My first day of high school was also the first time I realized I was anxious. It was as if a switch had flipped in my mind from calm to off-the-charts petrified. I had been nervous before, but this was a new breed of stress. Walking into the building, I felt a sense of dread I couldn’t understand and was helpless to fend off. Perhaps it was a fear of change—could I really handle being in HIGH SCHOOL? Perhaps, it was that old, familiar fear of speaking. I’ve been a stutterer for my entire life and having a stutter taught me to fear situations that required me to introduce myself to a room or even just to one new person.

Whatever the cause was, I spent the entire school day mentally and physically tense as if preparing myself for an attack that never came but was incessantly looming. I got through that first day by the skin of teeth. I only spoke when around kids I already knew from middle school and when a well-meaning teacher asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves to the class as an icebreaker. Apart from those situations, I barely spoke that day and the dread never wavered. When school ended I came directly home and went right to sleep at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, exhausted as if I had just run a marathon.

Like all feelings, that anxiety passed relatively quickly and in a few days I was going to class without completely exhausting myself with terror. Despite this experience and countless other moments in my life to the contrary, I never thought of myself as someone with “anxiety.”

Then, I had my first panic attack at age 20. I was a junior in college, and about a month beforehand, I had been having severe stomach problems, which in hindsight was most likely my anxiety manifesting in physical pain. I could barely eat without my body revolting against me. Doubled over in pain after each meal, I began to subsist almost entirely on apples and toast. I lost 30 pounds in a month. The doctors were flummoxed. No one knew what was wrong with me.

Surely, you’re dying,” my anxiety told me in its velvety, sinister voice. “You have to know you’re dying, right? You definitely are.” As it often is, my anxiety was too loud to argue with.

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And one night, the idea that I was dying overwhelmed me. I was convinced whatever was going on inside of me could not be fixed. If the doctor’s couldn’t figure it out, that meant it was incurable. And so began the panic attack. 

An Irrational Response

For me, a panic attack feels like this: You want to run away, as far as away as possible, but there’s no safe harbor waiting for you because the threat is in your own head. You are convinced you are about to die and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. You have lost control of everything. Life is careening off into a void and there is no coming back. This is how it ends. You will either die right now or be in this moment of abject panic forever. There are no other options. No end in sight.

This particular instance, I distinctly remember pacing around the bathroom in my on-campus housing. Intermittently, I sat on the floor with my legs pulled up to my chest, shaking and rocking, whispering unintelligibly in an attempt to self-soothe. I lost all sense of time. I could have been in there for minutes or hours. It’s anyone’s guess. I just know I sincerely thought someone would inevitably find me dead in that bathroom. That night, my best friend came in an ambulance with me to the hospital where I calmed down, was told I had a panic attack, was asked if I wanted Xanax (which I refused and now realize THAT response was probably a mistake; I should have shouted “YES PLEASE!” from the rooftops and gratefully accepted the medication) and was sent on my way.

However, that moment sparked a realization in me: I wasn’t just anxious. I had anxiety. And it had gotten out of hand.

My foray into the world of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has taught me that my anxiety’s particular brand is “catastrophic thinking”, which essentially means I ruminate on worst-case scenarios and exacerbate the intensity of problems to world-ending magnitudes. I messed up at work? I’m going to get fired and I’m going to be homeless. When I wake up in the morning, my baseline feeling is usually nervousness, or on a particularly bad day, genuine dread and a sinking feeling that whatever the day has in store for me, I will not be able to handle it.

Whenever I am experiencing something new or a change happens in my life, the first emotion is always fear, which I’ve realized is why I hated that first day of high school so much. I overthink almost every single decision I make, interaction I have, step I take. I lie awake at night going over things I said and did during the day, drowning in embarrassment over things I’ve convinced myself other people judged me for or are mad at me about despite having no evidential proof.

I spend hours at a time worrying about the future, envisioning a day when I’m old and wake up to realize I wasted my entire life doing something I hate, never falling in love, just existing and never experiencing all the things I want to. Sometimes, for no reason at all, my brain will tell me to panic. I could be walking down the street or sitting in a movie theater, and the light goes off in my brain, flashing the words YOU SHOULD BE WORRYING RIGHT NOW across my vision in big, bold, red letters, and my heart rate picks up, which in turn, makes me think I’m having a heart attack, which only adds to the anxiety. Basically, my brain is not a fun place to be sometimes.

On top of all of this, when I am in an anxiety spiral (a real thing I swear I didn’t just invent!), there is always a level of guilt and powerlessness that often is even worse than the anxiety itself. For example, my anxiety spirals often look like this:

  • I’m extremely anxious right now and I can’t stop it.
  • My life is horrible, I can’t stand this feeling.
  • I am going to feel like this forever.
  • I’ll never be happy again.
  • I’m a failure. Everyone else has their life together.
  • I’m going to mess up my life if I make the wrong decision.
  • No one likes me. They’re all just pretending.
  • My anxiety makes me unlovable.
  • This time the anxiety is never going to go away.

And so on, ad nauseam. The great thing about all of these declamatory statements is that every single one of them is a bald-faced lie.

The not so great thing is that it takes a hell of a long time to convince yourself that they aren’t true.

The past several years, there have been amazing strides in eliminating the stigma around mental health. It is important to realize that someone struggling with anxiety or any other mental illness cannot just turn off their feelings any more than someone with a broken arm can will their bones to heal. Questions like “Why don’t you just think about something else?” or “Why don’t you just relax?” while well-intentioned, are incredibly unhelpful and often make an anxious person feel even worse. As if they should be able to just snap out of it, and when they can’t, they feel as though they’ve failed.

The Painfully-Slow Process of Surrender

However, unfortunately, it has taken me a very long time to break the habit of thinking that way about my own mental health. Very often, I feel weak. I feel like a burden to the people I love because I know sometimes I need extra support and care in my darker moments, moments I cannot even really explain because I still don’t fully understand where my anxiety comes from and what it’s about. I feel as though I should be able to control it, because its an invisible illness happening inside my brain, and if I can’t control my own thoughts, doesn’t that make me powerless and weak? The answer, of course, is no. But my mind often cannot be convinced.

Therapy helps. Medicine and meditation (the RARE times I’m actually able to successfully meditate, I mean), too. However, even with all these tools, I will probably always have anxiety. Usually, we are able to co-exist peacefully now. I can look at those lies and know I do not have to follow them down the anxiety spiral rabbit hole. Sometimes, though, it gets the better of me. There are days when I feel like I might implode from dread, when my mind becomes a prison with no way out, when I truly believe the lies my anxiety tells me.

I’m still learning how to be kind to myself in these moments. How to separate myself from my anxiety and know that it is a part of me, but it does not have to define me. I’m still learning how to accept that, even when it hasn’t shown up in a while, it will always come back and that I will always come out of it on the other side when it does. But, most importantly, I’m still learning that my daily struggle with my own mind does not make me weak or powerless or unlovable. In fact, it sort of makes me a badass.

An anxious, overthinking, lovable, resilient, worthy badass.

And THAT is the goddamn truth.

Last Updated: Dec 5, 2018