Anxiety and Me (and Maybe You, Too)
by Kaci Curtis
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
I remember the woman I was before anxiety came along. I can still see her sometimes—a vague, smiling figure looking over her shoulder at me before disappearing around the bend. I’ve tried to follow her, to go back to the way that I used to be. But I always wind up at a closed door, locked up tight; a door that keeps everyone out… including me.
Having an anxiety disorder has changed my life. It’s changed the way that I view the world; the things that I fear, and the way that I react to nearly everything. Things that I once looked forward to now often impose more dread than excitement. Activities that I used to enjoy are now on the list of things that I can’t even think about without flinching. The only way out is through, but the way through feels like a path across a daunting, wild forest. I know that there is a path… but sometimes I have a damn hard time seeing it.
I didn’t have anxiety until after my son was born. Not in the way I do now, at least. Not in the way that interferes with daily tasks and inspires fear in situations that shouldn’t be scary. I shouldn’t be scared of waiting in line. I shouldn’t be uncomfortable in the grocery store. I shouldn’t be nervous to eat in restaurants, or to ride in the passenger seat of a car, or talking to people who place all of their attention on me.
I shouldn’t be scared of throwing up.
The worst part of this phobia is that it’s never even happened. I’ve never been sick in a public place. But over two years ago, this irrational fear sprouted into my life, like an ugly, invasive weed. And it never left.
It doesn’t stop with the phobia, though that is the main cause of my triggers and panic attacks. Any scenario where it would be embarrassing to suddenly be sick causes me to panic. The panic makes me worry that I’ll agitate myself into vomiting. And that fear makes me run for the door.
I’ve walked out of stores without buying things that I’ve really wanted just because I couldn’t stand waiting in line with people behind me. I’ve fled my husband’s military command dinners because I couldn’t handle sitting in a room full of attentive people while their Commanding Officer gave a brief speech. I frequently sit in the backseat of our car with my son instead of sitting up front with my husband, out of fear that I’ll get carsick. I can’t stand being too far from exits or bathrooms, whether in a grocery store or a friend’s house.
There are a few things that can ease the panic and make it a more burden more easily carried. I rarely panic outdoors, unless there aren’t any places to hide. I can usually manage indoors if there’s a bathroom or an exit a few steps away. And if it’s somewhere that I’ve been to frequently, I can often handle it for long enough to do whatever errands need to be done.
But not always.
In the past year or so, the anxiety has spread past the fear of throwing up, like some kind rapidly metastasizing virus. I’m frequently alone with my son on our small farm, and now I have fears about getting injured, bleeding out and leaving him alone. I worry obsessively that someone will break into our house (which is far out in the country) and hurt my son before I can stop them. I have nightmares about him tripping and falling off of a cliff while we’re hiking. Nightmares of being held captive and unable to save him while he drowns in a lake; of turning my back for one moment only to hear him be plowed over by a speeding car in a parking lot.
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I’m sure other moms can relate to having these fears. I know I’m not alone. How can I not be terrified, after bringing a child into the world? My heart doesn’t exist inside my own body anymore; now it’s within my son. And he can be hurt; he can be killed. The entire world has shifted. High alert has become the state in which I operate all the time. I feel like I have to be prepared for anything, always. Is there a more impossible task?
I’m seeing a therapist to help deal with all this. I have been, off and on, for the last two years. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not currently on any meds; I don’t take medication lightly, and I want to exhaust all other options before seeing a psychiatrist. My therapist has piloted me through cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance therapy, breathing techniques, and positive imagery. I’ve self-medicated with essential oils, vitamins, CBD oil, and exercise. In a true gesture of desperation, I even omitted refined sugar and grains from my diet for six weeks; they can contribute to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to heightened anxiety symptoms in scientific studies.
Despite everything I’ve tried, I often find myself facing the same fears and struggles. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if anything will make a lasting difference. But tiring as the fight against anxiety can be, giving up is not an option.
I have a son who looks up to me. A little boy who’s in my solitary care for months at a time while his dad is away. I try to be at my best for him. I try to keep the anxiety hidden; I don’t want him to react to normal scenarios in the abnormal way that I do. I don’t want him to grow up thinking that my situation is normal. Trust me, I know that it isn’t. But logic doesn’t hold much sway in the throes of a panic attack; as anyone who’s had one well knows.
I’m sure you know someone who has. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. So the odds are, you’re friends with someone who suffers with anxiety. Or maybe you’re the one suffering. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re looking for a way to feel normal again.
I have to believe that the way out of this exists. It may not come as quickly as we’d like. It may not come in the form that we expect it to. Sometimes it seems that our minds are fighting against us… and how can we fight something within us that we can’t see or touch?
Maybe that’s where we get stuck.
Perhaps we are wrong in thinking that anxiety is the enemy; an invading army to battle and defeat. Perhaps there’s a better way, a quieter way, to fight. Instead of gritting our teeth and trying to force our way through, only to feel our feet sliding backwards, time and time again.
I choose to fight with positivity. I choose to keep searching for glimpses of the woman I once was. That woman didn’t avoid traveling on airplanes. She could handle riding in a train or boat that didn’t have a bathroom. She wasn’t bothered by crowds; she loved concerts and movie theatres. She explored new restaurants, lingered in tiny antique shops with no windows, and she didn’t mind socializing after a big meal. She wasn’t ruled by the rate of her pulse or the state of her stomach.
I choose to call that woman back, tugging on the fragile connection that bridges between us. I choose to expose my fears to people who might listen and understand. I will not let my anxiety isolate and cripple me; I will not wage war against myself. By definition, I cannot win.
I did not choose to have an anxiety disorder. I would not wish it upon anyone. It’s frightening, frustrating, and it often makes me sad. But I can choose to not be diminished by it. I can make the choice to not be embarrassed or lessened by it. And I hope that you do, too.