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Anxiety, and the Words I Wish I Had

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There was a time in my life that I had so much anxiety and so few words.

To articulate what I was experiencing required some sort of understanding, an understanding I had not yet achieved.

How could I describe the mental battle that took place each time I left the house? How could I articulate the racing thoughts that often washed over me like a warm ocean wave, leaving me drowning, lost, and gasping for air? How could I find words for the bodily sensations I often experienced – the lightheadedness, the feeling of my stomach dropping to my knees, the feeling of my cheeks burning hot, the nervous nausea? How could I articulate these things when I did not understand them? How could I articulate these things when I was still in denial that they were happening to me?

A simple conversation or circumstance could send me to a mental and physical place that was completely indescribable and thus a place in which I was truly isolated – a place I did not yet have the language to escape from.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my dear friend why I left her house so early, why I spent most of our time together sitting in a chair in her kitchen, white knuckles gripping my phone. I wish I had the words to tell her I was experiencing a panic attack (or maybe I was actually dying?) and that I wished with all my heart I could just “get over it.” I wish I could tell her I knew the trigger that caused my panic attack was irrational (I mean, I rationally knew it was not a life-threatening thing) but that my body somehow didn’t understand, my body was on a downward spiral of panic that was moving fast and didn’t stop. I wish I could tell her I so deeply appreciated her invitation, her hospitality, her friendship.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my college roommate why I seemed to suddenly be busy when she was sick. I wish I could tell her that sickness was a trigger for me. I wish I could tell her I wanted so deeply to stay and care for her, to bring her soup and crackers, to tell her she would be OK, but my anxiety was so incredibly overwhelming that I did not know how to fight it. I wish I could tell her that each time my hand touched a public surface my thoughts would become fixated on the germs I was inevitably carrying and the extreme urge to remove them. I wish I could tell her the urge would not go away until burning hot water and soap hit my hands, until I breathed in the alcohol smell of hand-sanitizer and felt it burn my sore chapped skin, entering into the cracks and making me feel clean again. I wish I could tell her that sometimes when she left the room I Cloroxed every surface, breathing in that fresh lemon scent and for the first time breathing deep. I wish I could tell her I wanted the kind of friendship that thrived the same in sickness and in health but that it didn’t seem possible for me.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my professor that I missed class because I thought I was dying.

I wish I had the words to tell my sister that I dropped her off early and went home because I was having a panic attack.

I wish I had the words to tell my friends that I stayed in another night and missed another event because I was struggling. I wish I had the words to tell them I wanted more than anything to just get over it but that instead I had to fight through it and I needed them to fight through it with me.

Somehow over time, I found the words.

Holding tightly to a warm cup of coffee, with a shaky cracking voice, speaking soft whispers to my dear husband, I found the words. In the plush chair of my therapist’s office and on the crinkly wax paper laid on the doctor’s table, I found the words. Slowly, not eloquently, I found the words.

As I searched and stumbled for them, the words began to find me. I learned names: anxiety disorder, panic attack, trigger. I learned humility. I learned to say: I need help.

As I began to speak, I began to understand. As I began to speak, I began to accept myself, to allow myself grace. As I chose to pursue the bravery of speaking my truth, I began to understand my truth, to understand myself, my story, my experience. Listening ears and fixated eyes received me, words of validation fell soft from careful lips.

I wish I had the words back then.

But I am learning the words now.

And I promise to try to speak them.

Even when I don’t fully understand – I promise, I will speak. Even when I am ashamed, even when I am afraid, even when I feel alone, I will speak. I will speak to the people in my life, and we will find the words together.

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Thinkstock image by Victor_Tongdee

Originally published: November 20, 2016
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