Mental Health Month: On Anxiety, and Struggling to Get Help
When I was a child, I hid under my covers and feverishly recited the Hail Mary over and over, hoping that my prayers would advance my dead relatives up the ladder in purgatory. (I’ve had a rocky relationship with religion and now generally identify as agnostic.) I had recurring nightmares about my little brother falling out of a speedboat and drowning. I prayed as we drove over bridges, hoping to have one foot in the door to heaven if we careened over the rails and died violently in the dark water of the bay. I was sure that I had cancer and other diseases. I constantly worried that my parents would die. I had stomach aches. Every day.
I was a cheerful kid! I rarely let others know what was happening under the surface. I didn’t tell adults. I didn’t ask for help.
In high school, I ran to the bathroom every day before math. I’d grown up being told I had a nervous stomach. It never occurred to me that my experience was unusual in any way. Later, in college, I finally went to a doctor about my frequent stomach aches and intestinal issues. I’ll never forget a young RN probing my butt and telling me to consider eating better, shaming me for having Hot Pockets for lunch at work. The end.
Not, “You have irritable bowel syndrome. You have anxiety. Here’s what will help.” I carried on holding onto guilt that everything I was experiencing was my fault.
I had my first son when I was 26. My pregnancy stressed me out, but I figured that was normal.
As soon as I brought him home from the hospital, I began having graphic intrusive thoughts. Dozens of times a day. Knives flying out of the drawers and piercing his soft little belly. Pictures falling off the walls and crushing his tender skull. In my intrusive thoughts, I was never hurting him. Other things were hurting him. So for a long time I didn’t think it was any kind of postpartum disorder. All I knew was that I should call my doctor if I was thinking about hurting him or hurting myself.
One afternoon while on my scant six weeks of maternity leave, I spotted a spider on the ceiling. I held my son against my chest and sobbed for hours and hours — utterly frozen, undone.
I still didn’t think any of this was unusual, or that I could be free of the constant fears and the physical symptoms of my fears.
After I had my second child in 2008, the hormones and life changes or whatever triggered such severe anxiety attacks that I had to give it a name. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t sleep. I was getting up dozens of times a night. I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I started having graphic suicidal thoughts. For the first time in my life, I went to a doctor and told her, sobbing, that I wasn’t okay. “This is the bravest thing you can do,” she told me. “You don’t have to feel this way.”
Her words were freeing, healing. I’d had no idea. I don’t have to feel this way.
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I started therapy.
It didn’t ‘fix’ me.
Treatment made things a lot worse for a while — because I had so much to confront, and so much to work through. And my expectations were all wrong. I thought I was going to sit on a couch and talk for a while and no longer feel bad.
Because I hold so much inside, I also had to deal with people telling me my anxiety wasn’t that bad, not to worry so much, not to worry at all, that I didn’t have ‘real’ anxiety.
Little by little, treatment started to help. I got help with my anxiety about medication (because anxiety lies about everything) and got on the medication I needed.
My story isn’t over. I continue to struggle with anxiety. I’m in treatment once a week. I take medication for anxiety attacks. I don’t have an expectation that I’ll be ‘fixed’ because that’s not how this works. Acceptance, coping mechanisms, medication, lifestyle changes, mindfulness, nonviolent communication, writing, writing,writing. I keep these tools close to my heart. Some days are better than others. Some days it’s hugely triggering to talk about my anxiety. Maybe today will be one of those days. But it won’t be forever, if that’s the case.
Many people I interact with don’t understand the tremendous energy it takes to power through everyday activities that might not challenge others in any way. When I appear ‘normal,’ I’m running a marathon on the inside, and I usually crash later.
Please don’t make assumptions about what anxiety looks like on the outside or feels like on the inside. Even if you also have anxiety, your experiences may not mirror someone else’s. The kindness thing we can do for each other is listen and believe.
Meanwhile, I write. #NonStop. Writing is a major coping mechanism, but approaching it as a career ads a layer of anxiety. Putting myself out there (sharing my work, querying, interacting with the publishing community online, going all in with fierce hunger and dedication, finding balance) adds a layer of anxiety. Writing has become something as prickly as it is soothing. I power through, aggressively practice self care, and let that relationship evolve.
Here’s why I’m sharing all of this:
We need to talk about mental health. Kids need to read about mental health.
No one should go on for decades believing that anxiety cannot be treated or should be suffered in silence. If you’re hurting, reach out. If you’re not ready to reach out, that’s okay too. Asking for help isn’t easy. Giving a name to your pain isn’t easy. Treatment isn’t easy. Filling that first prescription isn’t easy. Access to affordable health care isn’t easy.
This is all work.
Sometimes I’m angry that I have to do this work. On good days, I embrace this facet of who I am, of how it influences the stories I tell, the way I raise my kids, the way I love. My relationship with my anxiety is a fluid, living thing.
If you’re able to ask for help and find ways to treat your anxiety, know that you’re not alone. If you’re not ready to ask for help or you’re currently unable to get help, know that you’re not alone. You are wrapped in love and admiration, I promise. It does not have to feel like this.