I Am Stronger Than My Anxiety
I've been wanting to write something about my own struggle with anxiety. I've seen many bloggers out there telling their stories (check out Lindsay Weighs In and Kaila at Healthy Helper for their stories) and I wanted to find a way to do the same. I couldn't decide if I wanted to do a series of posts, a short post, or something a little more in-depth. So what you see below is what I decided on it. A one-time post about my 10-year journey. A journey that is not over, but has made me a much stronger person. While therapeutic, it was still very hard for me to write. It's very personal, and I don't get super personal on this blog. Be prepared; this is a long post, and potentially hard to read for some. Don't say I didn't warn you.
It's not the whole story, but rather the more important parts of the story. It's my anxiety story and I finally feel strong enough to share it.
All it took was one look at the screenshot of a scam viral video and I was in a tailspin. There was no rhyme or reason to it; it just happened. And the worst part, it was an image that I had seen circulating on the web just days before. It wasn’t new to me. In fact, the first time I had seen it, I could have cared less about it.
But that’s the different between a high-anxiety day and a low-anxiety day. On a high-anxiety day, it doesn't take much to send me swirling towards a panic attack.
The only way I can describe my own battle when I’m in the depths of anxiety is like falling into dark underground cave. As my anxiety starts to build, it’s like falling into the cave, but landing on a ledge so close to the top you can still see the world above. But you’re already starting to struggle to figure out how you’re going to get out.
As the anxiety builds, and the panic starts to set in, it’s like that little ledge letting go and you start to fall deeper in to the cave. Each time you struggle to climb to try to get out, you slip and fall a little deeper. It’s the same way with my anxiety. Just as I feel a little reprieve coming on, something sets me back, and I’m right back in it. Only worse.
Let’s back up to the beginning.
My anxiety didn’t rear its ugly head until I was a freshman in college. Looking back, I definitely started to suffer from some of the symptoms of anxiety as I was growing up and, more than likely, had already begun to suffer from chronic anxiety in my pre-teen years. Even though I wasn't properly diagnosed until college. When I hit middle school, I was suddenly nervous all the time. Nervous to raise my hand in class, nervous that the teacher would call on me, nervous to get up and ask to use the restroom, nervous I would be late for class, and so on. Just plain old nervous.
In high school, I stuck to my daily routines and lived by the clock. If I had to be somewhere for 3 PM, I needed to be there by 2:45 PM for fear of being late. If someone told me they would be at my house by 6 PM, and hadn't shown up by 5:59 PM, my nerves would go haywire. Cutting it close to any set time fed my nervousness.
I know, you're probably thinking 'You just don't like to be late to anything.' It's true, however; I've been this way since I could tell time on a clock. Being late to anything is a trigger for my anxiety. It's much better these days, but back then, it could send me spiraling.
Once I left for college, my mental issues quickly sprang to the surface. I was now in a world where I had to find an entirely new group of friends instead of living in my happy bubble of high school friends that I had known my entire life. I was completely out of my comfort zone and not quite sure what to do. I stayed in my dorm room, went to class, ate dinner and did homework. It was similar to my routine at home, minus the horses, so I stuck to it. Only it didn't work.
Most students thrive when they go off to college. I did the complete opposite; I fell apart.
I was sobbing all the time. I was miserable. I hated being away from the comfort of my home. I hated being away from my family. I hated being away from my barn. I hated it all and began to think that going to college 2 hours away was a mistake.
But after about 2-2 ½ weeks, the homesickness began to subside. My parents came to visit. I went home for a weekend here and there. And realized I could do it. But once the homesickness went away, it was still clear to me that something more was going on.
Even after I met people and started to really have a life away at school, things still weren't perfect. But I hid it under the surface. I smiled on the outside, but was unraveling on the inside. I didn't tell a soul how I was really feeling, even though I appeared as happy as could be.
That was until I came back from Christmas break.
After being home for a month, and going back, I knew it would be a little easier this time. I had established myself in a group of friends. We had talked all break and couldn’t wait to get back to one another. I was ready to conquer my second semester of college.
Instead, I was met with debilitating depression and anxiety. I knew something was wrong.
I couldn’t snap out of it. All I wanted to do was sleep. I didn’t want to go to my classes. I found myself taking every opportunity I could get to drink with my friends. I wanted to escape how miserable I felt.
In the end, after a massive blowout with my roommate at the time, followed by a typical night of college fun (except it wasn’t so fun for me), my depression and anxiety finally showed that they were here to stay.
The next morning, I called my parents, sobbing. I was hungover, but told them I was sick. Like so sick that they needed to come take me home. I just wanted them to come get me; help me escape how awful I was feeling.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t stop crying. They drove the two hours out to see me; to take me out for lunch thinking I just needed to get out (seriously, best parents ever. Love you!) I was just homesick again.
I stopped crying long enough to get in the car and get to the restaurant. Instead of eating, I broke down sobbing in my mother’s lap in the middle of the restaurant. I was nearly 19-years-old and losing it in a busy local restaurant on a Saturday afternoon.
I wasn’t just sick. I wasn’t just hungover. I was having a nervous breakdown. I needed help. And I needed it immediately. We all knew it.
We paid the bill, and back to campus we went, where I packed up whatever clothes I needed, any school supplies so I could keep up with my schoolwork and anything else I needed. (These were the days before iPads and laptops… think desktop and iPod mini).
I said my goodbyes to friends, explained what was going on, and off we drove back to the eastern part of the state.
While driving home, phone calls were made and appointments were set up for therapy and medication. I was on my way to getting better.
I spent a week at home. I like to call it my ‘healing week’. My professors were incredibly supportive and understanding. If I didn’t keep up with the schoolwork, they promised to let me make it up when I came back. I just focused on feeling better, and feeling more like me.
I read. I went to the barn. I wrote in my journal. I saw the few friends that were still lingering in my hometown. I spent time with my family.
I just tried to remember that I was on my way to better.
And when I went back to school, things DID get better. My roommate apologized, and became incredibly supportive when she discovered what was going on. My friends rallied around me, both at home and at school. And I began to see that I could get through this. And I did.
Fast forward through the years:
I've been on and off medication three different times. The first time I went off was while I was still in college, around sophomore year. That only lasted about a year.
I ended up back on a new medication during my junior year of college. I ended up spending another week at home to get myself ‘better’ again. Thankfully, I hadn’t suffered a breakdown like the first time. I just knew something was not right, and wanted to fix it before it got worse.
The second time I came off it was in 2009. I did it cold turkey. I just stopped taking it. I was in a great relationship (with my now fiancé), I finally started to find my way, career wise, and I was just happy. I felt like I would be fine without it.
In 2010, I realized that my anxiety was getting worse again. Nothing had changed in my life, but I found myself falling back into that hole. I tried natural remedies (turns out I'm allergic to St. John's Wort). I tried therapy, which didn’t help. It turned out I needed to be on medication. So back on it I went, for another 3 years, until this past May.
After learning the medication I had been on, on and off for since my junior year of college, had a side effect of weight gain and knowing that I had been having a really hard time taking the weight off, I thought back to the various times I had gone on it and saw a possible correlation between gaining weight and being on the medication. I made the decision, with the help of my doctor, to switch to a new medication. Unfortunately, this one didn’t help (in fact, I felt worse), so I decided it was time to go without again. I wanted to see how I would do.
I mean, I’m happy. I’m in love. I have a great job and a great life. I have the best support system there possibly could be. I would be totally fine without it.
6 weeks later, I’m back on it.
Turns out, I'm not totally fine without it.
But what have I learned? I am STRONGER than my anxiety. Yes I need to be on medication, but I will not let anxiety control my life. I won’t let it. It certainly tried during my six-week hiatus without medication, but I refused to let it win.
If I’m not on a low dose, my anxiety essentially takes over. And it doesn’t feel like I have control over my own thoughts. Unless you suffer from anxiety, or something similar, it’s pretty hard to explain or describe. Even with the medication, I still have to fight it. It's just enough to quiet it. It's still there, waiting to come out (and believe me it does), but it's not constant like when I'm not on medication. And when I say constant, I mean from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep at night.
If you know me, you know that I’m really good at hiding when I’m suffering with a horrible bout of anxiety, or dealing with it at all … unless I say something. Only those closest to me know when I'm having a hard time. I'm much better about talking about it now-a-days compared to 10 years ago.
If you don’t know me, you would never even know that I suffer from it (you do now!). It's not visible on the outside. It’s an internal battle.
But it’s a battle that I fight day in and day out. And I am the strong one in the fight. No matter how hard it works to bring me down and break me, I am always able to stand up and fight back.
I am STRONGER than my anxiety.
Have you struggled with mental illness? How have you overcome it? I'd love to hear from you!