I’m never quite sure when it’s going to happen. You would think after all these years, I would have some kind of warning sign before it starts. The situations are different. The settings and people change, but the feeling is always the same.
I was probably 8 years old when I first realized it was there. My older brothers were watching the original Friday the 13th movie. I snuck downstairs and watched from the steps. I didn’t quite understand that it was fiction. I started having thoughts about someone doing that to me—killing me. Later that night, I woke up in a cold sweat. It seemed to start from inside. My stomach was in knots, my heart was racing, and I found it hard to breathe. I tried to call out for my mom and dad, but I found it difficult to move any part of my body. I was paralyzed with fear.
I had no idea at age 8 that I was having my first anxiety attack.
Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Earthquakes were my first major trigger. I used to lie in bed going over my escape plan in case one hit during the night. I was told that they sound like a train before the shaking starts. Any noise I heard made me activate my plan. And while the rational part of my brain knew there was not an earthquake, my fear and anxiety always won out.
As I got older, the anxiety became more debilitating. Car crashes, planes veering off runways, home invasions, my parents dying, mass shootings, anything that provokes fear in people, I fixated on it.
Social anxiety, generalized anxiety, test anxiety, compulsive behaviors, fear, worry, apprehension, nervousness—I’m not sure which one came first. Daily tasks are challenging because I view them through a lens of worry. It takes me longer to get things done. I process more. I spend extra time going over plans, verbalizing them, so I don’t miss anything. I repeat myself often, because for some reason I find comfort in hearing things more than once.
Then it happened. I was finally able to say the three words that seem so difficult to say.
I was 40 years old.
I knew the doctor had to ask all the diagnostic questions, go down the list of signs and symptoms, and check the boxes that I answered “yes” to. My eyes traveled down the page, and I noticed that most of the “yes” boxes were marked with an X.
I know anxiety has always been something I live with, but sitting in my doctor’s office that day was the first time I saw it on a piece of paper. It was the first time I realized that maybe it had taken over my life.
After she completed the questions, she looked up and asked me to describe what it feels like—how it impacts my life. I found myself stumbling. I couldn’t explain why I have anxiety. I wanted to shout at her, “Have you seen my fingernails?!” There’s nothing left of them. Sometimes the energy in my body is so intense that the only way I can relieve it—even the smallest amount—is to pick and chew my nails until there is nothing left.
I couldn’t come up with a complete thought that made sense after it left my mouth. How do I explain these suffocating thoughts and feelings that occupy so much of my life? I finally just told her that my anxiety is debilitating, I’m scared, I hate it, and I’m not sure it will ever leave me.
She tried to reassure me that with the right treatment plan, I can gain control over this. Control. Isn’t that what anxiety is—trying to control situations that I am afraid of? Control. It’s something I try to do too much, too often. Maybe the right treatment plan is to control less.
I know what I worry about doesn’t makes sense. Irrational, illogical, emotional, crazy—those words describe the thoughts in my head. Sometimes I just wish I could hit the pause button.
I know I need to be reassured constantly. There are many times I want to apologize to the people in my life and tell them I’m sorry that I need to be told over and over again that it is going to be OK.
I can imagine that living with me is difficult, and I’m sure loving me is even harder. I know what I say and do sometimes is irrational, but it is very real to me. Sometimes it is just downright exhausting, and my body screams relax, but I can’t sleep.
I’m not sure if it will ever leave me, if I will wake up one day and be free of the pressure and the weight. What I do know is that there are days when it doesn’t take over. I find on those days that there is one common theme. I choose to live with hope. My heart wins out.
When I lead with my heart, I find that my body slows down. It’s easier to breathe. My thoughts are clear, my smile is genuine, and my life feels full. I have learned over the years that my journey can and will be filled with hope. I do not have to let anxiety define who I am.