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What to Know If You Can’t Take Pride in Your Therapy Wins

The definition of success has changed for me over the past 12 or so years. For years, I thought success was reaching your goals without having to take detours, skipping steps or pausing. I was young(er) and naive, my illnesses had not yet shaped me into the woman I am today. I was confused and distraught by the severity of my illnesses and the inevitable impact they would have on my life plans and schooling. I thought the panic attacks, sleepless nights, intrusive thoughts and innumerable fears were setbacks and meant I was falling deeper and deeper into what felt like oblivion. When I had panic attacks and breakdowns during exposures or difficult situations, I saw that as a failure; even if I completed the exposure or made it through the outing, I felt like I didn’t “really” do it because I cried or had a panic attack.

Years of exposure therapy went by and it was effective, my symptoms would decrease, but I still felt like the countless panic attacks and overwhelming anxiety negated the steps forward. People would congratulate me or tell me they were proud of me when I conquered a ritual or went out for lunch with friends; I would thank them graciously for noticing but at the same time, I thought “Yes I did that, but…” I constantly felt like I couldn’t take pride in my own accomplishments, whether it was when I ate food I had touched with my hands for the first time in probably a month, conquered the state fair or just sat in the car in front of my high school for 10 minutes — if I had to take a break and come back, panicked or had to try over and over, it seemed like I wasn’t actually making progress.

It wasn’t until this year that I had the not-so-sudden realization that success isn’t pretty or neat — it’s messy and chaotic, and that’s OK. The panic attacks, breakdowns and anxiety are all part of the process. If there were no panic attacks or breakdowns, I wouldn’t know the highs of being able to go to school, sit in class, take notes and participate. That seemingly simple behavior has taken years of therapy, exposures and work to not only achieve but also enjoy. The first week of my first semester of school was filled with “Yes I did that, but…”

“Yes I drove to school, but I didn’t want to get out of the car.”

“Yes I got out of the car, but I had a panic attack 200 yards away from the building.”

“Yes I walked up to the building, but I sobbed on the ground, debilitated by fear.”

“Yes I went to class, but I was so anxious I couldn’t focus.”

All of these thoughts (and more) were on a running loop in my head when people would say they were proud of me for going or trying to go. Later that semester, I realized why people were proud of me. They saw the fear, the panic, the tear-stained face and scribbled distractions in my notebook, but then they kept looking and they saw that I drove to school, that I got out of the car, that I walked up to the building, that I went to class. That’s when I realized that “but” will always be there and that’s OK; I will move through it.

For me, success isn’t achievement without challenge; it’s achievement despite challenge. So now, when I go to the mall and make it in a couple of stores and then have a panic attack, my thought isn’t:

“I went to the mall, but I had a panic attack.”

It is simply:

“I went to the mall.”

Healing is not linear and success is not pretty. So, when I look at the girl 11 months ago who drove to school, had a panic attack and left, I am proud of her because she got in the car and drove there. And when I look at the girl from two months ago after finishing an entire year of college, I see all the pain, tears, panic and anxiety but I also see the success, and that’s something I’m proud to have accomplished.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog.

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

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