How I Experience Anxiety With Cerebral Palsy
Over the last year, I’ve learned the importance of telling my story, as it is the only way someone else can begin to understand what it is like to live with both cerebral palsy and mental illness. Knowing March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, I want to highlight how everyday experiences are different for me due to my cerebral palsy. Because at one point or another in life, everyone experiences anxiety, I will focus on how my anxiety response differs from that of a “typical” person for this article.
Everyone has his or her own idea of what anxiety looks and feels like for them. Some people have racing thoughts, and others, like me, have very physical symptoms even as my mind often goes blank from overload.
Trying to describe my anxiety to people is difficult due to my different experiences because of my cerebral palsy. I have hemiplegia cerebral palsy, so basically the right half of my body is “normal,” and my left side is affected most due to the location of the brain damage.
A few months back, my therapist encouraged me to find words to describe my anxiety to him, but I struggled. So, when given an art therapy assignment to make a worry doll, I crocheted Ares, the physical representation of my anxiety. This helped me immensely to find words I could then use to describe my experience. Each aspect of Ares represents a different manifestation of my anxiety. These specific elements are described below.
One of the unique things about my anxiety, and a large reason I wanted to write this piece, is that the left half of my body reacts to anxiety in a completely different way than the right half. Weird, huh?
While every part of my body feels different, having half of my body react completely differently than the other is a unique opportunity to be able to communicate the difference between the physical manifestation of anxiety for a “normal” body compared to that of a body experiencing spasticity.
As anxiety takes over, I struggle with the ability to breathe and communicate with my voice. This is why Ares has no mouth. Fortunately, if given the opportunity, I often can still communicate to others (especially my therapist) through writing. Usually, thoughts are loud in my head, but I can’t get them out, which leads me to begin panicking and spiraling out of control. When I am unable to let this steam out in a healthy way, I often resort to self-harm, which gradually lowers the intensity of the storm in my head.
I can imagine that many people experiencing intense anxiety eventually get drained of all their energy. Anxiety has such immense power over me sometimes that it feels like this black impending doom. The constant (false) warnings from my mind keep me on constant alert and I feel helpless and devoid of all hope. I feel as though I want to disappear.
When I struggle to breathe, my entire body struggles to function. The left half of my body becomes completely stiff and feels heavy, like being stuck in concrete. My muscles tense up, and on my left side, they tense up tenfold. The constant muscle spasms are painful and awkward. I can’t move. This is perhaps the most unique manifestation of my anxiety due to my cerebral palsy.
I recognize that, because everyone’s experience with anxiety is different, not every person experiencing spasticity will react to anxiety in the same way that I do. I am not surprised, however, that the left half of my body has a different anxiety response than the right half as spasticity is due to abnormal signaling within the brain and feelings of anxiety only add fuel to the fire.
Physical conditions can and do affect how people experience emotions and other mental health conditions. Having the words now to describe my experience to my providers is invaluable because they’ve never had clients with cerebral palsy before and now they can see my experience better. I hope that this piece helps others find words to describe their anxiety to others because feeling known and heard and seen are some of the best feelings out there.
The Explanation of Ares:
Left side body – Grey – My left leg and arm get locked up, feel heavy, and unable to move, frozen like concrete due to constant muscle spasms.
Right torso – Green – Green represents the aspects of my anxiety that are specific to the CP as green is the awareness color for CP.
Red heart – My heart races and feels like it’s pounding outside of my chest.
Black rope wrapped around my chest – When anxiety takes over, I am unable to breathe.
Head – Black – Anxiety holds lots of power over me and causes fear. I also feel detached.
Eyes – White – I feel isolated and like I’m helpless. Everything has been drained out of me, hence the lack of color.
Mouth – does not exist – I am unable to speak when I am anxious.
Hazard (!) on back of head – Yellow – The constant alerts my brain gives me that make me believe something is wrong.
Right arm – Blue – Represents the sadness that I feel when I feel so powerless. Also, my right side is more physically relaxed than my left side.
Right hand – Tan – My only method of communicating is through my right hand.
Right leg – Yellow – The feelings of betrayal, and jealousy, how I feel when I compare myself to others, get let down, and feel like I am unsafe.
Right foot – Black – Shows how the power of anxiety radiates through my whole body (head to feet).