The Pact I Made With Myself About My Anxiety
The demon came for me that summer. It was June in Texas and the sun was already starting to blister. I was back home from my second year of college, holding only my car keys and a ratty duffle bag. Home was a modest two-story farm house resting on ten acres of well-kept land. This was my safe space. For me, home had always been predictable and secure. At the moment, my sketchy future was neither of those things. I was an art major, miserably failing basic math classes with no career goal in sight. My long-term boyfriend and I were on shaky ground as he left for his summer internship. Both of these uncertainties made me a bit nervous. I knew I had crucial decisions to make. My simple plan was to reevaluate my future in the solitude of my childhood home. I was ignorant to what my true reality would be.
As I walked through the wide front door, I noticed an old spare mattress lying on the dining room floor. It looked ready to be slept in, with a flat pillow and a quilt blanket. My parents were out, so I climbed the single flight of wooden stairs to find my sister. At 18, she was two years younger than I. We had been best playmates as kids, but drifted apart during the emotional maze that was high school. I assumed this to be normal and was glad we could still share a laugh at our parents’ expense. She informed me Dad now slept permanently on the lonely mattress downstairs. Since her graduation a month ago, the parents had been acting out of character, so she was anxious to move out. Her boyfriend was waiting for her a few towns away, and she had hopes of a real estate career. My dad’s new sleeping arrangements worried me enough that a small, evil seed began to form in my gut.
My father was as levelheaded as a village wiseman. It was this practical character that laid the foundation for our family. His thoughtful blue eyes matched mine and his hands were those of a working man. We were an outdoors family and my father taught us all he knew. By the time my sister and I reached the age of six, we knew how to plant a healthy garden and raise happy chickens. We spent long summer days swimming in ponds, riding bikes and running wooded trails to hide outs. My parents mostly stayed around the home, tending to animals and the land. In a past life they had been world explorers, but now parenthood was their reason for being. The two of them never fought, which made my childhood in the country a rare jewel of peace.
I remember the day vividly. Smell is the strongest tie to a memory. That morning I could smell stale bacon grease solidifying in a pan. My stomach felt uneasy and my head light as I sat stiffly on our living room couch. My parents gathered us together to discuss what felt like a horrific topic. My father’s shaky words came to me through a tunnel of echoes that sounded too far away. I watched his distraught, red eyes glisten as tears formed to spill. He was telling us he and my mother were getting a divorce. The man I had never seen crack was crumbling in front of me. My dad was my savior in many ways. In that moment, I failed to be his. My gut gathered into a hard knot while the contents of my stomach raced up my esophagus. I leapt to the bathroom as black specs began to threaten my sight. After my stomach was empty, I crouched next to the toilet while I shook, covered in cold sweat. No one came to me. I was sure they had gone separate ways to process their own emotions. When I felt steady enough, I rose to the
vanity mirror. My slim face was paler then death and my blue eyes had turned an eerie black. I will later learn pupils dilate fully during a panic attack.
I had no clue as to why my body started to torture me. My obvious guess was stress. I felt close to no one while those who loved me dealt with their own loss and pain. My family unit was dying, and I had no choice but to watch. As oldest, I felt it my duty to sift through everyone’s emotions and fix whatever had been mangled. I soon realized it was better to hide my panic attacks rather than making my family uneasy by advertising them. My entire body constantly trembled and trying to eat was a useless chore. My mouth stayed dry while my tense throat refused to swallow even a tiny morsel. My ears continuously buzzed lightly and my eyes found it difficult to focus. My muddled mind felt as if it were floating, so I avoided most social interactions. The safety net of my home and family was extinct at a time when I gravely needed them.
I painfully existed the next few weeks, desperately trying to calm my ravaged body. My worried mother took me on outings she thought would offer relief. She was a free spirit, but the kind of dependable mother. My mother was my biggest advocate, as well as a friend in which I could confine. While in the car on one of our outings, I explained the other elements in life that led to my panic. She understood and searched for words of comfort, but like most people to whom I told my secret, she was at a loss. A simple bubble bath or a relaxing cream did nothing. My anguish was deeper than most people had experienced. Over the past month, I had lost almost weight and was surviving off weight gain shakes from the grocery store. My own body was starving itself. I threw up most days and spent hours trying to eat only a granola bar. I feared being alone with my scattered thoughts. Even showers had to be quick, or another attack would come for me. I started to notice massive amounts of my dark hair circling down the drain. My nights were grueling. The only relief from myself was the few hours of sleep I managed. Lying in my childhood bed, I would wake savoring the seconds I felt calm before my consciousness would slam back into my body. Control. I had to gain control to stop this demon from possessing me.
On a usual sticky July night, my sister was out again with friends while my dad sat on the back porch staring out into the darkness. My mom was at her newly rented home in town, which left a gaping hole in ours. I crept down stairs to the communal computer, feeling weak and exhausted. I sat cross legged with my chamomile tea cooling in front of the glowing screen. I typed my random symptoms into the search engine and waited. A singular word kept repeating, so I began to read. Articles that described exactly how I was feeling brought tears of hope to my eyes. My demon now had a name: Anxiety.
Over the next couple of days, I frantically researched about how anxiety affects the brain and body. I learned about flight or fight and that my brain was stuck in an extreme reactive response to stress. My gut was tied up because my body wanted me to flee, not eat. No amount of positive thinking or therapeutic massage oils were going to stop this reaction from taking place. I read articles about how safe anxiety medications were and I read horror stories of the side effects. I mulled over going to our family doctor to ask for these drugs and concluded I had no other choice. I could not go on as I was. Being hospitalized was becoming a terrifying possibility. I was not my strong and grounded self. This only added to the anxiety.
I was trapped, spinning in a horrid cycle of worry. I needed professional help, so I made the appointment and went alone. No one in my family had ever been on medications for the mind. In small town rural Texas it was almost taboo. It took great courage for me to sit in a small bland room and tell a complete stranger how I felt and why. I instantly began to get a stress rash on my neck and chest. Every part of me ached. This middle-aged man who couldn’t care less was my only hope to feel peace again. He listened without understanding and when I stopped he had a quick response: “Get married. Have kids. Having a career won’t matter then. For now, I will put you on an antidepressant. They are used for anxiety also.” In that moment I just wanted to grab the prescription and run. I barely heard his terrible, inappropriate advice. I needed him for one reason only — to sign off on a prescription to my freedom.
I was informed he started me on a low dosage and that the medication would take a week to start working. One week felt like a lifetime of misery. I was sickly thin and had quit weighing myself when the number on the scale got too low. Now when I lay down, I could feel my achy bones touch. Sitting still was a challenge. I felt I was jumping out of my skin in a feverish panic. Everything happening around me felt like an out of body experience. I would have gladly been out of my body during that week of wait.
As days passed, I learned a few tricks that helped distract me from myself. One of these was watching movies. I could get lost in the world on screen; enough to forget my own. My best, but estranged, friend from high school was also back in town. We were wild and free with little grasp of life beyond the moment. That summer, I rushed to her house down the road as an escape. We would chat, swim and watch a movie or two. She knew of my ailments, but was dealing with some of her own. We were both at pivotal points in our lives and found each other again when it mattered most. One scorching afternoon we jumped in her pool, enjoying the privilege of cool water. I slipped my head under to make a lap when a thought laced through my mind. If I let my breath go, let everything go limp, how would I feel? Sweet relief? Could I finally rest my body and mind? The fear of losing my sanity to anxiety exhausted me. I clung to the hope that my mental endurance could withstand.
The medication finally started to change me. However, the strength wasn’t nearly strong enough. After a few more tries, the demon was weakened. I had acquired no side effects from the drug and was feeling a gradual relief from my symptoms. The medication would not take away my anxiety. It only kept my body from overreacting to the stress I felt. I was ecstatic one evening when I was able eat a single slice of pizza. I saw great relief in my mother’s eyes, but also a sadness that this made me so happy. My body quit trembling and I could feel my head becoming clearer. I began writing in a journal and making lists of solutions to each worry. I realized I was taking on my parents’ emotions as my own — like a sponge. Being aware of this was a crucial step to saving myself. My boyfriend visited weekends when he could, and I counted the seconds till he was with me. He saw I was in pain but like everyone else, wasn’t sure of how to help. The frustrations that were driving us apart disappeared as life became raw and real. He tried to understand and simply held me when I broke down from the exhaustion of trying to stay strong. In my weakest moment I learned he would hold my hand and walk through a storm he didn’t have to enter.
As the summer came to an end, my parents still weren’t my parents and the house wasn’t my home. There was now a stale and lonely air that floated through its silent rooms. My sister had left a few days previously and I was finally preparing for my own road trip back to the university. The evening before I left, my dad came to me as I packed. He asked if I’d be interested in painting the cabin before fall classes started. I agreed. The small cabin sat on a large, isolated piece of property my parents had bought as a weekend escape. The week there would be like a detox and my boyfriend would meet me as his internship had just completed. I was anxious about what my life in the coming fall would look like. I still felt the demon ridding my back, even though it no longer consumed my every thought. As I drove north, I made a pact with myself: I would never let anxiety harm my spirit and body again. Almost 15 years later, I’ve kept this promise to myself.
The cabin was beautiful. I was welcomed by rows of tall pines nestled next to a small, tea colored lake. Lush grass framed the path to the water’s edge where a wooden pier extended into the mirrored water. My father had planted a few tall oak trees around the cabin and now yellow wild flowers danced at their feet. The cabin sat off the ground with thick woods at its back. I parked and walked to the pier, enjoying the familiar sounds of bullfrogs and crickets. I sat in my cut-off shorts and dipped my toes into the cool water. Ripples moved the refection of the trees as I took a deep breath.
I realized nature was also my safe space. Most of my childhood memories were within nature. The smell of wet earth and sound of birdcalls were my home. Nature is slow and patient, which is the opposite of anxiety. I needed this. My boyfriend and I spent the next few days with paint buckets and ladders, slowly making our way around the exterior walls. When we had enough of the heat, we took breaks to swim in the lake or have conversations in the netted hammock. Our relationship was healing along with my body and mind.
I continued to keep a journal and wrote every day sitting in my favorite old rocker on the porch. I was starting to gain weight and my body felt more like itself. While I still had unanswered questions in my life, I was learning to accept the unknown. Nothing was certain and anything could change. I transitioned into my fall semester, thankful to be in a new environment. However, I now had to track down a local doctor who would prescribe me medication.
It took many appointments with skeptical doctors to find one who trusted I was legitimate. I felt like a begging drug addict as I retold my story again and again. One doctor suggested I see a psychologist instead. I had already tried this, and after several visits this serene, kind lady had nothing new to offer me. I was frustrated and afraid, which only heightened my anxiety level. The experience I went through obtaining medication is a shame to our society. However, it taught me how to strongly self-advocate for myself. Antidepressants were my first stepping-stone to healing. It angers me to think others may not gain access to this same help.
In the college town of rolling hills and pine trees, I rented a small antique house with friends. I settled into the next couple of years, taking solely art courses or taking classes that interested me. While my parents kept heading in their separate ways, I learned to not let their actions consume me. There were times I got off the medication thinking I didn’t need it anymore, but the anxiety always returned. Eventually my boyfriend and I married at the cabin by the lake and began a family of our own in the city. I found my calling as a floral designer, using creativity with nature.
15 years later, life is sweet, but the demon still lurks, waiting beneath the surface. The trick is not to fear him. He is now the part of me I have learned to tame and control. If an attack surfaces, I allow myself to feel it. I let myself ride the wave of the attack. Then when it’s over, I release it and life goes on. Ironically, a positive turning point was when I realized my anxiety was never going to leave me. I then focused on how to live my life with it in tow. I refuse to let my anxiety dictate where I go and what I choose to take on in life. I know there will be other anxiety hurtles to overcome in the future, but I have faith that my bravery and strength will overcome the demon within.
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Getty image via OlgaRadzikh