Total Eclipse of the Brain.
I have mentioned my struggles with anxiety in other posts, but I’ve never told the complete story, which I will attempt to do here.
As I began using this blog to tell my Lyme story, I thought long and hard about whether to include my anxiety. Let’s face it, my list of physical ailments is long enough to fill a novel, so I’d have plenty of story without even the slightest mention of anxiety. If I went that route, I would escape scott free, and nobody would know about my mental “weakness”. Whew.
For a long time, that was the path I chose. However, after a long period of deep introspection, I realized that treating my anxiety as a state secret was not doing anything to help me overcome it. Maybe it was even preventing me from overcoming it.
For a year and a half I struggled with debilitating anxiety that ever so slowly turned me into a shell of the person I once was. With each passing day, I became more afraid, more emotionally fragile. I was having grade A, paralyzing anxiety attacks anywhere from two to ten times per day. My life was a living hell. And I told no one, with the exception of my husband and my therapist.
During this period, our social life all but evaporated. I left the house only when it was necessary – errands, doctor appointments, anything for my daughter, holiday events. Getting me to leave the house for anything beyond the above more or less involved a hostage negotiation. And I usually won. Social invitations were declined with a “Susan’s not feeling up to it”, but no mention of anxiety.
Keeping a secret like that is a burden, and I started to feel I wasn’t leading an authentic life. I kept people who loved me and cared about me completely in the dark. When I did actually materialize in public, the anxiety always raged underneath, yet I am told I presented a calm exterior. This made me feel like I was doing a good job of impersonating a fully functioning human being, when I was anything but.
I told myself all the typical lies about mental health issues – I’m weak. It’s in my head so I should be able to get it out of my head. I should be stronger. I should be able to power through this. I’m embarrassed. I’m a loser.
After the millionth time of telling myself the above, I finally had a revelation. I realized that I had fallen into a hole. And I further realized that beating myself up for falling into that hole was not going to do anything to get me out. It seemed the more useful option would be to start digging.
And that’s what I did.
The first thing I did was to rearrange my thinking to accept and understand that anxiety is not a character flaw. It is no more cause for embarrassment than a cold, or shingles……. or lyme disease.
The second thing I needed to rearrange my thinking about is what it means to be strong. Sometimes the strongest, bravest thing you can do is acknowledge that you are suffering. Say out loud that you don’t have it all figured out. Ask for help. Invite your friends and family into your suffering.
I did all those things. I started by sharing my suffering with two of my closest friends. These friends love me, support me, and would never judge me, yet I found it incredibly difficult to confide the story of my mental anguish with them. I just felt so naked and exposed. Vulnerable. Deficient.
Well, those friends responded exactly the way you would want a person to respond. With deep compassion, love and understanding. They had no idea I had been in such pain, and they showered me with acceptance. It was truly a gift.
Since that went so well, I slowly began to expand the circle of people “in the know”. When I first told people, I told a long story with lots of caveats and explanations for how I ended up in this place. That was the shame talking, of course. I felt like I had to rationalize my illness. I don’t ever feel the need to rationalize why I have a cold, but this felt different.
But a funny thing happened. Nobody judged me. And many people ended up opening up about their own mental health struggles. Or the mental health struggle of a family member. Soon, I realized two benefits of telling my story of anxiety. First, it made it much easer to be out in public in situations that made me anxious because the people I was with knew what I was going through, and that was incredibly soothing to me. Even if they didn’t treat me any differently, the simple fact of their knowing was a balm. Second, the more I shared my story, the less stigmatized I felt.
After a while, a very long “coming out” story became “FYI, I have been fighting raging anxiety for the the last year and a half”. No rationalization. No caveats. No shame.
While sharing my story didn’t cure my anxiety, it made the burden a little lighter, and I felt I was living a more authentic life, which never hurts anything.
In total, I spent over three years in anxiety’s dark grasp. It was hell. I started to call it treatment-resistant anxiety because I literally tried everything, and nothing helped. Never in my life had I worked so hard to achieve so little. Never in my life had I experienced anxiety like this. It was all new, and I couldn’t figure out what was causing it or how to make it stop.
In addition to my mental suffering, I had all my physical problems. The way I describe it is my body broke, and then my brain broke too. What a nightmare.
There were so many days when I felt like I couldn’t go on another minute. I’m not saying I was suicidal, because I wasn’t. But I just couldn’t imagine how much longer I could tolerate the raging storm in my brain and my body. Physical pain. Emotional pain. It was soul sucking, vitality sucking. Exhausting.
Somehow, some way, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. No matter how tired I was, no matter how heavy the load felt, no matter how hopeless I felt. The way I saw it, I didn’t have any other choice.
And then one day, it happened. In the abundance of darkness that had taken over my life, I started to see the possibility of daylight. Notice I didn’t say daylight. I said possibility of daylight. When you’ve lost all hope, possibility feels life changing.
What changed? Why could I see possibility where none had previously existed?
I think two things happened. First, I think three years of hard work started to add up to something. Second, I switched to a new therapist, Dr. Z, who started talking to me about anxiety in a way nobody ever had before. My husband describes it like this: all the work I did prior to Dr. Z was like undergraduate school, and Dr. Z was taking me to graduate school.
Dr. Z unlocked my brain, and in doing so gave me the power to vanquish my own darkness. Every time I leave Dr. Z’s office, feel a sense of possibility. A sense that my life can be different. Less anxiety. Less fear. More living. More peace. Freedom.
I am not cured and likely never will be. Anxiety is like that. But while my anxiety used to command my life, it is now just a nuisance. That represents a dramatic improvement, and I will take it. I believe I am just at the beginning of what can be. I think I will reclaim my life, and my future will not be commanded by anxiety.
I could not have said that a mere two months ago. The fact I can see daylight still feels like a miracle to me, and I thank God for this new beginning ten times per day at a minimum.
As I consider the story of my life, I see it includes a chapter called Raging Anxiety. I’m no longer ashamed of that chapter. It’s part of who I am. I’m not yet at the point where I can say I have gratitude for that chapter, but I have definitely grown from it. Would I leave that chapter out of my life if given the opportunity? Probably not. I think great suffering leads to great learning, and I’m still in the process of understanding what this chapter can teach me. And importantly, how I can use what I’ve learned to help others.
Every time I see Dr. Z he says about 100 smart things. (BTW, Dr. Z is really what I call him. He is Serbian and his name is hard to pronounce, so everybody calls him Dr. Z). Among the many things Dr. Z has said that hit me between the eyes is the following: My name is not Anxiety. My name is Susan.
When he said that, I immediately saw that I had come to define myself by my anxiety. Somewhere along the way I lost track of the reality I could be anything other than anxious. Anxiety is evil that way.
Now I can see anxiety is a part of my life, not my whole life. I still get anxious every day. But it’s at a lower volume. And I respond differently. And the less anxious I feel, the more I engage in life, and the more I engage in life, the more the volume goes down on the anxiety. It’s a chicken and egg thing.
My life is still nothing like normal. I feel like I have been drowning for the last eight years. The first five were just physical suffering, and the last three were physical and mental suffering. Somehow, some way I have kicked hard and have fought my way to the surface. I can breathe now. But I’m still in the middle of the sea. However, the safety of the shore is within my sights for the first time in a very long time, and I know I will get there. I just need to keep kicking.