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When You Live Shackled to Anxiety

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Sometimes my brain feels like there is a 360 degree vice grip on my head, pushing and crushing it until it feels like there is no possible way to condense my skull any more without bursting the inside. In those moments, if I close my eyes, it’s almost as if I’m no longer in the confines of my physical body, but rather am surrounded by a whiteness, and all I can hear is my own primal scream. I am usually sweating profusely, my heart is racing and I feel severe discomfort in my own skin, as if I want to unzip my body and dart out to escape the thoughts. I can hardly process one thought, before another chases it out of the spotlight, a cruel cyclical pattern, like a frustrating yet scary merry-go-round. In the heat of panic, are flashes of rage. Pure, fiery hot rage. My brain is protesting the vicious paralyzing attack, while utterly helpless to stop it. My anxiety has reared it’s very ugly head.

Anything could cause this feeling. Major things. Minor things. Things in between. It could have been that my boyfriend yet again walked by the garbage bag and opted not to take it out. It could have been that I saw a video on Facebook that reminded me of the pain I felt when my Dad passed away. It could have been that I couldn’t find a bathing suit I felt comfortable in. It could be everyday things that most people process and move on from within a relatively short period of time, but for me dig into my brain and set up camp.  

It starts innocently, and I never suspect any one thing will cause this mental freezing. A simple little thought can be the seed to a full blown anxiety tree and I’m none-the-wiser until it’s already too late. It goes a little something like this:  

He didn’t take out the trash — again. I can’t believe him. How hard can it be to take out the trash? I never ask him to do literally anything around the house, with the exception of taking out the trash. And yet, day after day, he walks by the same trash bag waiting to go to the dumpster, and doesn’t take it out. He knows he should, but doesn’t. It’s starting to smell, and he still doesn’t. I guess I’ll just do it myself — again. Why do I even put up with this? My Dad took out the trash every single night for the family when he was alive. In fact, if we didn’t have milk, he’d run to the store at 11 p.m., just so that my mom could have her cup of hot chocolate before bed, without hesitating. He’d do that stuff because he loved us, even if it annoyed him to tears. He did it because that was his way of contributing. It was his way of matching the efforts my mom put into their marriage. He was a great husband and father. I want that for myself, too. I deserve that! I wish my Dad was still here to give me advice. I miss him. I wish he hadn’t died so suddenly. That was the most earth shattering thing that could have happened to my family. And the scariest thing is that it can happen at any moment, to anyone. Even if you just lost a loved one three weeks prior like my family did, that didn’t stop the world from taking my Dad less than a month later. It could be hourly. I should learn to appreciate the people I have in my life. Here I am angry as shit about my boyfriend not taking out the trash, when he could have gotten into a fatal car accident on the way to work today. I’d never forgive myself if something like that happened.

And so begins the merry-go-round of thought.

Somehow, I’ve devolved my boyfriend not taking the trash out, to thinking about how a loved one can die at any time, within a matter of seconds. Once I’m there, it’s virtually impossible to stop the flood of thoughts that race through my mind. The mental energy it takes just to keep up with how quickly ideas race through in my brain is immeasurable.  These are the moments I wish desperately to escape from. I can’t accomplish anything.  Work doesn’t get done, housework doesn’t get done; there are even times when I find it difficult to shower or feed myself. 

Anxiety is the reason I second guess everything. Anxiety is the reason for my progressively intensifying fear of losing a loved one. Anxiety is the reason I have little patience and a hot temper — I don’t have enough mental stamina for any other emotional hurdles. Anxiety is the reason why I’ve distanced myself from people. Anxiety is the reason why home is where I want to be almost 100 percent of the time. Anxiety is the reason why it may seem like I don’t enjoy myself. Anxiety is the reason why I fake some of my smiles. Anxiety has prevented me from fully enjoying my life. The sickest part of this illness, is that it even attacks itself. I feel anxious about my anxiety. I put my entire world under a microscope and feel anxious about all that I miss out on or have not done because of my anxiety. It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy. It’s cancer’s cancer. It’s like the flea of a flea. It’s a mental prison, and I’m shackled to it unwillingly.  

My thoughts sentence me to days of what seems like “irrational worry.” Many people in my life are not able to understand why I think like this, or why I allow anxiety to grip my mind, as if it were my choice. I’ve been told a variety of cliché pieces of advice, the majority of which are along these lines, “take the broken record out of your head,” “just don’t worry about those things,” “you’re borrowing trouble,” or “think positively.” I’m so aware these people are only trying to help, but I can’t help but feel bitter in those moments of receiving unsolicited advice. I acknowledge they’re telling me what works well for them, but if it were so easy to do those things for me, I would have done them already. It’s almost insulting when I hear advice like this, because it is a painful reminder that mental illness is gravely misunderstood, even in 2016.  

Anxiety is an invisible illness, but an illness none-the-less. The inability to see many of the effects of this illness makes it difficult for those who don’t suffer from it, to respect it as an illness. I was recently discussing anxiety with a friend, and they said, “I feel like you use your anxiety to get out of doing things.” I was floored. That casual sentence perfectly embodies the general public’s understanding of mental illnesses. Because my anxiety is confined to my brain and heart rate, it is somehow reduced to a scapegoat.  

I replied, “Anxiety hinders me, even if you can’t see it, and I’m not using it for anything. I don’t want to have anxiety, and it’s certainly not an excuse.”

I feel defeated when I need to explain this to people. Sure, I may appear to be an average person who has a good life, and good health, but many people neglect to acknowledge mental health is equally as important as physical health. If someone suffers from a mental illness, they are not weaker, they are not less than, they are not crazy. They have a mental illness. Period. Even typing that sentence made me cringe, because society’s view of mental illness has such a negative stigma, it is ingrained even within myself, a person who admittedly suffers from anxiety. I, and others like me, should feel no shame in our diagnoses. 

To those reading this piece right now, I won’t lie and tell you I’ve found an escape route out of this mental prison. Even if I had, everyone’s journey is personal and unique, so my solution would have no footing in your reality. I’ve been seeing a doctor for two years, and still feel like I’ve barely put a chink into the concrete walls imprisoning me. I will say I have hope that there will be freedom one day. I’m not sure what will do it, but I have to believe there is more to life than spending time thinking terrible thoughts. I see joy on other people’s faces and know I’ve been there before and will be there again. All I can do now is learn what works for me (baths — lots of baths), and what doesn’t. I may seem like I’m moving at a glacial speed throughout life, while everyone around me looks like an Olympic sprinter, but that’s OK with me. I know I am doing my very best given the circumstances, and that is all anyone can ask of me.

For now, it makes me feel good to share my experience with others, and educate those who are open to understanding mental illness. Hopefully one day there will be no negative stigma attached to mental illnesses.  One day, you will be able to talk about seeing your therapist or psychiatrist, without the whispers of judgment. There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to health, whether it be physical, mental or both. Everyone is different, with different stories and different challenges. As soon as we can learn to respect each person for their individuality, the world will be a far better place in which to live.

Originally published: September 14, 2016
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