My Message To Anybody Suffering Physical or Mental Anguish: Never, Ever, Ever, Give Up. Never. Ever.
There is a story behind this photo. I am at my daughter’s rock climbing competition in another state. The previous week was absolutely hellacious. I was so sick from my lyme treatment I could barely function. But I wanted to make it to this climbing competition more than anything. Somehow, some way, I managed to rally just in time, and I was so grateful to be able to support my daughter, and be with my family. In the moment of the photo, I truly felt like a survivor. I wasn’t back to 100%, but I felt well enough to function, and I was there. I asked my husband to take this picture because I wanted to mark the moment in time. I wanted a tangible reminder that no matter how many times I get knocked down, I always find a way to get back up. As I look at that photo, I still can’t believe I’m sitting there, knowing what I had been through the week prior.
But that hellacious week was about physical suffering, and as bad as it was, the emotional suffering I have endured is far worse. I have suffered in ways I’d never be able to describe. I have endured the darkest of days. I’ve never considered suicide in any way, but so many times the thought I just can’t do this anymore tore through my mind and body. It hurt to be alive.
I was deep in the merciless, horrendous, soul sucking grip of severe anxiety. I’ve been a worrier since childhood, but the anxiety I have experienced in the last three years is like nothing I have ever known. I think it was the result of a perfect storm of the way I’m wired, things that happened in childhood, things that happened as an adult, and 8 years of lyme-induced physical distress.
Now I want you to notice something. I am talking about my debilitating anxiety in the past tense. That is not to say I am cured. Far from it. I still get anxious every day. But the anxiety is coming in at a lower volume. It’s speaking to me instead of shouting. It’s still unpleasant, but less so. And less debilitating.
To my fellow anxiety sufferers, especially those who have lost hope, please listen to this. Just. Keep. Trying. No matter how dark your days, no matter how hopeless you feel, no matter how small and afraid and alone you feel, keep trying. If what you are doing isn’t working, try something else. If that doesn’t work, try yet another thing. Just never stop trying.
For three years I tried EVERYTHING, and NOTHING worked. I lost hope over and over again. I began to describe my anxiety as intractable. I was never suicidal, but I wasn’t taking much joy in being alive. It hurt too much. I was so scared. The world felt so big and I felt so small.
But I kept on going. And somehow, some way, after three years of hard work, things finally began to turn for me. There was no big ah ha moment. Rather, it was a series of minor positive shifts that eventually started to add up to bigger shifts. It’s like building a rock pile and starting with a single, tiny pebble. Each pebble represents a victory over fear and anxiety. And one pebble at a time, one day at a time, my rock pile of victories began to grow.
Everybody’s anxiety story is unique, and therefore, what helped me might not be helpful to somebody else. But in the event there is any chance my experience can lessen the suffering of even one person, here are a few of things that have been most helpful to me:
- Switching therapists. My previous therapist was extremely helpful, but she retired. I was devastated when she told me, but I tried to tell myself it was happening for a reason, and that somebody else was meant to drop into my life to help me on the next leg of my journey.
- Thank goodness I was right about that, but it took some patience. After about about three months, of “dating” other therapists, I was eventually led to Dr. Z (he’s Serbian, his name is difficult to pronounce, everyone calls him Dr. Z). I am profoundly grateful to have found Dr. Z, as he has changed my life immeasurably. He’s brilliant, and helps me more than I could ever describe.
- Here is the first life changing nugget he gave me. After I detailed everything I was doing to try to control my anxiety, he told me I was looking at it the wrong way. He said if I’m trying to get rid of my anxiety, I’m being a destroyer. Instead, he encouraged me to be a builder. A builder of my life. A builder of my happiness. He told me to focus on doing things I enjoy simply because I enjoy them. Not because I think it will make me less anxious. I spent the last three years doing things because I hoped they would make me less anxious. But they didn’t. When I do things because they bring me joy, I end up being less anxious as a consequence. So, when I find myself getting anxious, I work on being a builder instead of being a destroyer. That’s part of what this blog is about. I’m trying to help others while also helping myself.
- I realized I don’t need to get my anxiety under control. I need to live my life. Sometimes that might include anxiety and sometimes it might not. In that light, I work on controlling my response to anxiety when and if it arises, but I no longer spend every waking moment thinking I need to get my anxiety under control. Because I don’t. What a relief.
- I exercise most days. Dawn is my time. The silence of that hour when the world is still largely asleep is sacred to me. It speaks to me and heals me more than any anxiety medication. I walk every day and do weights and stretching every other day.
- I meditate. Nothing better than silence for a brain that’s often very loud.
- I practice mindfulness. When I notice my brain moving into unhelpful thought patterns (i.e. irrational fears), I calmly re-direct it to something more useful. Sometimes I need to send a particularly nagging thought pattern away many, many times before it finally retreats. The goal is to notice the thought pattern without taking the bait. Sometimes I still get tricked and take the bait, but I try to pull up as soon as I notice what’s happening.
- I take a pinch of anxiety medication every afternoon. I tend to shy away from pharmaceuticals because I am extremely sensitive to medication. I tend to try natural remedies first. But when I got to the point where I could no longer leave the house, I knew it was time to get out of my comfort zone, pharmacologically speaking. I used to take meds twice a day, and now I’m down to just one small dose. One day I won’t need that, but I do now, and I’m OK with it.
- I began to accept fear as part of my equation. Certain situations that are entirely non-threatening to the general population, are fully threatening to me. I love church. I stopped being able to go because it was too threatening to sit among so many people. Logically, I knew I was safe and that nobody would hurt me, but anxiety knows no logic. At a certain point, I realized I needed to make peace with fear. This doesn’t mean I have conquered my fears or that I’m no longer afraid. It just means I accept that fear is going to be along for the ride sometimes. My challenge is to acknowledge the fear without being overly reactive to it. But here’s where resilience comes in. Often, I’m just as afraid of something the third, fourth or fifth time I do it, so each time is sort of like starting over. But more often than not, when I confront a situation I’m afraid of, everything turns out, and I end up building positive associations. I believe that if I continue to build positive associations around things that are difficult for me, eventually they will become less difficult.
- I pray. A lot. Many times per day. Prayer brings me the most incredible sense of comfort and serenity. Stopping to pray throughout the day helps me slow down, check in with myself, and recognize and re-set any emotions or thought patterns that may be headed off the rails. Praying also gives me the opportunity to feel God’s indescribable love and healing power.
I could go on, but that’s probably enough for now. And I’d like to end where I began, which is to encourage anybody who is suffering to keep hanging on. Keep believing. Keep trying. My days were so very dark, but I am finding the light now. It took a long, long time and tremendous effort, but it was worth it. I still have a long way to go, but as long as I continue to move away from darkness and towards light, I will have the fortitude to keep going.
And I wish the same for you.