"A" is For Anxiety
If you had asked me five years ago when I first realized I had anxiety, I would have responded, “What, you think I have anxiety?” So much for knowing thyself. If I had put more thought into it, which I eventually did, I’d say it really started in the womb. I’ve had anxiety as long as I can remember. I recall being a five-year-old sitting in a rocking chair trying to self soothe. As I became school age, I would try to quell the racing thoughts in my head by folding pieces of paper into sharp points and digging them into my thumbs until they left an indentation and the pain radiated down my hand. I didn’t have the words for what I was feeling at the time. I just knew that I felt better when I was in that rocking chair creating another world in my head because the real world was too much for me to handle. I couldn’t handle raised voices, hearing people argue, being called on to speak in class or even the sound of a loud TV or radio. I slunk further into myself and further away from everyone else to protect my frazzled brain and body.
I had some awareness that I experienced the world differently than other people did, but I didn’t know how. By the time I was in high school, anxiety had a firm hold on me and it was exacerbated by my extreme shyness. My classmates and teachers thought there was something wrong with me because I rarely spoke, and when I did it was in a whisper. I was unsure of myself in every way. I didn’t feel like a typical girl. I didn’t care about clothes, or make-up or boys. I was a good student, but all I really wanted to do was play sports. I excelled at sports and it gave me an outlet for my anxiety and allowed me to express myself nonverbally. I was known for diving after the ball in softball, basketball and volleyball. I flung my body across the floor and the infield as if I had no regard for it, which I didn’t. In the locker room, I hid from my teammates when I changed clothes because I didn’t want them to see how bruised my hips and upper thighs were from diving on the ground. I had replaced the rocking chair with flinging my body on the ground until my midsection radiated purple pain. I wore the bruises like a badge to myself because they made me feel alive. I had no idea that I was self-harming, or that it was a result of anxiety and how I felt about myself. Cutting wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then and no one suspected what I was doing to myself. I knew I wasn’t like the other kids my age. I kept to myself and my friends were the girls on the team of whatever sport I happened to be playing at the time.
It’s hard to describe how chronic anxiety feels and I imagine it feels different to every person who suffers from it, but for me it feels like I’m dangling from the strings of a crazed puppet master who makes my limbs constantly jitter and my brain spin uncontrollably, something I call ‘the churn.’ The churning turns situations, events, conversations, interactions over and over in my mind until I begin to panic about things that are only real in my brain. There’s no logic to anxiety because you are aware that your fears are unnatural, that you really have no control over anything, yet your brain continues to mass produce terrible scenarios.
Once I was out in the world on my own, my anxiety intensified. I traveled all over the world looking for the thing that would make my brain stop churning and fill the hole inside of me. I was sure it was out there in the world and I just needed to hunt it down. I traveled from country to country looking for things that I thought were the missing piece to the puzzle of my life. Things like my purpose, religion, a new job or some inspiration that would help me make sense of my place in the world and help me feel like I belonged. I did come to realize that what I was seeking was inside of me, but this epiphany didn’t come for two more decades and only after floundering in dead-end jobs, drowning my fears in alcohol and after becoming a parent. Oddly, I never considered that having a child would increase my anxiety. Now I had another person to worry about, another future to fear for.
Some people can see the outward signs of anxiety in others, but I feel them. I can feel the anxious energy surge out of another anxiety sufferer as it penetrates my body and mixes with my own irrational energy to form the onset of a panic attack. My heart races, I sweat, sounds become muffled and my breathing quickens. I’ve read that one in nine people lives with chronic anxiety. That seems impossibly low to me. How can people not be riddled with anxiety in this crazy world?
Believe it or not, there are many positive aspects to having anxiety. It gives me a lot of energy and I accomplish a lot because of that energy. Fear is also a great motivator, so I never procrastinate and I’m always early to events because I fear the intense discomfort I have when I’m late. Anxiety makes me conscientious to a fault. I pay my bills early in case there is an issue so I’ll have time to sort it out before the actual due date. As you can probably surmise, living with an anxiety sufferer can be challenging. Fortunately, I’ve found many practices to help manage my anxiety including yoga, hiking, meditation and journaling.
Anxiety also gave me one of the greatest opportunities of my life – to gain consciousness. I didn’t start down the road to consciousness without a serious struggle, however. I was led there kicking and screaming and when I wouldn’t give in, forces larger than myself took over, and that is where my story really begins.
To be continued…