In looking over old entries, I realized that I’ve written about the last two years a lot. Like, A LOT a lot. And that makes sense to me because they’ve been really intense, but I also feel like there’s a bigger picture here.
The reason that last two years were so bad is because, before that, I had 28 years of experience tamping down my anxiety and losing my appetite during emotional upheaval or stress, and I was pretty good at it. I could hide my emotions with the best of ’em. But all I was doing was avoiding the problem, and that’s why the panic attacks started. My body was literally forcing me to deal with my issues because I could no longer continue the way I had been.
So here’s a brief (ha, right) history of how and when anxiety has reared its head in my life.
The summer before 8th grade. Ah, yes. My family knows this story well. My mom had remarried a couple of years before and when my sister went off to college AND LEFT ME(jk, love you sis), we moved to be closer to my step-dad’s work. This meant leaving behind friends I had known since elementary school and trying to fit in at a school with around twenty people per grade who had known each other since kindergarten. Add to that the fact that it was middle school, I was unfortunately tall with a horrible, horrible haircut and braces, and that I was the only kid in the entire school who had been out of the Midwest as well as the only kid who had divorced parents, and, well, you can see where this is going. I started waking up in the middle of the night unable to catch my breath; I have a clear memory of sitting up in bed gasping while my mom rubbed my back and tried to calm me down. I think we went to the doctor but I’m not sure. It was scary. We didn’t tell anyone about it. A few weeks after it started I went to my cousin’s wedding and was staying with my grandma. When I woke up gasping, she got me water and held my hand and – here’s the part that’s become family lore – anointed me with oil and prayed over me for like 45 minutes while I tried not to fall back asleep because I didn’t want to be rude. I always tell that part of the story like ha ha, my grandma anointed me with oil, isn’t that hilarious, but she must have been so scared. I don’t remember when or how this stopped, and anxiety never manifested itself quite that way again.
Freshman year of college. Ok, so there was some anxiety in high school – first dates, prom, college apps, etc – but nothing too huge. That all changed when I got to college. I moved from a town of 900 people to the East Village, and while I had been in New York many times before to visit my dad, this was different. I was living with total strangers, among them a huge pot head and an alcoholic, and I had no idea how to deal with that or even tell my parents about it. The course work was also a huge adjustment; I never had to study in high school – I didn’t even study for the SATs, really, to my dad’s chagrin – and there was no way I was going to get through NYU without figuring that out. Additionally, while I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend when I left home the summer before, I ended up meeting someone that summer and suddenly finding myself in a very serious long distance relationship. The fact that I felt an unspoken expectation to figure my shit out and succeed no matter what(which was just my perception) and my own fierce need to be independent combined with everything else made me miserable. I remember showing up for brunch for my birthday that December, not being able to eat, and trying not to cry when everyone asked how school was going. My dad took me out into the hall and asked me what was going on and why I had lost so much weight. I explained, and he helped me get through the feeling that I couldn’t do it or that I was letting him down. We went back inside, and I slowly but surely learned how to organize my time and it got better. I was also writing a lot of songs, which I think helped me to process in the same way that blogging helps me now.
Early- to mid-twenties. Oh lord help me. This was a ridiculous time. I spent the first year out of college working at a job I absolutely detested because I couldn’t get a teaching gig, and dating a lot(that long distance relationship didn’t make it past freshman year, predictably). I always had an insane amount of anxiety before a first date, and each time I almost cancelled at the last minute. At the time, I like to think that the more I went on first dates the less anxiety I felt, but the truth is that I felt more. I just got better at ignoring it. I started to carry tums and a plastic bag with me everywhere I went. I felt anxiety every time something ended, too; once when I got dumped after a month or so, I spent the next few weeks living on coffee and tums and having an entirely disproportionate response to how much I actually liked the guy. A few months later I was so anxious before my job interview that I went to the bathroom like four times and nearly threw up on the way there. Still, though, I thought I had this all under control and that it was just a particularly stressful time in my life. Dudes. Taking a plastic bag with you everywhere in case you throw up is not “under control”. (But it does make you feel better when you actually do throw up on the train. Because at least you’re not spewing on the floor.)
Twenty-six. Ugh. This freaking year. A few key moments really stick out: I spent that New Year’s Day hiding in my bedroom while my sister and her husband hosted an all-day brunch in our living room. When my dad got there and my sister told him that I’d been throwing up and crying all day, he came in to check on me. We talked about my symptoms, and then he went out and got me Gatorade, saltine crackers, and the strongest anti-nausea meds he could get. He stayed with me until I thought I was better, and then I stupidly went to Brooklyn to see V, the guy I was dating, that night. I ended up running from his couch to the bathroom to throw up. Twice. In the spring of that year, my roommate Orange, who I’d been friends with since I was 17, moved out. V was there on her moving day, and after I said good-bye to her I went back to my room and sobbed over his feet as I measured them for the felt boot covers I was making him as part of a pirate costume. To my eternal thankfulness, he just let me be and never once treated me like I was weird or crazy, and it was his example that helped me share with my sister what was happening. A few months after Orange moved out, my sister found me crying over my French press on a Saturday morning, unable to articulate why. I had no idea why I was so upset, and told her so, and she comforted me as best she could.
After that, I had what I considered “normal” anxiety for the next year and a half until my trip to Florida to meet the dude’s parents. Actually, that’s not entirely true. He saw me cry for the first time about two months in when I started sobbing at his apartment one Saturday morning because I didn’t want to take a test for a grad school class because I was convinced I’d fail. And then when he helped me move a few weeks after that, I spent the morning in and out of the bathroom before we went to get the U-Haul. Good times, guys!
Looking back on all of this, it’s so clear to me that ignoring the anxiety again and again escalated it. Part of me wishes I had known then what I know now and could have avoided the whole thing, but part of me is also thankful that I went through it. As difficult as it was, the last two years have broken down a lot of things that I was resisting or hiding. They’ve opened me up. I am absolutely sure that my relationship would not be as supportive, compassionate, and strong as it is without this experience. Anxiety forced me to share thing with the dude that I probably would have kept to myself for a long time, and as a result we trust each other deeply. We know that the other isn’t going to walk away just because we’re disagreeing. We know that the other is always actively working on the relationship, even when things are really busy or stressful in other parts of our lives. Because of that trust, that vulnerability, that willingness, we’ve built this wonderful little world where I feel like I really and truly belong for the first time in my life. He makes me feel like I can just relax and be me, anxiety and all, and I’ve never experienced that before.
I know I say this all the time, but it’s true: anxiety is so hard, but it’s also so good. On my bad days, it’s hard to see past the fear and the nausea, and sometimes it’s all I can do to keep breathing. But on my good days, I can see what it’s given me: a fulfilling relationship with the best partner a girl could have, an unbreakable bond with my sister, the revelation that my friends are accepting and supportive well beyond what I thought I deserved, a new openness with my family. It’s given me the ability to advocate for myself, and the drive to do so. It’s grounded me in myself. It can be so hard to remember all of this goodness on bad days, and that’s part of why I write this blog: to remind me that it’s not all bad. That I’ve been through the bad before, and made it out the other side. And hopefully it’s reminding you of those things, too.