From Zero to Catastrophe in 2.7 Seconds

Breathe in. 1… 2… 3… 4… Breathe out. 1… 2… 3… 4… You can do this. If you can just clear your mind for a few minutes, you can do this. Otters. The color yellow. Green tea ice cream. Breathe in. 1… 2… 3…

Is that a new stretch mark on my hip? I must be getting huge. If I’m huge, no one will find me attractive. If no one thinks I’m hot, no one will ever want to date me. If no one wants to date me, I’ll never get married. If I never get married, I’ll never have kids. If I never have kids, I’ll live and die alone. If I die alone, how long will it take someone to find my body? Probably never.

Nope. Stop it. That’s crazy. Breathe in. 1… 2… 3…

My boss didn’t praise my new project enough. He didn’t explicitly say, “I love it.” That means he hates it. That means he’s going to fire me. If he fires me, how will I afford to live in this city? I’ll have to move home. I’ll be so emotionally broken from being fired that I’ll go crazy. I’ll have to be institutionalized, and that’ll drain all of my parent’s money. They’ll die from the stress of taking care of me, and then I’ll be all alone. I’ll die alone and nobody will know and nobody will care.

It’ll be fine. Breathe out. 1… 2… 3…

My friends are going on a trip without me. They think I’m not going because I’m flaky and poor and I’m not committed to our friendship. And because I’m not on the trip, they’re going to talk about me and these things, and then collectively decide that I’m a terrible friend. They’ll grow closer, and decide that I’m not worthy of our friend group anymore. They’ll stop inviting me to things, and I’m not assertive, so I won’t ask to hang out. We’ll grow apart, and then I won’t have any friends in this city. I’ll get depressed because I have no friends. I’ll probably commit suicide, and then they won’t know or care, and then I’ll die alone. They probably won’t come to my funeral either.

This was 20 minutes in the life of my anxiety.

These are my just my first thoughts as I try to fall asleep on an ordinary Tuesday night. But instead of calming myself down, thinking logically, and coming back to reality, I begin to spiral. These stories centered around my faults and insecurities will continue to write themselves in my mind anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to six hours, until I finally drift off to a restless sleep with only a few hours before sunrise left to spare. Without a fully rested brain, I am tightly wound and foggy the entire next day. I feel a tension in my chest that only grows as the day goes on. No matter what happens during that day, everything is wrong, everything is doomed. When the sun finally sets, I agonize over whether tonight will be the same as the last. Again, I close my eyes and hope for the best. If I’m lucky, I’ll get another three hours of sleep amid a whole new flood of catastrophic, hypothetical scenarios.

This was a day in the life of my anxiety.

If you had asked me a year ago if I thought that this chronic insomnia and catastrophizing was a problem, I’d have told you no. I thought this was just the way things were, and how they were going to stay. I’m just a worrier, that’s who I am. Sure, I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in about a year. Sure, I’d constantly convince myself that everyone hated me. Sure, I couldn’t ride on a fast train without being sure that it was going to derail, nor could I fly on a plane because I knew crashing was inevitable. Sure, I thought my whole world was going to fall apart because of one small reprimand. But doesn’t everyone think this way? I knew anxiety was a thing that afflicted some people, but I didn’t think I was one of them. I thought I was mentally stronger than something like anxiety. Actually, I thought I was mentally stronger than any mental illness. What I didn’t realize, what I didn’t want to admit, is that anxiety is in fact a serious mental illness that had been ravaging my life and my happiness for far too long.

I have always been a mildly nervous person to some extent, but in the past few years this nervousness has turned from bothersome to debilitating. If I had to pinpoint the turn for the worse, it came during a deep depression I fell into in the winter of 2013. Its catalyst was what I considered to be two major personal failures, which lead to months of feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. For months, all I saw ahead of me was a lifetime of pain and failure. Why continue to live? After all, life is just pain and then you die, right? Having been severely depressed in the past, I knew what this was and deep down I had faith that I’d get through it, just as I had before. I wasn’t wrong. I did get better, but when I finally began to recover, I noticed a lingering feeling of uneasiness that didn’t subside.

No matter what I did, I couldn’t get that uneasy feeling to go away or even lessen. It grew from the occasional worry to full-fledged panic spirals. I should have known that I needed help when it started to manifest itself physically. No matter how tired I was, I couldn’t sleep. For days. For weeks. And the lack of sleep only sunk me deeper into my spirals. My 15 year struggle with bulimia was reinvigorated, uncontrollable, and annihilated any positive relationship I’d built with food or my body (I know now that anxiety is a major part of what feeds that beast). I also started compulsively picking at my skin, creating scars and leaving deep, painful cuts. I was quite literally worrying myself to death.

I wish I could tell you that my path to recovery after realizing I needed help was a quick and seamless one, but thanks to my stubbornness, and ironically, my anxiety over getting help, it was anything but. After a stern recommendation to see a psychiatrist from my primary doctor, I continued to wait and refuse to admit that I may be suffering from a mental illness. Much of my denial comes from my experience growing up with a bipolar mother. Her symptoms are so extreme that they’re almost impossible to cope with at times. I had always thought that if bipolar was what it meant to be mentally ill, then I was nowhere close.

When I finally did make my first appointment with a psychiatrist, I agonized over the decision alone for weeks. I have always been firmly anti-medication, believing that the body is plenty capable of healing and regulating itself if given the proper care. I knew she’d want to give me “happy pills,” and I was afraid of how they might change me. Would I be a walking zombie, devoid of all emotions and personality? Would I become numb to everything and everyone like Zach Braff’s character in Garden State? What if people found out I was on medication, would they think of me differently? Though the stigma around mental illness is beginning to wane, it is by no means extinct. It’s a small miracle that I fought through these thoughts long enough to actually keep my appointment and meet the woman who would ultimately change my life for the better.

Today, I am seven months into my treatment for anxiety. Everything is not perfect. I am not cured. But I am coming a little closer every day. Through a combination of medication and therapy, two things I’d always told myself I’d never need, I am slowly but surely learning what it means to free. Free of constant regret, worry, and fear. Though I’ve come a long way towards recovery, I’ve had more than a handful of setbacks. While I may initially see the inevitable catastrophe play out, I have learned that I am powerful enough to change the course of those narratives. This journey isn’t an easy one, it takes work and patience, but in the short time that I’ve been able to finally sleep and exhale again, I can’t imagine going on the way I had been. I know now that the real catastrophe would have been continuing to live under the weight of my crushing anxiety.

This is seven months in the life of my anxiety.

This is seven months in my life of learning that asking for help is okay.

This is seven months in my life of learning to take one step at a time.

This is seven months in my life of being less afraid, but accepting that being afraid is normal.

This is seven months in my life of finally sleeping again. Finally dreaming again. Finally breathing again.

This is seven months in my life of overcoming anxiety.