I have to admit, there was a time when I never thought I would make it to where I am now.
Anxiety is hard, guys. Really hard. And the healing work is hard, too. Every step of this process has its own challenges, and when I look back on it, I’m kind of amazed at myself. (And you should be amazed at yourself, too, no matter where you are in your healing.)
I will never forget my first panic attack. I’d experienced fairly intense anxiety frequently before this – first dates, traveling, etc – but this was something else entirely. The dude and I were on our way to Florida to visit his parents, and I would be meeting them for the first time. I felt anxious that morning, but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. The symptoms I was experiencing were ones that I was used to going through when I travelled. Things changed when we were about half an hour away from landing in Florida, though. For what seemed like no reason, I started crying silently in my seat. When the dude looked over and asked me what was wrong, I told him I didn’t know. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I knew that I wanted his parents to like me and it was important to me that he enjoyed having me there, but I had no idea why I was crying about it. I’d met parents before. I saw no reason why this was any different (more on that in upcoming posts).
When we got off the plane, I was upset because I clearly looked like I was crying and I didn’t want his parents to see me like that. We found them in baggage claim, he introduced me, and to my immense relief his mom kept up conversation the whole way home so that all I had to do was listen and answer occasional questions. She was so awesome.
The next morning I woke up at 4 something and went immediately to the bathroom. I felt weird, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. I spent the next few hours throwing up, sobbing in a ball on the bathroom floor, and wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I didn’t feel like myself, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and I just wanted it to stop.
Every morning for the rest of the trip was some version of that, and it was rough. I had no appetite, was calling my dad (a physician) and my sister constantly to ask for help, and trying to buck up around the dude’s family and look and act normal. I let the dude see some of it, but I was hiding a lot from him, too.
That weekend triggered a lot of changes in my life. I started therapy, I started exercising and meditating, I started reading every book I could find about anxiety and panic. Each of those things was its own challenge, partly because they were changes, partly because I was still experiencing a lot of depersonalization and general bewilderment. Therapy was hard because I was building a relationship and I was trying to figure myself out at the same time. Sometimes I felt so all over the place and it was really disheartening to feel like I wasn’t expressing myself clearly. And it made me tired: I’d come home and sleep on the couch until it was time for dinner, and then go straight to bed. We talked about a lot of things that I wanted to leave behind, but it was necessary. I had to talk about those things in order to identify triggers for my anxiety and the causes for it. It was difficult, sometimes heart-wrenching work. (It also totally paid off, but again, more on that later.)
Exercising was difficult because ugh, exercise, but also because I had to train myself to develop a whole new habit. I had almost zero motivation and it was always the last thing I wanted to do, even though I knew how helpful it was. I struggled to fit exercise into my life, and my social life went completely bye-bye. This meant that I was really only seeing the dude and my sister, and I felt so isolated and alone. And it was hard. I missed my friends. I missed seeing people who have known me since I was 15, or friends that I’ve spent every summer with. I missed laughing with them. Making the decision to put myself first is not something that comes easily to me, and I really struggled with it.
But I am so glad that I did. This whole process is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life, but it was so worth it. I spent the first six months completely bewildered and discouraged and afraid. I didn’t feel like myself, I felt alone even though I had a lot of support, and I was having frequent panic attacks that made being in my body nearly unbearable and forced me to miss work. It sucked so much. I felt so dispirited because I couldn’t/didn’t understand what was happening to me, or why, and I couldn’t fix it. I also didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone other than the dude and my sister about it, and was keeping it all bound up tight. It was rough.
But after about a year, things started to shift. I began to really feel the benefits of working out regularly, and to really regret when I hadn’t been diligent about it (which was often). I took the summer off and saw friends a little. I learned some techniques that I wanted to try and developed my anxiety checklist. I began talking about it with more people. The work was still hard and emotionally difficult, but I was beginning to see that putting the time in was worth it. That I would eventually get where I wanted to go. I stayed there for a long time: tweaking my exercise routine, reading a lot, trying a lot of management strategies, really starting to talk in therapy about anxiety triggers and underlying causes. I was finally starting to put a few things together. The progress was slow, but steady. I still had some difficult days, but there were much farther apart and lessening in intensity.
Two years in, I feel like I’ve finally got a good rhythm. I have a regular workout schedule that helps maintain endorphins but is flexible enough to allow me to see friends, I have a go to list of strategies that help me manage spikes of anxiety, and I finally experienced something that typically causes me to panic without feeling anything more than some tightness in the chest. If you had asked me two years ago if I ever thought I would get here, the answer would have been a huge, resounding no. I felt so lost and so overwhelmed that I firmly believed the rest of my life would be panic attacks and days where I sort of felt ok. I didn’t think I’d be actively cheerful, and I certainly didn’t think that would be my default.
Getting here was a lot of work. A lot. But it was worth it. I can tell you now what situations are likely to trigger my anxiety, and the reasons they do(upcoming post!). I can tell you how my body will respond and what I do to calm it. I can tell you so many things I’ve learned about myself and about mental health. I feel like an expert in myself now, and it’s kind of awesome. I’ve started to be able to look at myself without judgement (still working on it), and I’ve learned that sometimes what matters most is that you tried. And I tried. And I’m going to keep trying. I have to keep doing the things that I know manage anxiety and I have to keep checking in with myself. From here, it’s more about maintenance than progress, but that’s ok. I like that that’s where I am.
In light of that, I’m going to focus a little more in future posts on the work that got me here. I’m going to talk about triggers and reasons, and specifically about techniques that I’ve found helpful. While I do that now, there may be more entries that are a little less narrative and a little more instructional. I hope that they’re helpful or interesting to you, and that you keep reading.