and continued with my work. This wasn’t unusual.

“That’s four staff members off with ‘mental health problems,’ isn’t it?” The conversation continued and I shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s ridiculous!” The other staff person said.

“Yeah and you have to be really careful because mental health is really big at the moment.”

I choked on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment — lol — like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase, I thought sarcastically.

“Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has anxiety and depression. I asked how old she was and she said — can you believe this? — 20!” The deputy head laughed. It sounded evil, but that’s probably just me.

“I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work.” The support staff leader nodded approvingly.

“Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing.”

I felt my hackles rising. I wondered if they could see my shoulders tense. My eyes were burning a hole in my computer screen. I couldn’t turn around.

I know. It’s a classic — and we’re all a bit bored of this analogy, but in my head, I replaced ‘anxiety and depression’ with a physical problem, say “heart problems,” and tried played the revised conversation in my head.

“Another TA has been signed off long term with…” (cue disparaging tone) “heart problems.”

I didn’t turn around so can’t be sure, but the sense of inverted comma hand gestures was in the air. I took a deep breath and continued with my work. I reminded myself this wasn’t unusual.

‘That’s four staff members off with ‘organ disease.’” I shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s ridiculous!” The other staff person said.

“Yeah and you have to be really careful because physical illness is really big at the moment.”

I choked on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment — lol — like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase, I thought sarcastically.

“Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has heart problems. I asked how old she was and she said — can you believe this? — 20!” The deputy head laughed. It sounded evil, but that’s probably just me.

“I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work.” The support staff leader nodded approvingly.

“Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing.”

Obviously, this little exercise does nothing to assuage my rage at the situation. I am reeling. This time last year, I had an OCD crisis. I have them every decade or so, but the rest of the time, I’m fine. In those eight weeks of complete and utter misery, I had four days off. In those four days, my mother (retired thank goodness) stayed with me to help me survive. Every other day, I dragged myself into school and cried in the bathroom all through break and lunch. Oh, and erm, I’m 33.

One of the people in the discussion I overheard picked up the phone.

“Hi there, I hear someone is off with ‘anxiety and depression’ again?”

The word “again” sits heavily on my chest. I’m finding it hard to breathe — and it’s not anxiety.

“Well, I know, but we have to be so careful with these mental health problems.”

I leave the room. And wrote this.

Should I have said something? Probably. Did I? No. Well, no one knows I have mental health problems at work. I’m too ashamed to tell them. I wonder why.

This piece originally appeared on IntrusiveThoughts.org

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

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When Depression and Anxiety Take Control of Your Identity

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The ability to identify myself with actual characteristics of what makes me, me has always been a struggle. The concept of identity is a significant part of understanding your own needs, goals and desires. So to be unable to formulate an identity is something that has left me feeling lost and isolated.

Growing up, I focused on myself as a person with determination, who was constantly striving for a goal. I had a plan to go through high school with a near 4.0 GPA, gain plenty of scholarships and get accepted into a good post-secondary school. I based my worth and myself upon these goals. Goals are not an identity, unfortunately, but I did not realize this till I met my goals and was left floundering in a post-secondary institution without a clue as to what I wanted.

The unknown has always been something that has terrified me in its resolve to remind me I have no direction or path. That all I was and am is now. That may sound confusing, but what it means is that I could not exist outside the limitations of the present. So to not have a path set before me to follow left me stranded on an island of my own thoughts. Suddenly, I was confused, leisurely and without aim. This made me isolate from myself because I could no longer recognize this directionless person I became. I could not hide behind the concepts of a future which left me stuck in the present, realizing I had no idea who I was.

The feeling of having no identity is something that came with my depression. My depression would leave me depleted and exhausted at the end of every day. I would only have time for what appeared to be one thing. I prioritized education, intelligence and a future. This was because I felt the only worth that could be attached to me as a person was not my inherit character, but what I was able to achieve. And should I not be able to achieve anything, then I would remain nothing.

Depersonalization was the part of depression I was never able to recognize. I could not envision how my complete lack of identity and the concept of simply being a bystander in my own life instead of an active participant would emotionally and mentally drain me. I would make decisions based on what I felt I was supposed to do. I never made decisions based on my own desire and well-being. Suddenly this driven, goal-oriented girl I thought I was became a sham. She was simply someone who strived for the sake of striving. I had no real goals to obtain because I had no idea who I was or what that person would want from life. The feeling of floating outside of your body and becoming secondary has been one of the biggest struggles that arose from my depression.

My depression also does not exist without anxiety. Suddenly, they were running the show as I floated outside begging to take a seat at the captain’s chair and being unable. My anxiety made me debilitatingly indecisive. It’s gotten to the point where I spend hours the night before any concrete plans, frozen in my bed going over possible scenarios. It makes me cancel plans with people I struggle to keep in my life at the last minute. It makes me nauseous at the thought of a spontaneous plan, or a last-minute sleepover instead of a sky train home. It leaves me alone in a room of thoughts tugging me in every direction.

This is what my anxiety does. The depression joins the party by pulling me outside of my body, watching myself close people out, cancel plans, put off any joy and leaves me believing that I deserve this. That I deserve the turmoil, the guilt and the isolation from friends. Together they are a deadly combo. Together they have control. The hardest part of therapy is trying to understand how to regain that control. 

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