Today is #WorldMentalHealthDay and I thought I’d post something about my own struggles. Maybe someone will read this and know they aren’t alone out there. I could write a book about my anxiety, but I’ll try to be brief.
I remember getting short of breath and tightness in the chest as a kid. Even before high school I’d have trouble once in awhile when I was trying to fall asleep at night. Sometimes my legs would “bother me” too, like I just had to get up and move. (Hey there Restless Leg Syndrome!)
When I got pregnant, my OBGYN told me I was having panic attacks. She said sometimes people get them because of the hormones. I had to be on short term disability the last three months of the pregnancy. It was the same with my second child, and my doc agreed to let me get my tubes tied to avoid another pregnancy.
Other than when I was pregnant, I only had a real “panic attack” once every couple of months after that. They frightened me, but I forgot about them relatively quickly in between having them. It was just a thing I had to deal with once in awhile, like a cold or visiting relatives. I found I could get through them easily enough if I just laid down for a few hours. If it happened when I wasn’t at home, they’d last a lot longer.
Life went on. I grew unhappy with my job, decided to go back to school for the second time. I worked full time and took accelerated classes, and had no free time. I had something to prove. To myself and to the world. And I had a dream.
In April 2012, I was finishing the last month of my bachelor’s degree, from which I would graduate valedictorian, and I had what I think must have been a silent nervous breakdown. I remember the thing that tipped me over the edge.
I was walking through Best Buy, checking twitter, and got into an argument with a stranger about racial issues. For some reason, that argument ended up in the muddy waters of semi-trending, and suddenly my phone was going crazy as I was getting harassed by total strangers. I tried to defend myself, futilely, before blocking everyone that mentioned my handle as they came in. (When people talk about trigger warnings, this is one of mine now. No quicker way to send me into a panic attack. Very similar to PTSD.)
Thankfully, mine was only a small dip into the world of online harassment, but it was enough to keep me shaking with stress for a few hours. By supper it had gone away, and I kept my mind off it and went on with my evening. That night at 3am I woke up feeling like I was having a heart attack. My whole body was flushed, my chest felt tight all over, I was dizzy, nauseous… I cried and put up with it until 8am, when I got my mom to take me to the emergency room.
The anxiety has never gone away. I’ve been to the ER half a dozen times with it. I’ve seen a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a host of other doctors. I’ve had my gallbladder out, a hysterectomy, and two sinus surgeries in the last three years. I’ve got multiple loan payments for my medical bills now.
That day in April hit my body hard. I had never been allergic to anything, but now my “allergy and sensitivity” list includes at least five meds, one of which is penicillin. I get side effects with almost every medication I take for anything, so I avoid medication whenever possible and can’t handle anxiety meds.
The sensitivity doesn’t stop there. My muscles are all hyper sensitive. I naturally have a greater than normal range of motion, so I tend to mess myself up a lot. My ribs are always slipping and popping and my neck gives me lots of trouble. The problems with my ribs and chest muscles causes inflammation, and make the effects of my anxiety attacks even worse.
Whether it’s because of this sensitivity or because of the anxiety, I feel like I’m dying. It’s easy to say that, and have people think they can process it, but the reality is a lot different. Everyday I struggle with the feeling that my body is dying all around me. That something is terribly, horrifyingly wrong and nobody else sees or believes it. Some days every bit of energy I have seems to be taken up by holding myself together and fighting off this fear. My brain can tell me I’m not on the brink of death, but the signals my body is sending say I am.
The only thing that can sometimes help is proof. Tests. A doctor assuring me my heart is not, in fact, stuttering and limping along. But you can’t go in every few weeks and get a full cardio workup. I have to trust them. And now even more, since I can’t afford to keep going into the doctor, I have to trust they didn’t miss something.
I live with the constant fear that they have. Or that something new will go wrong and I won’t see the symptoms because I’ve trained myself to ignore everything my body tells me. Or that the stress and anxiety will CAUSE my heart to get sick. What happens when it really IS a heart attack? Someday will I just lay down to ride it out, and never get up? Will I ignore the pain and the warnings and let myself die?
So I do the only things I can. I meditate. I breathe. I avoid anything like WebMD on the internet because I have ALL those symptoms. I love my family like I have no more tomorrows. At least, when I feel well enough to do so. I try to ignore the pain and the discomfort and the fear. I cry. When things get too much, I ask my husband to tell me that I’m ok, and that I’m not dying, because I can’t believe myself on the bad days.
My body is constantly coming up with new ways to make me miserable, keeping me on my toes. I have indications of fibromyalgia, and a bunch of mild forms of digestive things like acid reflux, hiatal hernia and diverticulitis. My esophagus spasms hard enough to choke me sometimes. I have high blood pressure and thyroid disorder. I try to absorb each hit as it comes and deal with it, knowing how much of it goes hand in hand with the anxiety. I suffered from depression for a while, which comes back if I think too much, as if fighting fear wasn’t enough of an emotional war.
I’m aware of how much of a burden I am on my husband and even my kids. I know how helpless my husband feels, and how hard it is for him to understand when he can’t feel what I feel. I appreciate that he lets me lay across his lap and cry, and that he will get up at three in the morning to stroke my back when I’m having an episode. Without him I could not cope with this.
I know I might have to fight this for the rest of my life. It makes me tired just thinking about it. I just don’t want to have to fight it alone. And I really don’t want to have someone tell me my fight isn’t real, or it’s all in my head, or that I’m weak. Because I’m not weak. I’m always fighting. I’m just not always winning.
I won’t ask you for help. I’m too afraid of being judged. I’m too used to hiding it and pretending like everything is ok. Nothing you can do will fix me. So here’s what I would like instead…
Be kind. Be supportive. Be open. Believe in people. Make the world a better place or make someone have a better day. Nice people make me feel like there’s hope, not just for the world, but for me. Maybe someday you’ll make someone’s day better without realizing it, and make all the difference to them. And if they break into tears because you smiled at them or held the door open… well that was probably someone like me.