I originally wrote these posts as four parts under the tag anxiety the asshole. Since I found myself referring back to them quite a bit, and I’ll surely add more to the series as I continue to move and grow with my anxiety, I thought it would be helpful to have everything in one place in case you’d like to catch up on the series, so here we go…
Life With Anxiety: Part 1 – The Backstory
I originally hesitated to post this series around the holidays because it’s a bit of a downer, however since I know the holidays are a bit of a struggle for some people, I hope that by sharing my story, I can help others to realize they aren’t alone in dealing with anxiety and that seeking help is a good thing!
My journey with anxiety is something I’ve touched on in different posts on my blog, but until now, it isn’t something I’ve directly addressed (with exception of the “anxiety the asshole” tag).
Given that I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with anxiety, and that anxiety and depression aren’t widely talked about, I wanted to shed some light on what anxiety is, how it’s affected my life and why I chose to seek help via medication.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a therapist. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or just life in general, please speak with your doctor, therapist or a friend.
The Early Years
Back as far as I can remember, I was always a bit of a particular child. I liked certain things “just so” and did not deal with change well. At all. I remember a time when I was about 4 years old. I was spreading my blanket on the floor so I could sit on it, but for the life of me I could not get that dang blanket straight. Not matter what I did the edges weren’t straight and it was wrinkled. Yes, at 4 years old I cared. Oh, how I cared. I’m fairly certain this ended with me in tears because “IT WAS WRINKLED”.
Funny now? Kind of, but I still cringe at thinking how distraught I was over a blanket.
A alluded to this in my December Goals post: I set expectations of how things will be and would completely lose it if things didn’t go as planned. As a child, if we had people over for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, I’d have an idea in my head of what we would do, when we would do it and where people would sit.
How many times do you think this went as planned? Practically never? You’d be right. Even still, I’d usually end up in tears, crying on my bed until I was able to calm myself down.
The School Years
Earlier this year my mom and I were talking about my anxiety and how she wasn’t surprised about my diagnoses and decision to seek help for it. She relayed stories about how I would pretty much lose.my.shit at exam time only to calm now after and have it be not a big deal.
That’s definitely familiar to me. Worrying about failing an exam, crying, not sleeping, fretting, everything. Fact: I was a straight A student and didn’t really need to worry about failing an exam. Ever. And yet? I still did.
In my mind the outcome justified the worrying.
If I worried and it all turned out fine, that’s because I had worried about it; if I didn’t worry about it, then it wouldn’t turn out fine.
I know, this basically makes zero sense at all, but that’s just how my brain works.
The Grown-Up Years
For a long time, I thought my anxiety was actually a function of being an introvert, except, I didn’t figure out that I was truly introverted until this year, so I just thought I was socially awkward and inept and was bound to have no friends.
I would spend hours analyzing every social interaction where I may have made a mistake, agonizing that so-and-so was going to hate me, or never talk to me again because I made one mistake. A friend didn’t answer a text message? Well then, it was all over.
Practically anything would throw me into an anxiety spiral.
The tiniest things would keep me up at night. I once barely slept on a vacation because I was scared the cats might knock over something fragile I had left on the counter. Staying up at night certainly wouldn’t help the situation, but still, the end justified the means.
I’d snap at my then-husband on a very regular basis. Anytime I felt insecure, I also felt anxious and would lash out at the people who cared for me.
I was a treat to be around, let me tell you.
At first I thought I was a miserable person to be around because I was depressed. I didn’t know much about anxiety, all I knew was that I felt on edge, about to explode, at any time, and I just knew it wasn’t right.
Not knowing what else to do I went to see my doctor to explain what I was feeling and what could be done. This was in 2009. I was given a script to take Ativan on an as-needed basis, but knowing the addictive properties of Ativan and that it couldn’t be taken with any alcohol, I resisted. (Stupid? Sure. No one said I always made the best decisions).
I wish I could say I continued to seek help after this point, but instead I just continued doing what I was doing and thinking that feeling nerves in every situation was a totally normal thing…
Life With Anxiety: Part 2 – Getting Help
From 2009 to 2013 I continued to live my life in various states of anxiety. This would cause me to:
- Yell at my then-husband when things didn’t go as I had planned
- Cry when I dropped something or something broke because I messed up again
- Look for outside ways to make myself happy (mainly buying make up and clothes)
- Attempt to plan everything because if everything is planned and perfect, then nothing can go wrong, right?!
- Beat myself up for potentially saying something wrong, constantly living in a state of fear that I was going to offend someone or make someone hate me
Without hesitation, I would say 2012 was by far the most difficult year I faced in regards to my anxiety and my inability to know how to deal with it, or even recognize what it was. By this time I was aware that it was anxiety, but as for how to deal with it? I’d usually stuff it down until I got home where I’d cry, erupt, or seek material things to make myself feel better.
Christmas of 2011 I got it in my head that a cat would make me happy (it’s okay, you can go ahead and roll your eyes) and I pestered and pestered and pestered and pestered until, begrudgingly, my then-husband agreed; let’s not forget that he was also allergic to all animals. (Yup, wife of the year, that’s me).
You know what doesn’t help anxiety? A kitten who doesn’t let you sleep and is an overall pain in the ass. You know what doesn’t help pain in the ass cats? Buying a second cat to keep the original cat company. We’ll just refer to 2012 as the year of really REALLY bad decisions and leave it at that.
On top of two cats and an allergic husband, I was also working the worst hours I’d ever worked and was struggling to deal with so much being thrown at me at once. I received my first (probably deserved) poor review at work, but I had been struggling so hard just to keep my head above water at that point, that I really just didn’t know what to do. I was miserable and was making everyone around me miserable, too.
There are parts of 2012 that were a complete blur and parts that I remember all too vividly. I wish it were the good parts I remember in vivid detail, but unfortunately, that is not the case.
I was lucky enough to be able to take two weeks off from work during the summer of 2012. My goal was to rest and recharge and come back to work a new person, but that just didn’t work. I came back still struggling and I never could understand why. I couldn’t understand why it was a struggle to wake up in the morning, a struggle to complete simple tasks, a struggle to be a nice person and a struggle to smile. (As someone refered to as “Smiley” by my band teacher in high school, a lack of a smile from me is a pretty big sign that something isn’t right).
The deeper it got into fall, the deeper into a whole I fell. I had a two-week work trip that I just felt like I could.not.handle. I just….couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, so I sucked it up and attempted to tough it out. (Spoiler: this approach is not recommended).
Now, if this were a movie, all neatly tied up in a bow, I’d be able to tell you that my turning point was when my husband and I separated, but it’s not a movie, so this is not true. Instead my anxiety moved more and more out of control and this resulted in me trying to control more and more situations. Have you ever tried to control a situation? It never quite works out as you planned, does it?…….
I finally realized I should talk to my doctor and consider a daily medication when I was watching (wait for it…..you’re totally going to laugh) Married to Jonas.
Nope. Not kidding. Promise. And, yes, it’s totally okay to laugh.
There was a marathon of the previous season on over the Christmas break and since I was off work, I was chilling on the couch watching E! and stumbled upon the show. Kevin (he’s the Jonas Brother that no one remembers) is married to Danielle and Danielle was pretty open about her struggle with anxiety. I was able to relate to so much of what she was saying (weird, right?!) about feeling panicked in crowds and not being able to handle certain things.
It was at that point things finally clicked for me, I’m suffering from anxiety and I need actual help. And so, I made a phone call to my doctor pretty much right away.
Given this wasn’t the same doctor who had written me the script for Ativan back in 2009, and it had been since 2009 that I had tried anything to help, I was given another script for Ativan to take with me on my three-week work trip, and I set up and appointment to come in and evaluate when I returned….
Life With Anxiety: Part 3 – Getting Better
My three weeks spent in Yellowknife last winter were some of the hardest weeks I’ve ever had to get through. My personal struggles certainly acted as a trigger for my anxiety and I was glad to have the Ativan there when I felt like life was getting out of control, but throughout my time there, it became increasingly evident that having an “as needed” helper wasn’t enough for me.
I’m happy to say I survived three weeks in the snow and cold and limited sunlight. In addition to helping me realize my shortcomings in relation to my anxiety, it was also a personal growth experience for me, although, at the time, I would have paid a ridiculous amount of money to not have been up there. Hindsight….
A few days after returning from Yellowknife I had my first appointment with my doctor to talk about a daily anxiety medication. I. Was. Terrified. I felt like taking medication was failing. I truly believed this was something I should be able to deal with without medication. I thought I, again, needed to suck it up and just figure out how to deal.
I’m very thankful for the people I have in my life who encouraged me to actually go to the appointment and start on the medication to see if it made a difference in my life.
(An aside, I find when it comes to medication and mental health, it can be harder to wrap our heads around the need for medication. While I’m not advocating using medication in lieu of coping techniques, I know many people don’t bat an eye when given antibiotics for an infection, or, to use a more extreme example, chemo or radiation for cancer. Infections and other sickness is something we see as tangible because we can see the effect of this on our body; tired, fever, etc, but we can’t actually see the effects of mental illness on our bodies and so we’re hesitant to take the medication because, at least for me, it felt like it meant I wasn’t good enough).
I wish I could say I took the took the medication, went through the initial period of getting used to taking the medication and then all was good, but, sadly, that’s not quite how it went.
Just a few days after that initial appointment, I was unemployed.
Since I had (incorrectly) attributed a significant portion of my anxiety to my job situation, I thought it would be okay if I just stopped taking the medication, because, you know, people who need medication for mental illness always make stellar decisions.
In hindsight, this was obviously not one of my finest decisions.
I consider myself blessed in that I was able to find a job in a matter of weeks, but during that job search I did a lot of thinking and soul-searching and decided I didn’t want to risk my job or my career because of my anxiety, so a week before starting my job I decided to give the meds another shot.
Thankfully, this time it stuck.
As the days and weeks went by I could see that I was coping better and better. I was able to face situations that would have previously sent me into an anxiety spiral like, well, like a “normal” person would.
I had been so used to being anxious that it had never really crossed my mind that there was another way. I just thought people were better at handling the elephant sitting on their chest – I had no clue that some people didn’t have an elephant on their chest!
This was such a huge realization for me.
If you’re one of the lucky people in the world who requires glasses to see, I liken it to those first pair of glasses. When you put them on you could see. You could see before, but now you could see details. Trees! They have leaves! People on TV! They aren’t fuzzy! Amazing!
That’s what life has been like for me.
Not being anxious all day every day has allowed me to be a better me. I’m now more confident in who I am and what I stand for because I no longer have a crushing fear of disappointing people because I know who I am and I know their opinions and judgement no longer define who I am.
While this isn’t directly linked to my anxiety, it certainly was a byproduct of it.
I am far happier now than I was just a year ago.
Life With Anxiety: Part 4 – Coping and Living Life
I find it interesting that as I sit here writing about how I cope day-to-day with my anxiety that I’m experiencing a day that I’d classify as more anxious than normal. Even more interesting? This used to be my normal. Sometimes it helps for me to remind myself that although this is an abnormal day, it isn’t my normal and it will pass.
(I really dislike that I’m using terms like “normal” and “abnormal” because I don’t ever want to imply that I’m not normal. I am. I’m a functioning human. I’m normal. My non-medicated self just isn’t as awesome as my medicated self. If anyone has better terminology than “normal” please give me a suggestion!)
I’ve heard reports of people feeling numb or spaced out when taking medication for anxiety and depression and I’m thankful I don’t have those side effects. I’m most definitely able to feel feelings, I’m just on more of an even keel than I was previously. Before I found help, a normal day for me would look something like this:
Fun, right?! Ha!
Now it looks something like this:
I can’t be certain, but I’m willing to bet it’s someone similar to how a day looks for the majority of people.
(Looking at these silly graphs again, I realize they look similar-ish but the shading on the second one [and happier colours] are trying [poorly] to show that there’s more of a transitional area instead of the slamming into one emotion to the next) (And I just really like playing in Canva).
How To Cope
Here are some ways I’ve learned to cope with the inevitable (and unfortunate) days where I’m feeling anxious for no apparent reason.
This might sound goofy, but self talk really does help. Have a friend who isn’t replying to your text message like right away?! And then you think it’s you and you friend hates you and doesn’t want to talk to you so she’s totally ignoring you? Wait, maybe that’s just me…..
In any case, I find self talk to be very helpful in these situations, especially the questions from Byron Katie. I’m not always calm enough to go through them, but when I am, I find them very helpful.
Spoiler: chances are no one is trying to ignore you. And if they are, they’re dumb for not realizing how awesome of a person you are. The end.
I’m not advocating ignoring a situation that’s causing anxiety, but sometimes the best thing for me to do is to distract myself until I’m in a position to think rationally. Checking my phone ever 15 seconds isn’t going to cause that text to arrive quicker and neither is fretting over the problem.
Pretty much the worst thing you can ever tell an anxious person to do is to relax because it immediately invalidates our feelings of worry. A better bet is to find a distraction. A lot of times I find going for a walk to be helpful, or I’ll try to tackle something on my “to do” list. While completing a task can feel daunting in the middle of a bout of anxiety, I find the sense of accomplishment to be helpful.
Find a Sounding Board
I’m very blessed in I have two of the most wonderfully patient and loving friends in the world. I don’t think they bat an eye any more when I send them a panicked email about a situation asking for their advice. Sometimes I feel like I’m still learning how to handle my reactions in certain situations.
While anxiety can manifest differently in everyone, I’d usually freak out and fly off the handle when I was anxious which would make me appear to be rude, unkind and generally, a not fun person to be around. Thankfully I’m now able to step back, but when I’m really not sure how to handle a situation and I can feel myself starting to spiral, I’ll shoot them an email and sometimes I’ll get a “Totally normal” reply and others I’ll get a “DUDE WTF” reply. Either way, I’m super thankful to have friends who will tell it to me straight!
Learn HOW to Relax
Now, this is something I’m still working on, but learning to turn myself “off” when I’m having a moment is helpful – when I’m able to do it. I find it most effective when I know I need to sleep and my brain is racing a million miles a minute. Similar to finding a distraction, I find laying still and focusing on breathing in and out while counting my breaths can help me to quiet my mind enough to relax so I can sleep.
I think this could be considered in with distractions, but I’m putting it separately because this is my blog and I can 🙂
My house was never cleaner than when I was studying for exams, and I find when I can pause long enough to think about cleaning, I always feel better after. I find cleaning can be meditative and having a clean home is always relaxing. It’s nice when everything is shiny and in its place 🙂
While generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, anxiety can be triggered by certain situations, or it can just hang around like some nasty B.O. Over the past little while I’ve found certain things will cause my anxiety to pop up, while other days it just decides to make an appearance for no good reason.
Lack of Sleep
I joke with my friends that I’m a grandma and need to be in bed by 10, but I seriously do need to get a sufficient amount of sleep. My most recent lack of sleep induced melt down was during my trip to Lima that didn’t happen. I was running on probably 6 hours of sleep for the whole weekend, I was sick and had no idea if I was going to make it to my destination on time.
Cue tears. In the airport. That I couldn’t stop. Whoops.
Yeah, me and sleep are best buds.
Lack of Exercise
Since I’ve now been sick for nearly 3 weeks not being able to run has taken its toll on me. Running is normally where I sort out my thoughts (I may or may not rant with hand motions while running) and I’m always calmer after a run, so not being able to get my run on has been really frustrating and I can feel that I’m more anxious because of it.
Last winter I did a lot of yoga and yoga also helped. Hot yoga is an added bonus because no one can tell if you’re crying or sweating 🙂
This is kind of weird, since I am most certainly a Type A personality kind of gal, but I’m also an introvert. So, I like to know when things are going to happen and what to expect, but I also need downtime in order to recharge. Two or three evenings in a row with plans? Melt down. No time to myself for an extended period of time? Melt down.
To summarize: I like to know what my plans are and what to expect, but I don’t like having too many plans. Yup, I can sometimes be a huge pain in the ass.
Knowing what my triggers are, I work to try to minimize them in my life. This can sometimes means I’m not that super fun spontaneous person to be around, but I’m far more fun to be around when I’m not anxious, so it all balances out. I’m also better able to handle a situation where I’d normally be quite triggered. A recent situation comes to mind.
Two weeks ago (I think, I’ve been losing track of weeks lately, I think it has to do with being old) my MasterCard was stolen and had two purchases I did not make on it. In the past I’d have spiraled out of control and in the situation I’d somehow end up homeless and alone (most spiraling situations wind up with me homeless and alone), but instead I called MasterCard, dealt with it, got a new card ordered shrugged it off and carried on with my life.
Angela – 1. Anxiety – 0.