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How I Get Through the Day While Struggling With the Voice of Anxiety

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Today is day two after a group therapy session. I did not want to go. To be honest, it was probably one of the last things I could see myself doing. But I acquiesced to the little voice a good friend had left chirruping in my ear.

“Be proactive. Get help where you can. Take control. You got this.’”

And so — reluctantly — I went to the session.

When I first stepped into the room, my anxiety shot skywards, fizzing around the layer of the upper stratosphere. I couldn’t sit still in my chair, my heart raced and tears pricked my eyes. When we started a meditation, the floodgates burst opened and I began to cry.

I was in a room full of strangers whose names I did not know and who I had only just met.

That was two days ago. Yesterday, I spent much of my day crying, raging, sobbing and hurting, alone on my kitchen floor. Compulsively checking for texts from my friend — texts which consistently failed to grace my phone’s little screen — I struggled to stay afloat on waves of anger, fury and despair, bawling like a child at how my life was out of control and shouting at the heavens that this was never how it was meant to be. Things were supposed to be better than this. Life was supposed to be good.

This. Was. Never. Supposed. To. Happen.

My two small dogs stayed firmly out of my way. My phone remained ominously silent. The heavens also refused to comment.

Today, I was forced from my safe place on the kitchen floor to get groceries. My anxiety was still wretchedly high and I started the process of leaving the house about 10 times before I finally succeeded in making it out of the door. Flipping and flopping like a fish on the shore, my mind was persuaded first by reason: “We need food. You can get it. Go!” and then by anxiety: “It’s not safe. You’re not up to it. Anything could happen. Don’t go out there!” Reason — and wariness at having to explain this to my eternally patient husband — won out and I climbed, already exhausted by the effort, into my car.

Thinking to reward myself for defying gravity and making it off the floor and out of the house, I decided to push the envelope a little more and get a coffee at my local bookstore afterwards. I used to live for books, for reading, before the anxiety and depression took hold again and I lost my ability to focus long enough to pick up a story. I loved everything about books — the smell, the feel of the pages, the flickering breeze as I fanned the book from front cover to back page. I loved the building of worlds, the clever turns of phrase, the funny, sassy, smart or terrifying characters I would like to have as friends or to battle as foes. I have always devoured literature and know that one day I will again.

So the bookstore trip would have been a reward. A little gift to myself in the middle of the working week. A time-out to relax and recuperate among the shelf-stacked stories, their narratives swirling, tempting and echoing around the store.

But I never got there. With the groceries in the trunk, I was gripped by a now familiar tightness in my chest, a rising, boiling rush of anxiety in my stomach. My palms became slippery on the steering wheel. I felt a damp sheen, slick the back of my knees. At a stoplight, I rolled my shoulders, trying to release the tension crawling up my back, along my neck, encasing my head in what felt like a vice. As the light changed to green, I noticed how my tightly clenched jaw added knife stabs of pain to my temples. There are a total of 13 stoplights between where I was and the point at which I would turn to head to the bookstore. Each light was red. Was the Universe giving me extra time to decide what to do? At each stop, I flip-flopped again.

Me: “Let’s do it — I need that coffee!”

My anxiety (whimpering): “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”

Me: “It’s OK, you’ve got this.”

My anxiety (reasoning): “Oh no! It’s too much. Go home.”

Me: “I could buy a book, maybe check out the magazines…”

My anxiety (accusing): “You won’t read them anyway. And you’ll have wasted money again. Money you are not earning.”

Me: “It’s sunny. Perhaps just a drive….”

My stomach lurched, acid flooded the back of my throat and I felt a light-headedness wash over me.

My anxiety (screaming): “Home! Now, before you throw up.”

I turned the car around and headed back to my house. The anxiety won out again, forcing me to change my plans almost by the minute. Because that’s what it does. From the decision to get up off the floor (“Nope, it’s safer here, stay put!”) to running errands (“Overwhelming, just can’t do it.”) to spending an hour in the sunshine surrounded by books and caffeine (“You’re a waste of space, lazy, and useless.”), my anxiety — in an insistent and unrelenting voice — jerks me around like a puppet on a string. Plans change on a whim, moment by moment. And I am learning I have to adapt.

I am learning that sometimes the fight to go through with arbitrarily set plans is not worth the strength it takes. That it is better to save the energy to get through the commitments I absolutely have to honor. That if tasks or events demand more than I have to give, they can sometimes be pushed back to another day and in their place I can create a space – some quiet calm – in which to sit and breathe until the panic subsides.

And in that way, I get through the day. It’s not living yet, it’s just managing. But it’s better than the alternative. No, life was not supposed to be like this. But right now, this is my reality. And I am learning I have to accept it and find some strength deep inside to create ways to make it all work.

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Unsplash photo via Maria Victoria Heredia.

Originally published: June 9, 2017
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