I have been anxious my whole life.
It was the painful truth I had to admit 4 months ago as I filled out a medical form at my first appointment with a psychiatrist. In the midst of the basic health questions, it took all I had within me not to burst into tears when I came to this one: How long have you been experiencing these symptoms?
The honest answer? As long as I can remember.
The innocent and carefree childhood? I spent those years hiding from kids my age out of fear of being rejected by them, curled up in the fetal position when a thunderstorm came through because I was convinced it would turn into a tornado, and avoiding fireworks out of fear of one burning my eye out.
Yeah. That’s where it all started. Even one of my earliest memories is infused with anxiety. I remember when my friend Emily came over to play with me at my house, and I spent the entire time crying and telling her and my mom that she couldn’t possibly be having fun, because who could have fun with someone like me (especially when I was acting this way)?
How many kids can admit to being afraid of their friend hating them in such a way when they were only four years old?
And adolescence? I could write a couple of volumes on the anxiety I felt then. Take all those fears of being rejected at childhood and multiply them by at least a hundred. In middle school, you barely know who your friends are as it is; they love you one day, and the next, they’re glaring at you and saying you’re not welcome at the lunch table anymore.
Do you know what that does to kids with intense anxiety? This only boosted my self-defense mechanism, causing me to push friends away the moment they indicated irritation with me. Relationships for me took years to build and only moments to tear down. To this day, it’s hard for me to trust that others care, are genuine, and actually like being around me. Relationships with others, even really good ones, stress me out, because I’m always afraid I’m giving people a valid excuse to leave. How do you keep relationships with these fears running through your head?
Anxiety became something I needed to eradicate, like curing diseases with rest and antibiotics. It wasn’t something I wanted to live with. I didn’t want this to be part of who I was; I wanted it to be gone. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be normal.
So I kept looking for solutions. I went to counselor after counselor with limited relief. I called my Gammy and Aunt Leslie when the anxiety became too unbearable and I had no one else to talk to. I went to youth group meetings and altar calls, laying my anxiety down time and time again, saying I wouldn’t pick it back up, only to throw its burden back on my shoulders the next morning, once again my cross to bear. I’d been told that Jesus had died for my pain and anxiety and I just needed to give it all to him, but my fears were the only thing I’d known my whole life. They enveloped me like a wet, heavy blanket, weighing me down day after day, but its consistency gave me a sick sort of comfort. For me, the familiarity of my anxiety trumped any hope of relief from it.
I condemned myself for not having enough faith in God. I prayed and prayed only to have any comfort vanish like smoke, and the anxiety crushed me again the moment I became distracted by life. I became frustrated with God and myself. I put up walls that I hoped would be scaled and conquered by unconditional love, yet I pushed down anyone who attempted to come to me.
It wasn’t until college that things began to improve much. I surrounded myself with people who refused to let me push them away but were honest with me when I made my attempts. I traveled, preached, wrote, spoke up in class, went through a few faith and identity crises, and pushed myself day by day out of my comfort zone. I contacted my Dad. I dared to let myself forge strong friendships and fall in love. I allowed myself to be a leader. I began to live.
But fear was still there. And while I still tried to keep it hidden with smiles, warmth, and extroversion, it still had an iron grip on me.
I graduated. My loved ones went their own ways and on their own journeys. Bridgewater College, my safe haven and dear community, was gone. I was on my own for the first time, and in many ways, I had to start fresh, and that terrified me.
New friends? New jobs? New leadership positions? A new faith community? New responsibilities? How was I to navigate these treacherous waters?
My relationships, new and old, became strained. I built the walls up higher than ever. I attacked those who had scaled them before to force them to retreat. I distanced myself from family and friends alike. I accused my loved ones, my friends, family, and boyfriend, and turned them into criminals, even though they did nothing to betray my trust.
It took one awful argument to realize how far I’d let anxiety run my life. I finally realized how much my wall was hindering me, how suppressing my fears only made them bigger, and like weeds they blocked out so much love and life, making personal growth difficult and tedious. I finally realized I needed something more.
I got a counselor. And then, I got medicated.
My counselor is spectacular. Our regular meetings have given me such hope and have helped me to cope with my anxiety in ways I never thought possible.
But I was terrified of being medicated.
I had feared medicine for so long. I’d been told that I only needed faith, that drugs were a cop-out, that medicine could be dangerous and difficult to stop taking. But then some people spoke up and had rave reviews about it, saying they’d never been better and were so thankful to have found it. My own aunt kept encouraging me to try medicine since it had helped her so much.
But I didn’t want to be medicated. I wanted to make myself better. I wanted to be fine on my own.
I didn’t want to admit that for all of my life, I only felt like half a person, like I’d never be confident or good enough, that I can barely live with myself, because living in my own head is the most miserable place I could possibly be. And I didn’t want to admit that I felt like there was nothing I alone could do about it. I didn’t want to admit that I was afraid if this didn’t work, then nothing would work. And I didn’t want to admit that I had a problem, much less a fixable one.
I knew I didn’t like admitting it. I also knew it was the only way to start healing.
So I filled out my paper work. I wrote my honest answer down. My psychiatrist was so different from my counselor. With my counselor, I felt like a human with feelings and pain and emotions. With the psychiatrist, I felt like my soul was on a surgical table, being poked and prodded and pulled apart by scalpels and other cold, hard, sharp utensils. I felt like a specimen, not a person.
He gave me a label: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The label did little to comfort me; it simply made me feel more like some laboratory experiment. He handed me a prescription. Sertraline. The off-brand of Zoloft. The little bottle I picked up at the pharmacy had thirty 50 mg tablets; the directions told me to take 25 mg for the first three weeks and then take the whole 50 after that. The doctor told me the possible side effects, even though I figured he would know better than to do this to a patient with an anxiety disorder.
I trembled when I took my first half pill, wondering if I would become one of the psychiatric horror stories from movies like Side Effects (which, ironically, had just been released in theaters).
I took my medicine. I talked with my counselor. I went running. I started eating better. I did all within my power to start feeling well.
And now, 4 months later, I feel more alive than ever.
I am aware of the breaths I take and am grateful for them, even when I’m stressed out. I talk more rationally and don’t let the “scary thoughts” do all the talking. I take more risks. I open my heart a bit more, initiate more, put myself out there more, act more myself around others without fear of rejection having the final say. I talk things out with people. I make my voice known and heard more often. I let my inner “bad-ass” shine through a bit more every day. I have more energy and courage to wrestle with my faith, connect with God, and really be present with others and my surroundings. I give love more chances to be let into my life.
But I’m not cured. Nor will I ever be.
Because although the fog of fear dissolves a lot more easily than it used to, it still descends every so often, and then I can’t see life as clearly anymore. Relationships still require a lot of work for me, because with one misunderstood word or phrase, I don’t trust some of my dearest loved ones, and I have to work hard to remind myself that they love me and are not going to leave. While the whispering screams of anxiety are a lot quieter and even go away for periods of time, sometimes they come back with full intensity, and it takes all the energy I have within me to stay present. Sometimes, controlling my anxiety leaves me so exhausted that I want to do nothing more than stay in bed and watch TV and not be bothered by anyone.
In short, I still have anxiety. I always will. It will never completely go away.
But I have found ways to live. I have found life and love while living with anxiety. Like an explorer carrying a machete through the wilderness, I have been able to cut down many vines and intense brush out of my way to forge a path to clarity and peace. My counselor, the medicine, my new exercise habits and diet, and my loving community have made the light at the end of the tunnel shine more brightly. I have found strength within me I never knew I had, thanks to the love and support I have received. I have realized how deeply I am loved and how much worth I have. I have realized how much power and influence I really have and how I need to share my gifts with the world.
And that has made getting up and facing the days a lot easier and a lot more hopeful.
So dear friends, if you are struggling, don’t blame yourself. If you feel weighed down with the burden of anxiety, know you are not alone. And if you ever need someone to give you a big hug, say “Me too,” and help you take some steps to peace, I and so many others are here for you.