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Confessions of a Therapist With an Anxiety Disorder

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“Weather dot com,” I typed into my family’s clunky IBM computer. I’m pretty sure it still had dial up. I can still hear that sound associated with two things. The first, and definitively more exciting prospect, being waiting to check my AIM messages from friends with screen names such as “cutiekatie910” or “soccergurl4eva.” Not that I could judge. I was decidedly the “dancerchick323.” The other purpose of old faithful was to check the weather. I monitored the weather with a regularity my devout Italian-American grandmother designated to her Roman Catholic faith. Sam Champion was my patron saint of sorts.  Every morning, without fail, it was me and the weather report. We had what I would classify as a sort of love affair. The contents of that website had probably the largest pull on my emotions of anything at that time in my life. My fair-weather lover could make or break me with a click. I hated it and I needed it. If said clear skies, the coast was literally and figuratively clear. It would be a good day. This day, it said 30% chance of rain. That was my threshold. It was a no-go. Now onto the task of finding yet another excuse of why I simply must stay home.

Headache? No, that would just be a Tylenol and send me on my way. Fever? That is probably untrue. Hiding in my room and hoping my mother wouldn’t know the difference? Not as the daughter of a helicoptering social worker. She knew my every move before I did. Let’s go the honesty route. Just tell her that I simply can’t go to school because that 30% chance of rain meant there was a 30% chance of her certain death. Be it by a car accident, which was my most typical rumination, or some other more elaborate concerns such as a flash flood or a freak lightening strike. The fact that it was raining didn’t just mean that there was more of a chance of weather-related death. My anxiety-riddled brain also connected it to an increased chance of anything generally terrible happening. It was something about the ominous foreboding of grey clouds that kicked on that fight-or-flight response and it was over for me. When you have an anxious thought for long enough, it loses its irrationality and instead of rationalizing yourself down to match the anxiety level of others, you start to wonder why they are not as concerned as you are. A passing thought becomes an impenetrable fact. I would stare at my mother and wonder,”Do you not know that it’s a 30% chance of rain? Do I have to look after this entire family myself?”

After a morning pondering my and my family’s imminent demise and receiving yet another piece of psychoeducation from my concerned mother that “avoidance is the food that feeds anxiety” or any other metaphor she thought of that day, I ventured off to the place I hated most — school. Did I mention that I was 8-years-old? I was fun at child birthday parties.

While I have since grown out of my weather phase and can now appreciate the tranquility of a nice stormy night, my anxiety, like the grubby little opportunist it is, has shapeshifted and transfigured into many different forms in the decades since the “weather years.” Much like I went through phases (there was the year of only dresses, the musical theater girl, and the Godforsaken, unspeakable age of the nameplate and too much hair gel), my anxiety had its phases too. They grow up so fast! For a period of time, it was crippling social anxiety and fear of rejection, but it has also been terrorism, school shootings, anaphylactic shock (despite having minor food allergies), a brief foray into obsessive compulsive tendencies, and an omnipresent perfectionism and need for external control to manage the internal turmoil.

Anxiety has always been a piece of me. Sometimes, when I am feeling more in control of it, I see it more as a cloud that follows me around and less as a character trait. But when it’s something that’s been central to your human experience for virtually your entire life, it’s hard not to view it as a part of you in the same vein as my knack for reading and my aversion to cilantro. I call anxiety my worst kept secret. I like to pretend that I keep it well hidden. And in some spheres of my life, I do. People are often surprised, or feign surprise, when it seeps through and they get a glimpse of a moment of panic or reach the edges of my comfort zone. I watch their opinion of me change as I must explain that, “No, I cannot go to the movies with you on account of mass shootings. I have not been since I ran out of the theater during Les Miserables and caused a mass exodus, thank you very much.” And it is true, voice of my therapist in my head, that I have been able to do a lot considering the intensity of these feelings throughout my life.

And yet, there’s still something shameful about admitting that you are limited in some way. It appears to reveal a level of inadequacy, an inherent weakness in your “moral fortitude.” On an intellectual level, I believe we need to do our part to combat the pervasive mental health stigma in our society particularly in regards to mental health treatment access. And I would feel that way — because I am a therapist. That’s right, the girl who would run out of her first-grade classroom to throw up for the first four weeks of a school year grew up to help others manage their social and emotional issues.

On a personal level, it is very hard to afford myself the same level of compassion and understanding that I naturally have for my clients. There’s something about this title that I think has worsened that internalized shame. Like a podiatrist with bunions or a smoking cardiologist. Shouldn’t we of all people be the ones who have the answers to all of this stuff? Didn’t my master’s degree free me of a life of panic, phobia, and rumination? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Pay no attention to the woman behind the knowing, empathetic smile. And while I have identified and challenged my maladaptive thoughts, meditated, practiced self-care, processed, explored, validated, emotionally freed, and downward dogged my way through life, I haven’t yet been able to rid myself of a relatively high degree of anxiety and existential dread.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we are not supposed to learn how to rid ourselves from anxiety, but learn how to live a full, rich satisfying life with this anxiety. And if my clients are seeking insight into how to do that, they have certainly come to the right place. I connect with them from a place of understanding that only someone who has walked that path can. All the graduate school literature reviews and memoirs in the world cannot adequately describe the emotional exhaustion that comes from feeling that every headache is an inoperable brain tumor. The description of a panic disorder in the DSM does not touch the surface of what it feels like to be in the throes of one in a grocery store. But I know. And I walk with them and along side them. I hold their hand (proverbially of course, licensing board!) as they try to be a human in the best way they know how. And we are both better for it. I may still check and recheck the doors to ensure there is not a mass murderer in my midst, but I am chock full of authenticity and  humanity, and so far that has been enough.

If I could go back to 8-year-old me, I would say, “Hang in there, little meteorologist in the making, because we are going to be OK with not being OK all the time,” … and we are going to pick up a few consolation prizes along the way. We will realize that yoga and meditation gives us (albeit brief) quiet in our mind, that we like the idea of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) much more than we like it in practice, and that we were not meant for an anxiety-free life. And our journey is going to mean something. Because our struggle cleared the way for our purpose. And not to toot our own horn, but we become a damn good therapist despite of and because of our anxiety. So put that in your forecast —100% chance of compassion with a side of empathy.

Photo credit: EllenM/Getty Images

Originally published: January 23, 2021
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