About a year ago my body started acting out in the form of panic attacks. They came about once a week at first and then became more frequent and more severe until I was having at least one panic attack every day. At first I didn’t recognize them as panic attacks – I thought I was dying. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac generally, so every little thing that’s wrong with me is always some form of cancer in my mind. I once had sharp pains in my lower back and so I called my husband to tell him that I was bleeding internally and that he needed to rush home and take me to the emergency room. I have a pinched nerve in my arm (due to a muscle spasm caused by stress – go figure) that, when it first happened, I was convinced was a heart attack so I rushed off to the ER only to spend five hours being poked, prodded, monitored and questioned and then sent home with a prescription for Advil. So when my body recently started spazzing out on me, I knew immediately that I had finally developed that brain tumor I have been waiting for. My face has even gone numb a few times from these episodes. One of those times, when the left side of my face went numb I stood up, walked over to the mirror hanging on the wall in my living room and began to smile and frown back and forth slowly so I could check to see if I was having a stroke.
I have taken no less than 5000 pregnancy tests because every time I’m five minutes late, or crampy at weird times, or my boobs hurt or I’m nauseous, or I’m extra moody I just assume I’m pregnant. Every time I’ve been pregnant I was convinced I was having twins because how could anyone be this nauseous with just ONE baby?! Every time I have a headache I assume it’s an aneurism that’s about to burst and kill me. I’m afraid to use paper cutters because I’m convinced I’ll cut my hand off – or at least a finger or two. Every time I walk to my car (day or night) I have to look in the back seat to make sure there’s not an axe murderer waiting to chop my head off while I’m driving.
If I’m driving at night, I always assume that someone is hiding in the trunk or backseat (even though I looked!) and so I choose whatever music I think makes me seem the most innocent and wonderful so that he will choose not to murder me after all. I can’t leave my arms or legs hanging over the side of my bed at night because I have visions of a pirate of some sort (I wish I could explain this one) climbing out from under the bed and chopping them off with his big curved sword.
At night, when (not if) I have to get out of bed to go pee, I have to hop back into bed afterwards because walking next to my bed in the dark means that something could reach out from underneath, grab my ankle and take me down. If I’m driving somewhere and notice that a car has been following me for any extended period of time I assume it’s because the person inside that car is intending to follow me home, murder me and steal my valuables (as if I have any). When my husband is late, or unavailable by phone or text I assume, obviously, that he’s dead in a ditch somewhere. But I don’t just imagine that he’s dead, I come up with this detailed scenario of how it happened and what he was thinking and how I’ll plan the funeral and how I’ll tell the kids and whether or not I will ever be able to love again. It’s all so very tragic. I’m certain that Anne with an E would be quite impressed by my brilliant “scope of imagination”.
If one of my children is quiet in another room for more than five minutes, I assume they’ve accidentally tangled themselves up in the strings of the blinds and that they are dying a slow and agonizing death. If one of them gets up five minutes later than they normally do I assume they accidentally suffocated during the night. When every single one of my kids were babies, I had to have them sleep in the same room with me so that I could look at their chest periodically to make sure they were still breathing. This, I’m pretty sure, isn’t a “me” thing, but rather just a mother thing – so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that it doesn’t make me any more crazy than every other mom (because we’re all at least a little crazy, right?).
Anxiety looks different for everyone. Some, like mine, provide really great fodder for hilarious sitcoms or memoirs. Although I’ve spent my entire life struggling with a higher than average level of anxiety, I was surprised when I realized that I was having panic attacks. I was actually surprised. No one around me seemed to be surprised though – go figure. I spent a year in pretty extreme anxiety before I finally decided to get some help. Then I spent about a year on medication to curb the panic attacks and help me find their source. When your body is overwhelmed with anxiety, it works hard to protect you from that anxiety while also alerting you to its presence because, believe it or not, those of us who are highly anxious don’t always know that we are highly anxious.
Anxiety Disorder is kind of like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the way it’s so often misunderstood. Everyone thinks they have anxiety disorder just like everyone thinks they have OCD, but if you spent a day with someone with OCD you’d realize that it’s a bit more serious than you think it is. My daughter recently came and told me that she was OCD. I asked her how often she washes her hands or what things she was doing that she was unable to control. “Nothing,” she said. “Then you’re not OCD.” I replied. The same is true of anxiety disorder. It’s not that I worry a lot. It’s that I am unable to be logical in my worrying. I worry about things that I know are absolutely impossible or at the very least incredibly unlikely. I am compulsive in my worry and it often takes over my body making it impossible to breathe, talk, reason or think clearly.
I think the most helpful thing has been talking about it and accepting that I’m busted up inside. I stopped trying to pretend I wasn’t in pain. I stopped worrying so much about everyone else’s opinion about my pain – and trust me, there were plenty of opinions. Anxiety, like depression, looks different for everyone. And there are so many silent sufferers. For me, it will always be in the backseat trying to climb behind the wheel. Anxiety is just part of my every day life and like so many others, I am so weary of pretending that it’s not. I’ve been anxious my entire life. I can’t imagine my life without it.
I am in a good place right now, thanks to my doctor, my family and some really beautiful little blue pills. I used to be ashamed of that. I’m not anymore. My husband takes medication for his disease and I take medication for mine – although his is an “acceptable” disease and mine is often believed to be “made up”. Don’t care. I will do what I need to do to be present in my life and present with my family. And you should too. Let’s not let other people dictate our health or well-being. Doing what you have to do to take care of yourself and your family doesn’t make you weak – it makes you a warrior. I am a warrior and I finally have my fight back. I will not apologize for or be ashamed of my journey. I hope you won’t either.