When anxiety becomes familiar

It’s the sound of a million different voices and the moment you realize they all belong to you…they always have.

Photo by SHINE TANG on Unsplash

If you’re reading this, maybe you’ve experienced it before. Perhaps you have a loved one who struggles with it; a collegue who takes medication to try and control it; a friend who talks about it like a secret they’re afraid others will discover.

It used to confuse me. I wanted to understand this mysterious thing I heard discussed in private. My friends who dealt with it — they didn’t seem to want to undesrstand it. They just wanted it to go away. They wanted to get past it, not through it. I couldn’t imagine why until I faced it myself.

I was at work when it happened for the first time. It was a busy evening at the restaurant and my section was furthest from the kitchen. I remember standing at the computer, trying to put a table’s order in when it started to hit me. I found it difficult to focus on the screen. My body temperature rose must faster than is normal and I began to find it hard to breathe. I walked to the bar to pick up some drinks that my table had ordered — that’s when I knew these feelings I was having weren’t normal and they definitely weren’t all in my head. The bartender looked at me standing there and asked if I was okay. “You don’t look so well, honey,” she said to me. “Are you okay,” she asked. “I don’t think so. I feel kind of funny,” I replied.

My manager took me outside and gave me a glass of water. She had me sit down and just breathe. She told me it sounded like I was having a panic attack. I had never had one before, I told her. I remember feeling scared.

The second time it happened was about 2 weeks later. I was behind the bar at work, making some drinks that had been ordered for some tables. It hit me faster this time and this time I knew I needed to get out of that space. I walked into the kitchen, behind the line and past the dish pit. I stood there and cried, trying to catch my breath. A friend of mine came back to check on me. She kept her hand on my back as I wept through it.

You get used to the crippling effects that it has on you.

That’s not how it started, though. I haven’t had an attack like that in some time now, but I deal with this thing nearly every day. My mind is filled with voices — MY voices — telling me everything that could go wrong in my day. There are days when I wake up crying, overwhelmed by the weight of it on my chest, unable to fight it. I am a failure, the voices tell me. Nothing I do could ever be worth anything. My friends don’t really like me, they’re just being nice. He doesn’t love me — he wouldn’t be here if he knew the truth.

The truth is: I have anxiety.

When I was young it showed itself in different ways. It was in my dreams, making me feel helpless and alone. I would wake from my nightmares sweating like crazy and crying so hard I could barely catch my breath. The anxiety that I felt during the day would manifest itself in my dreams as a shadow in my room. It made it difficult to get rest when I slept, leaving me to wake feeling like I hadn’t slept in days. When I got older, the dreams stopped for a while, but the anxiety was just changing form. It wasn’t until they came back at a much older age that I began to see them for what they were.

Some days are harder than others. I can go weeks blocking out the voices, ignoring their constant badgering. Other times, I can’t even go to the grocery store without them with me. Walking down the aisles, hearing them tell me all the things that could go wrong that day. Why are we even here, they’ll ask. It’s shame that sits on my shoulders, reminding me that this life is not easy. It’s despair that lives inside of me, weighing me down with thoughts that aren’t my own.

People expereince it in different ways. It isn’t always such an audible voice in their heads. It can often just be a feeling. Not the good kind; the kind that you want to feel. It isn’t warm, but it does become familiar. You get used to the crippling effects that it has on you. You can’t leave your home without feeling it — it consumes you and there’s no way to fight it. At least, that’s what it wants you to think.

The truth is, there is help available. There are things you can do to help yourself. I learned to talk back to those voices — it was a therapist who helped teach me the skill. “Pick some phrases to use,” she told me, “responses that will help train your brain to stop with the self-defeating talk.” I fight it on my best days. I tell myself that I AM worth more than I feel. I tell myself that my friends love me because they KNOW me and they CHOOSE to. I tell myself that if something bad happens, I will deal with it then. I remind myself not to worry about what hasn’t happened yet.

Photo by Sarah Diniz Outeiro on Unsplash

On my worst days, I cry. I feel the weight of it all and I allow my body to sit with it for a while. I lean in to it, not away from it — in those moments I can feel it trying to crush me, but it never does. When words are no longer enough, I let my body work through it in a deeper way.

Most importantly, I talk about it. It’s terrifying, but I’ve seen how much it helps. There are still times when I forget. I get wrapped up in the torture of it all and I let it take over, keeping me inside myself for awhile. Those times often end in the most tears. When my body takes over to work through it, I realize how long I’ve gone holding it inside. I start talking again then.

It hasn’t gone away and I’m not sure if it ever will, but I am working to learn how to live with it without letting it live for me. If this is you, I hope you take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. I hope you talk about it.

It is my hope that through writing about what life has taught me I may teach someone else.

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