Rise: It’s Time To Talk About Anxiety

I won’t just survive 

Oh, you will see me thrive 

Can’t write my story 

I’m beyond the archetype 

[I heard Katy Perry’s song “Rise” around August of last year and it about blew my soul wide open. Every now and then, a song just gets under my skin and become self-defining. To me, “Rise” defines my battle with – and continuous defeat of – anxiety. I hope its lyrics speak to you, too.]

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This blogpost has gone through something close to six months of revising, editing, deleting, and rewriting as I figured out what I wanted to say.

The original title was “What No One Told Me About Getting Engaged.” I intended to write about how odd it was to be scared after getting a ring on my finger and contemplate the seemingly (hopefully?) normal pre-wedding jitters every bride-to-be experiences.

But over the days and weeks and months, I realized that my nerves were rooted in something far deeper than post-engagement flutters. The dizzying, uncontrollable trepidation that seeped into my head fueled negative feelings (mainly about my own self-worth) that I’d rejected before but wildly seemed completely legitimate.

Basically, this stark, sudden, and bizarre fear took control of every aspect of my life.

anxiety-comic-illustration-pictures-in-boxes
Source: http://www.gurl.com/2015/11/13/illustrations-that-show-what-its-like-to-have-anxiety-be-anxious/

For several months after I got engaged, getting out of bed in the morning was a nightmare. Tasks I’d managed to do for months became overwhelmingly difficult. I couldn’t eat without throwing up, and I was constantly shaking, sweating, trying to swallow the dry lump out of my throat, or trying to reteach myself how to breathe.

I tried to cling to any bit of sanity or sense of understanding, like a drowning man clutching at a life raft.

Why on earth would I have any negative thoughts or feelings about marrying my best friend? Why would I have such a fearful reaction to marrying the person I’ve known all along was meant to be my husband?

Nothing seemed rational. Nothing made sense.

I won’t just conform

No matter how you shake my core

‘Cause my roots, they run deep

It took me no time at all to conclude that I was being pulled back into the depths of a deep, dark, out-of-control Something I had beaten down to a manageable Something several years ago.

It took me no time at all to conclude that t­he time at last had come for me to acknowledge that Something for what it was. And over the months it’s taken me to write this, I’ve unearthed a great deal that I want to share about anxiety and mental illness as a whole.

Well, no.

I’ll be honest.

I don’t necessarily want to share. My heart is beating as I write this, thinking of the idea of those I know and love reading these words.

But a few months ago, when I posted the link to a blogpost about anxiety on my Facebook timeline, I did so in the off chance that someone found it as powerful and relieving as I did.

The response I got astonished me.

Several of my friends called, messaged, texted, and told me in person how glad they were that I’d shared that post. They too were impacted by its message. They too dealt with anxiety. They dealt with other mental illnesses. They no longer felt alone. And speaking as someone who has felt alone in this battle against anxiety and silently struggled with deep depression and suicidal thoughts in the past… those words from my friends hit me harder than I could have imagined possible.

Then, last month, I stumbled upon End The Stigma, a Facebook group dedicated to opening dialogue about mental illness and other struggles that have often been stigmatized as shameful.

16142740_1852175581738492_2994517247635162702_n

People were sharing the badges to which they felt connected, writing their stories of abuse and survival or self-harm and recovery or medical challenges and overcoming obstacles in public for the world to see. Living their pasts. Sharing their stories. It overwhelmed me. It awed me. And as I sat connecting to people I’d never met, it made me realize how powerful dialogue can be.

How powerful it needs to be.

So, friends, it’s not that I have wanted to write and share all this.

I need to.

 Oh, ye of so little faith

Victory is in my veins

And I will not negotiate

I will transform….

I have anxiety. And it’s okay that I have it.

I don’t even know how long it has lived with me, a swelling, billowing and consuming force during some parts of my life and a shriveled, almost-forgotten speck during others.

Its roots probably began when I was 12, when my life fell apart for a time until I was 17, but this post isn’t about that. Through years of therapy and self-reflection, I understand why I have it. I understand why it reared its ugly head when I got engaged. Suffice it to say that such a monumental event – exciting but not necessarily threatening in perhaps any other person’s life – brought up a lot of suppressed memories of my teen years, the years my brain literally had been unable to process so it coped by making me forget all the trauma.

Now, that is my journey with anxiety. Understanding its source for me was part of finding my method of coping. But, it is important to understand that anxiety or depression or any other mental illness does not need to be justified with a reason. In other words, oftentimes it can exist for – seemingly – no reason at all.

types

Every pathway is different.

For me, my anxiety had crawled out of the dark hole into which I had pushed it several years ago, and it gradually slipped its long, clawed fingers back around me before I could even comprehend what was happening.

Source: http://www.barnorama.com/comics-that-capture-the-frustration-of-anxiety-disorders/
Source: http://www.barnorama.com/comics-that-capture-the-frustration-of-anxiety-disorders/

But there was one big difference this time than from all the other times.

Like the time I was 14, and my stomach problems began because it was forever twisted in a knot of fear any time I was home.

Like the time I was 16, and I missed the first day of school because I couldn’t leave my room without having panic attacks.

Like the time I was 18, and started therapy because I wanted to normal again.

Like the time I was 20, and went through a year of perpetual anxiety so aggressive I quit my job, took online classes, and was terrified to even venture out of my room or boyfriend’s apartment.

Like the time I was 22, and curled into a ball on my bed on my graduation day because I was so scared to leave my room and enter the adult world.

There was one difference this time around.

I didn’t hide it, like I’d tried to do before.

I didn’t deny it, like I’d always done in the past.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told myself, my new fiancé, my family, my friends that I was suffering from anxiety.

When, when the fire’s at my feet again

And the vultures all start circling

They’re whispering

“You’re out of time.”

But still, I rise

That might sound super cool and brave to you, but it wasn’t. Part of talking about it wasn’t really my choice. Full disclosure: when my anxiety reaches full throttle, I throw up.

Kinda hard to explain to your fiancé – the day you get engaged – that you’re throwing up in the bathroom in the hotel room just because, you know, it’s all new and you’re really happy, you really are, you promise, it’s just a big change and you’re just excited. No big deal.

Kinda hard to tell your friends you’d rather not go to a restaurant to eat because the last, oh, 47 times you did this you were running to the bathroom to puke or else locking yourself in a stall until you could focus on the world past your own two shaking hands and rattled breath again.

Kinda hard to explain to your new volunteers on orientation day at your job that you’re sick because you couldn’t eat that morning, and your head is screaming at you to just quit and go home and count your losses.

No, the time had come for me to be open. The time had come for me to be honest with those around me and say those words.

I have anxiety.

And… that’s okay.

This is no mistake, no accident 

When you think the final nail is in

Think again

Don’t be surprised

I will still rise

These past few months, as I’ve been open with people about what I’ve been going through, I’ve mostly had wonderful and understanding responses. I’ve had several conversations with others who too struggle with anxiety or some form of mental illness, and they were so comforting and relieving. My world which had closed in on me in August started to open up again.

But there were a few comments from people that – while they were well-meaning – reflected a deep misunderstanding of anxiety and mental illness as a whole.

“Oh, yeah, I get stressed out, too! One time I was soooo nervous for a test! I totally understand!”

You?? I just can’t see you with anxiety, you’re so well put-together and accomplished!”

“Have you tried essential oils?”

“Do you do yoga? Definitely look into yoga. And be sure to meditate every day – that’ll kick your anxiety to the curb!”

“Just don’t think about it, there’s nothing to worry about!”

Source: http://www.scoopnest.com/user/MoodDisordersCa/705719196261285888
Source: http://www.scoopnest.com/user/MoodDisordersCa/705719196261285888

I get it. I really do. People care. They want to help. I got a lot of the same comments when I was 16 and suffering from depression.

“Just think positive thoughts!”

“Snap out of it!”

I think the problem is people don’t know. They don’t have anxiety, so they can’t relate to it.

That’s why I’m writing this. (Hi.)

I want people to understand. I want there to be dialogue. I want people to ask questions and receive answers and start to make connections. So this is just a little of what I want others to know and understand about anxiety as a whole:

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1. There is a huge difference between stress and anxiety.

Stress and I aren’t just old friends. We go way back. We’re old flames with one of those dumpster fire relationships in a Taylor Swift song that usually ends in us returning to one another. I think I can count on one hand the number of days I haven’t had stress in my life. But, we get coffee together. We hook up. We have a complicated relationship, but the point is that I can function reasonably well with it.

That’s the point, though. It doesn’t dominate my life.

Anxiety is another beast entirely.

Stress comes from an outside force. Anxiety is an internal force that pulsates through every part of your body without warning or reason.

Stress makes you irritable. Anxiety has the power strong and swift enough to make you feel like you’re about to die.

One night I was trying to describe an anxiety attack to my fiancé and could really only come up with a description of a Dementor from Harry Potter.

dementor

(I found this picture too after Googling
(I found this picture too after Googling “Dementor” and I mean, come on. I had to post it.)

Anxiety is a hooded, creepy figure that sucks the good thoughts from your mind and leaves you with terror.

Your vision blurs and you break out in a sweat that makes you feel as though you’re on fire but icy too, in a completely bizarre way.

Your heart doesn’t beat; it contracts. You feel every pulse, every nerve working rapidly, the blood tingling and buzzing as it works its way through your veins.

Your throat dries and you usually can’t speak for trying to swallow and remember how to breathe. Your lungs feel empty and filling them takes every ounce of strength you have.

Usually, you get tunnel vision after a while. Nausea is inevitable.

And for me, if things get really bad, you’ll throw up.

And the thoughts cloud your brain – thoughts you’d normally laugh at and push away without hesitation but, during an attack, you clutch at them and ponder them with desperation.

Even today, sometimes I wake up and the Something is there hissing and spitting in my ear.

Just stay in bed. You’re a failure. You’ll never be good enough for anybody.

“Shut up.” 

It’s like he always said. You’re worthless and nobody ever loved you.

“Knock it off.”

What if you can’t eat again? Then you’ll be dizzy and sick and you won’t do your job right and everyone will know you for what you are: a failure.

“I said SHUT UP!”

But stress? Stress is like Draco Malfoy, who can be fabulously silenced with a swift punch to the face.

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2. Anxiety prohibits you from exercising rational thought.

Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/
Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/

Let me say it louder for the people in the back.

ANXIETY PROHIBITS YOU FROM EXERCISING RATIONAL THOUGHT.

The best way to explain this is with a metaphor.

Imagine seeing a baseball enclosed in a glass cube just feet away from you. Somewhere far away, a voice tells you to reach out and pick up the ball.

So you reach out to grab the baseball, but your fingers can’t penetrate the glass.

“Just grab it,” your hear the voice say. “It’s right there.”

And all the while, you’re trying to move your fingers through the glass. “I’m trying,” you say.

The voice gets irritated.

“It’s literally RIGHT THERE!” the voice says. “Just grab the ball!”

You try. You push the glass.

And self-loathing rises inside of you.

You know how to grab that baseball. You know the motions your fingers need to make to pick up the ball enclosed in the glass. You know how to move your arm to raise your hand. You’re smart. You know this.

But you can’t. There’s a big fucking cube of glass in the way.

Trying to get your brain to understand that your fears are irrational is like trying to grab that enclosed ball.

“There’s nothing to worry about!” the terrified voice inside your head squeaks. “It’s all in your head!”

In other words? “It’s right THERE! The ball is right there! Just take it!”

You can recognize that your fears are unfounded. That doesn’t make them go away.

02-comics-that-capture-the-frustration

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3. The foundation of anxiety strikes at random times, for no apparent reason.

I must stay conscious

Through the madness and chaos 

So I call on my angels

When my anxiety is bad, I can only focus on one thing at a time.

I remember one day, while my future in-laws were visiting, they sat with my fiancé at the kitchen table and I was trying to make a ham sandwich to take with me to class.

There was nothing going on that would have warranted a panic attack. But I was having one anyway.

There was no hope whatsoever of me participating in the conversation. I could only focus on navigating my shaking hands while voices dominated my mind:

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Take a breath. Okay, good.

Grab the tinfoil. Put a slice of bread on top of it.

Steady your hands, Lex. 

Okay, get a piece of ham.

You’re not breathing. Take another breath.

Oh, God, that was too much of a breath. What if they heard at the table? What if they look over and realize I’m losing it?

Stop. Get another piece of ham.

Nod at something my fiancé said. Pray nobody wants me to speak.

Okay, take another breath. Exhale more slowly.

You can’t open the bag of cheese when your hands are shaking. Stop them.

I can’t.

I can’t do anything.

I don’t want to go to class. What if I get called on and I don’t have an answer?

Open the damn cheese.

I’m really going to throw up. Then they’ll know I’m a mess.

Maybe I should just go back to bed.

You can’t do anything.

*

Attacks happen randomly.

Even now, before I go to class, sometimes I have to lock myself in a bathroom stall for a few minutes and put my shaking hands over my eyes and give myself a pep talk.

Even now, when I get out of bed in the morning, sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s okay to have a sudden oncoming of fear. Accepting it and facing it head on is more effective than denying its existence at all.

Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/
Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/

4. If we say no to any social outing or commitment, a) it took every ounce of our courage to do so; and b) we just really, really need to take care of ourselves.

I can’t emphasize this enough and honestly can’t think of too much else to add here.

Medicine for anxiety-sufferers will differ from person to person. This is important. For some – at least, for me – that medicine often means being alone to self-reflect. And in the day-today business of work, school, chores, wedding planning… any free time I have to spare I need to selfishly take for myself. (That’s why I love traveling so much. In exploring other places I explore my mind.)

Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/
Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/quotes/quotes-on-anxiety/

Please, don’t be hard on those with mental illnesses for doing what they need to do to get by. And on that note….

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5. Give us time.

They say,

‘Oh, ye of so little faith

Victory is in your veins

And you will not negotiate 

And be transformed…

A few months went by after my first initial return of anxiety. With every day I survived, things started to get a little easier.

The more I got through difficult days and the more I talked about my anxiety to my friends and family, the better grip I got on it.

The Something, the huge, Dementor-esque figure in my life started to shrink again. I started to think more clearly most of the time.

The horses at my workplace, to whom I give credit for saving my life when I was 17, did wonders for me. My therapist started to help me get out of my own head, as did my boss who completely understands my struggle. My fiancé, who is the most patient and understanding man I’ve ever known, helped me work through some deeply personal fears which reduced my anxiety immensely.

Then, for whatever reason, I had a really bad day close to Christmastime. I could barely get through the day without having anxiety attack after anxiety attack.

And I forget if someone said this to me or if this was one of my own thoughts, but it came up nonetheless: “But I thought you were managing this really well!”

Well, I am managing this really well, came the other side of that statement. But it’s okay to have bad days.

It should be known that there’s no time frame on anxiety. It takes a long time to get to a place where you feel somewhat in control. And just as is the case with life… the journey will consist of good times and bad.

And I think the main takeaway is this: there are ways out.

Really.

There are ways out.

Deep down, we know this. We just need time to find those ways that work best for us.

How much time do we need? Well, it depends. A day. A week. A month. A year. Maybe even a lifetime.

Every day is a new battle. But, then again, even though this concept is sometimes impossible to grasp, every day is a new opportunity.

Source: http://notsalmon.com/2016/04/06/quotes-about-anxiety-and-lowering-stress/
Source: http://notsalmon.com/2016/04/06/quotes-about-anxiety-and-lowering-stress/

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Now.

All of the above are words that have sat on my heart for some time, words about anxiety I wish for others to know and understand and relate to.

Everything else I want to say? Well, they’re words that have sat on my heart for some time, words for those with anxiety I wish them to know and understand and relate to.

Words for anyone with a mental illness.

Words for anyone feeling lost or misunderstood.

I spoke of needing time to find ways to cope, and I won’t ever presume to say there’s a universal fix-all for everyone, nor would I dare to assume that everyone is in a position to be looking for ways to cope.

Asking someone to get help can sometimes be the equivalent of telling someone who is drowning to sing an opera.

So first let me just say this: If you feel like you are in a position where you might need help, but don’t have the ability to seek it or ask for it or even really want it… please call this number. 1-800-273-8255.

It is the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the individual who answers the phone will pull you out of the water.

You will not be drowning anymore.

You will receive help.

And for those who are ready and willing to accept help, I thought I would share two of the things I personally have found incredibly helpful when things get really, really bad.

1. I talk to myself as though I’m a child.

I often talk myself out of my own head as though I’m a little girl. I imagine five-year-old me, with shoulder-length hair and big eyes, curiously looking around which clutching her favorite stuffed animal, a rabbit she named Rejoice. I have to do this, because only someone completely heartless would talk cruelly to a five-year-old little girl, and I tend to beat myself up a lot.

So, what are you a-scared of? Why are you scared of that? Well, take my hand and let’s explore it together. Let’s be a big, brave girl. Good job! Okay, now what else is scaring you? Oh, my goodness, yes, that’s very scary, isn’t it! And you have every right to be scared. What can you do to make yourself feel better?

2. I name things in a list. For me, it’s all the names of the horses at my ranch.

Don’t have horses? List fruits. List all the animals you know. List your relatives. Write them down on paper or say them out loud or go through them in your head.

The point in all this is to ground you. It’s to get you out of the prison that consists of anxiety-stricken thoughts. I have gone through a great deal in this life, and nothing compares to being trapped inside my own head. 

Everyone who struggles with some kind of disorder – be it medical or mental – has the ability to find a way to deal with their obstacles that works best for them. And here’s the really baffling and amazing thing: It can be done.

Against all odds, it can be done.

78e785ce711213b90bf2a1711388bf3c

When, when the fire’s at my feet again

And the vultures all start circling

They’re whispering

“You’re out of time.”

But still, I rise

I don’t have all the answers.

I don’t know you. You. You, who are capable of anything and who are the writer of your own story.

I just say this to you as someone who – many years ago – once seriously contemplated different ways to end her life, as someone who once sunk to the depths of rock bottom from the weights of depression and continues to sense anxiety resting on her shoulder:

You are not alone.

You are not alone.

You are NOT alone.

Rise.

Keep going.

Only you know what you need. Only you feels this way, the way you do. You have a right to take care of yourself.

You are doing the best you can, and that is more than enough.

You are you, and that is more than enough.

This is no mistake, no accident

When you think the final nail is in

Think again

Don’t be surprised

I will still rise

Days will be good and days will be bad. Without darkness, there cannot be light.

Rise.

Keep going.

Sometimes you’ll fall. Sometimes you’ll get knocked down.

But as spoken by the main character in one of my favorite books, “The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.”

Walk on, warrior.

And always

always

keep going.

Don’t be surprised

I will still rise

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Source: http://imgur.com/qbIVRxI
Source: http://imgur.com/qbIVRxI

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FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS

This article on anxiety offers some statistics on anxiety as well as a breakdown of the different types. It also discusses some of the physical side effects of anxiety and offers a list of ways individuals can cope.

One of my all-time favorite posts, What It’s Like to Have Anxiety Disorder Explained in 12 Self Portraits is a photo series by Katie Crawford that is incredibly eye-opening.

This comic explains the difficulty in fighting both anxiety and depression.

This blogpost covers eight things not to say to people with anxiety.

And perhaps the greatest comic of all time is Hyperbole and a Half’s Adventures in Depression.

Read more about mental illness at The National Alliance on Mental Illness website. Their helpline number is below:

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3 thoughts on “Rise: It’s Time To Talk About Anxiety

  1. Alexis thank you so much for sharing and baring basically your soul. As you know and have witnessed as recent as yesterday with me…I am a plaqued by the horrors of anxiety, too. Everything you wrote I can relate to, even to the point as I read your symptoms…I actually started feeling them, too. I’ve found that when I finally have recognized a certain body feeling is anxiety induced only and can shrug it off…it then creates a new scary sensation. Sometimes, it is hard for me distinguishing if it’s my anxiety or something really physically wrong with me. My mind and body are constantly on alert and prepared for battle. Of course like you wrote, we always try to hide that battle from others that have no clue to what we are experiencing.

    Again, thank you for having the courage to openly share your story Alexis.

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