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How My Chronic Illness Diagnosis Led to a Battle With Anxiety

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The shame long associated with anxiety and panic attacks is felt partly because of the stigma against mental health. We’re attacked for being strong and opening up about it publicly and defiantly. And many people tell us to get out of our heads — that it’s all mental. While there may be some truth in this, it’s a very difficult thing to control.

In October of last year, I was diagnosed with Devic’s disease and it can cause me to become blind or paralyzed at any given moment. It’s a neurological disease that affects my central nervous system, and it’s caused me to become half-blind at 29. I was ordered to start chemotherapy treatment immediately to prevent disability.

Anxiety filled my lungs.

Anxiety attacks are daunting. I’ve experienced a handful since I was diagnosed because I struggle to accept this is my reality — that this is even a battle I have to fight so early in life.

One day in January, I was sitting at my computer attempting to feel “normal” by burying myself in work. When my body and blind eye started to groan in pain, I grew exhausted of the constant struggle. I began to weep, which turned into a state of panic. I fell to the floor shaking, somehow able to text my administrator and explain what I was experiencing. By the time I opened my eyes, she was by my side helping me to breathe deeply. My husband came to pick me up, and I kept repeating, “this isn’t normal,” as tears ran down my face on the way home.

I became bitter.

I became indignant. I lost all sympathy for people complaining about yoga class being canceled or their favorite Starbucks drink no longer being served. I wished with envy their problems were my problems instead of dealing with what I was going through. I was sad and frustrated, and I took a lot of it out on my husband.

It’s taken six months to get back on my feet. I’ve accepted this is my reality: the biweekly infusions, vacation accommodations and an unpredictable future. I’ve accepted no one understands what I’m going through unless they’re walking through similar shoes. I’ve let go of bitterness and replaced it with content. I’ve used this time off from work to regain my strength physically, mentally and spiritually. And come the fall, I will teach again.

Despite that I am physically better now, I still struggle with anxiety. This disease wrecked every part of my life in a span of three months. I could barely walk without a limp or stand for a long period of time without my legs shaking. I was swollen from head to toe, gained weight, suffered severe nerve pain, eye pain and month-long migraines. I fell once. I had to quit my job just three months after my diagnosis in February of this year. I couldn’t believe everything I worked so hard for was ripped out of my hands. My career and any chance for normalcy — gone. I was no longer independent. I was incapable of getting out of a bath without my husband’s help. Getting in and out of bed felt like a chore. I was unable to cook, clean or even shower without pain.

Fear of the unknown prompted a lot of my anxiety. An anxiety attack feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest followed by hyperventilating. Controlling my breathing and thoughts become impossible.

I dread the thought of going blind every day — that at any moment, I could lose the beauty of a sunrise and the wonders of moonlight.

When I became half-blind, half of my world felt suddenly gone. It feels like I have one chance left, that if I have another relapse, everything will change in a matter of seconds, and my world will be dark. Just because someone looks strong on the outside, doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling mentally.

Anxiety often happens when we feel like we’ve lost control. It can happen when we feel like we don’t have everything figured out. It can happen when we get a horrible diagnosis or when we’ve lost a job. It can happen when we’re in physical, emotional or spiritual pain. It can happen even with no significant threat. And it can happen to any of us.

Maybe my anxiety happens because I’m trying too hard to play God in my own life.

I don’t have all the answers, and I can’t say I will never experience another anxiety attack in my life given my rare circumstances, but I do know I believe in God, and He tells me my heart and mind will make plans, but that His purpose will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

Not everyone’s anxiety is the same. Everyone’s struggle is different, but it’s still important and it matters. I wish I could tell you if you’re someone who has a medical diagnosis, it doesn’t have power, but that would be a lie. It does have power, it changes our lives forever.

Sometimes, we get so far in our thoughts that for a moment we forget we’re actually surviving the anxiety attack. We forget despite that, we can feel our heart beating in our throat, our hearts are still beating and our body is pushing through the attack for the promise there is a better tomorrow.

And deep down, despite our best efforts at self-care, deep breathing and sound baths, the strong spirit in us that comes from above will overpower the weak.

We will overcome it.

Unsplash image by Caleb George

Originally published: May 1, 2020
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