The very first time I had an anxiety attack, I didn’t know what was happening. It was early morning, my newborn daughter had just woken up crying, I knew I had deadlines demanding attention in the office, I’d had no sleep (having lain awake all night waiting for her cry), and all of the sudden my heart was pounding as if it would burst right out of my chest, and I felt cold sweats racing up and down my spine, my arms, my hands.
“Am I having a heart attack?” I wondered.
And no small part of me almost hoped I was: visions of a hospital bed where I could lie and do nothing all day while people brought me bland food I would not want to eat. Relaxation and weight loss coming right up!
And then I wondered, is this really what my life has come to? Having a heart attack is now a vacation plan?
But it wasn’t a heart attack, though in the years since that first incident, I have more than once wished I was experiencing some real physical calamity as opposed to anxiety. As a friend of mine, also a sufferer from anxiety, told me recently, “Physical pain is so much easier to bear.”
I agree. Doctors can fix a heart attack, or you die…either way, the trauma ends.
Anxiety has no endpoint, no pacemaker, no magic bullet to knock it out, so you can go home a new and improved person who can breathe again without hyperventilating.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety. That’s about 18 percent of the population. Most of them are women.
I’d wager the degree of suffering is much greater. Way more than half of my female friends and acquaintances suffer from it, and those are just the ones who admit it. Or maybe I just hang out with really high-strung, Type A folks who don’t know how to tramp down stress and trauma with a shot of bourbon and Netflix.
I sure as hell don’t.
I prefer to lie awake in bed, not wanting to get out, while my heart races at the speed of light and I’m encompassed by a pressing sense of dread. Eek, is that a laundry basket over there filled with dirty clothes? Damn it. Cold sweats. iPhone bleeps at me. I hunker down a little lower.
The anxiety in this house is so pervasive, even the dog has it. Though I acknowledge, he’s a pound puppy, so I have to forgive him for howling every time I leave the house and then hiding under the dining room table whenever I lose my shit with my daughter, which is more frequent than I’d like to admit. Pooping in my walk-in closet? Um no, not excused.
They make anxiety meds for dogs, you know.
I remain skeptical. I am not giving my dog Xanax.
But the fact that I could is a little alarming. The fact that nearly 30 percent of Americans will suffer anxiety at some point in their lives is also alarming, especially given that is the highest rate of anxiety disorder in the developed world. Again, I expect it’s more.
From where I’m sitting, it looks like an epidemic. And I have to wonder why….
I once believed anxiety was the body’s physical response to a situation that isn’t right. Do you get anxiety every time your husband walks in the door? Time to get a divorce. Do you have panic attacks in the bathroom at work? Time to get a new job.
But it’s really not that simple. As the mother of one of my best friends (who was a practicing psychologist for 30+ years told me once), “anxiety is fear that you cannot handle what life throws at you.”
Or rather what we throw at ourselves….
I admit I am a culprit in my own suffering. In the course of the last year alone, I moved my entire household from a community where I had spent the vast majority of my adult life, put my daughter in a new school, then put her in another new school this fall, fell in love and got serious about a man who couldn’t commit, attempted to paint an entire house all by myself in the wee hours of the morning for weeks on end, expanded my business times three, garnered nearly 20 new clients as a result, and then decided it would be a good idea to bring an anxiety-ridden dog into my life because, you know, a single working mother could always use another dependent to look after….
Did I mention I’m about to give up on having a clean house, folded laundry, and weed-free flowerbeds?
I cannot do it.
And that is the hardest thing for us anxiety sufferers to admit.
A few years ago, one of my best friends and I were riding a trolley in a historic southern city when a young woman seated across from us leaned over and said to me, “I’m having an anxiety attack. Can you help me? I need to get off this thing.”
Well, heck yeah. I’m old hat at this shit. My girlfriend got the trolley driver to stop, and the three of us got off and walked at least a couple dozen blocks back to our inn, where we poured our new friend lots of complimentary sherry while talking about this phenomenon called anxiety. Our new friend was in her late 20s, newly married, a successful writer, and well, should she not be in seventh heaven?
And there it is — the dreaded “should” word with which anxiety sufferers pelt themselves daily as if in penance for not having sharp, ironed curtains and cats that religiously use the litterbox.
Almost all my anxiety attacks, which I regret to report have worsened with age (or perhaps with the additional “I should do” duties that come with age), are the result of “I shoulds”:
- I should not be “overdue” on so many projects at work
- I should empty my inbox and be more on top of things
- I should delete the 40 “unheard” voice mail messages on my cell phone
- I should be a more involved and present mom
- I should play with my daughter more
- I should help my parents more
- I should be in an emotionally mature relationship with a man who has his shit together
- I should exercise more
- I should actually eat breakfast
- I should have a cleaner house
- I should not let laundry sit in the basket for so long
- I should weed my flowerbeds more frequently
- I should get new tires on the car
- I should clean out the garage
- I should call my friends more
And the “shoulds” wear on me until I can do no more than hit “snooze” on the alarm, crawl deeper under the covers, and avoid this thing called life for 10 minutes more. “Snooze” again. So 20 minutes more.
What’s even worse? Sometimes I will try to stay up all night just so I don’t have to wake up and feel anxious as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. I’m sure you can imagine how much sleep deprivation helps with the anxiety business.
I long ago gave up on thinking I will ever outrun anxiety. I really have tried everything — even had a couple of doctors try to kill me (unintentionally, of course) with drugs that made me want to climb the walls. The result is I’m now terrified to take any medication short of aspirin.
And try deep breathing and meditating right after someone has given you what feels like, at that moment, the most devastating news of your life. Sorry, panic coaches, my brain is far too sophisticated for your tricks. It can and will have an anxiety attack anywhere anytime just from hearing “that song” on the radio in the grocery store.
Yet supposedly anxiety sufferers are truly awesome people — hard workers with higher than average IQs, deeply analytical minds; they are more empathic, good team players. In fact, if you want a high-achieving employee who will go the extra mile, break the EOE rules and ask that interviewee if she suffers from anxiety. If the answer is “yes,” you can be sure she’ll do a bang-up job!
That’s just how we roll.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Why do we care so much?
You have no idea how we stand like dejected animals in a cage looking out at all those people who don’t have anxiety, have never known it in their lives. You know the ones. They’re totally okay with a sink full of dirty dishes. Fuck it. I’m going to have a beer and go watch TV, they say without a moment’s guilt. Meanwhile I can’t sit still in a chair unless I know everything is done, and how often do you suppose everything is done in the life of a writer always on deadline?
I get tired of being told that I should embrace my anxiety, that I should be grateful I feel deeply, that I’m capable of the great depths of love, joy, pain…all those things that make us human and make life rich…if far from easy. Heck, if you read my blog posts with any regularity, you know I spout out all these things myself. In my heart, I know their truth. In the here and now, heart racing, I just want to feel like I’m not losing my mind. And I understand how addictions start, why people run from risk, why the emotionally wounded will often close the door on human connection, why people lose themselves in TV, on social media, in emotional eating.
I get it.
But that’s just my extra special compassion because I have anxiety, right?
What I don’t have, however, is an answer, a way to tie this all up neatly with a bow, and say something pithy you can carry with you to call upon the next time anxiety hits you in your gut. It’s epidemic, and I am among the walking survivors.
Deborah Huso is an award-winning journalist and founding partner of Write Well Media, an elite content marketing and strategic communications firm.