I’m ready, are you? Time to get personal. I’m usually not one for flaunting emotions, I keep controversial opinions primarily to myself, and I play it safe when an unknown audience is involved. Therefore, this post, while not focused on a contentious subject, is definitely a new level of sharing that I have yet to attempt (dare?). However, I’m in the moment, I need to write it, and here it comes…
Starting around the time I was 6, I began having panic attacks. My parents’ first assumption was that I had some sort of stomach issue, since my “attacks” made me feel nauseous and sick. In fact, my panic attacks have always taken the form of stomach aches, or more precisely: the fear of throwing up. Let’s get this straight– no one likes throwing up. However, when I say that I particularly HATE throwing up, please understand my complete detestation of the very thought. My anxiety has always come on in the form of fear that I’m going to be sick to my stomach. Talking with others who suffer from anxiety disorders, I’ve been told their attacks have felt like they were having a heart-attack, going blind, having a stroke, or even just flat-out dying. In comparison, my measly fear of throwing up seems pathetic– What has this girl actually suffered? Fear of getting sick? Childish. Ridiculous. Pathetic. And yet, in my moments of panic, I promise you that the idea of throwing up is absolutely the most terrifying notion ever. In that moment, I swear I would rather die then get sick. I know it sounds irrational, but isn’t that the whole anatomy of anxiety? It is made up of irrational fears.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the sweaty palms, heart racing, light-headedness, out-of-body experience just like the rest of us chronic worriers. However, as a child, when my anxiety disorder first began to materialize, my fear of sickness had me spending a hell of a lot of time in the school nurse’s office. Some of my most vivid memories of elementary school are of my visits to the nurse– the mandatory thermometer under the tongue that proceeded the usual “well, you don’t have a temperature, why don’t you just lay down for a while,” and then, on really bad days, the final straw when I would desperately ask if I could call my mother to take me home. Most often I would go back to class and be perfectly fine. In my more stubborn moods I would camp out in the nurse’s office, overstaying my welcome and allotted time of occupation on those uncomfortable, puke-green cots. The funny part is that although I know those were traumatic experiences for me at the time, I don’t look back on those days with any sort of bitterness or despondency. I had a good childhood, all things considered– teachers and nurses were kind, despite my constant need for something or other. And, most importantly, I had parents who eventually came to understand what I was going through, and did the best they could to help me with a personal-battle that left them feeling stranded and powerless on the outskirts.
I write this post knowing that in all likelihood it will remain unread, or in a similarly possible situation, someone will come across it and either think “Hey- I can relate” or “Hey- I know this girl.” If it’s the former: I’m glad. There are a lot of us out there and sometimes it just feels good to know you’re not alone. If it’s the latter, that’s fine too. I’ve never been one to hide my issues with anxiety, nor do I flaunt it. I actually start to feel bad for the people around me when I’m having an anxiety attack. I know they start to get worked up and want to help, and of course in moments of panic the last thing I can really do is give a thorough lesson on why I’m actually going to be fine and it’s okay that they just leave me alone. But it’s not in people’s nature to abandon the infirm, which I’m appreciative for, but also means I often find myself seeking refuge in a bathroom stall.
When out in public, especially with a group, I go out of my way to make sure the whole crowd doesn’t know if I’m having anxiety. They don’t need to know. Why should I spoil their time with my anxiety, especially when, as mentioned before, there’s nothing they can really do? When I was younger, and less skilled at hiding my symptoms, I know some kids in school thought I “did it” for the attention. They didn’t understand and in retrospect I don’t blame them. Many people in my life now know my struggle with anxiety, though perhaps at different levels. As I said, when out with a group of people, I won’t let on to the crowd that something is up, but there is something comforting about having a single confederate in which to confide. Just telling one person what’s going on– why I’m suddenly inattentive, quiet, and escaping to the bathroom with a frequency that would make most wonder about the size of my bladder. Having that one person who “gets it” (at least to a certain degree) and knows it’s happening– I like that. It’s calming.
Most of my friends know about my struggles with anxiety, and usually when anyone finds out about it they try to empathize: “I get anxiety all the time,” “oh I had the biggest anxiety attack over that test last week,” “I had a legitimate panic attack before my big presentation.” I used to inwardly roll my eyes at this– everyone gets anxiety, it’s true, but what they feel before a big presentation or test was not the equivalent of my panic attacks. They had normal, everyday anxiety, complete with cause and effect. Not that they experienced anything less than anxiety, it’s just that the whole reason I am diagnosed with a Panic Attacks and an Anxiety Disorder is because there is simply no rhyme or reason for when I have my attacks. Normal anxiety is common. It happens. I get butterflies before important events, too. But it’s no anxiety disorder.
Like I said, these claims of anxiety, while legitimate, were not in the least bit comforting in their attempts to commiserate. It used to just frustrate me that they couldn’t grasp what I was going through in that exact moment. Now, however, I’ve begun to look at things differently. I’ve come to be almost grateful when a story of common anxiety is shared with me because I know that the individual telling me the story is not trying to belittle my own panic, but rather assist in keeping me feel grounded and, dare I say it: normal. It’s a way to reach out and help someone who is, at the time, nearly helpless. These individuals care, they really do, and while I know the majority of them will never truly understand, their efforts are appreciated. Of course, there are also those that will suffer from a one or two, absolutely terrible and debilitating anxiety attacks in their life. For them I feel especially sorry because at least I have the foreknowledge to know what it happening to me. It has taken me years to be able to tell my anxiety apart from actual physical illness, but I’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. These other people, however, will lack such practice, and for them I feel particularly bad. I would never wish an anxiety disorder or severe panic attack upon anyone.
Those of us in the Anxiety Club (let’s call it a club, that way it sounds a bit more positive) could probably spend hours, even days, comparing notes of therapists, deep breathing exercises, medications, meditation, forms of therapy, cognitive behavior, tactics and tricks. But when it comes down to it, a mixture of these ‘solutions’ is necessary for any sort of ‘recovery,’ and no two regimes will be alike.
I realize how ridiculous this is going to sound, but over the years I have found that the best way for me to deal with a panic attack is to distract myself (obviously) with a simple child’s game that I play in my head. Honestly, this works wonders for me. When I was a teenager, I would make my mom sit with me, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes on the bathroom floor, and we would go through the whole alphabet:
A my name is ….Anna. My husband’s name is…Aaron. We come from…Alabama. And we bring back…Armchairs.
B my name is…Becky. My husband’s name is…Bill. We come from…Bermuda. And we bring back…Bobsleds.
C my name is…
You get the gist. And let me tell you– 10+ years of this game and I’ve come up with some pretty darn creative combos. Though Q and X are always pretty lame. My one rule for the game is that whatever we “bring back” can’t be a food. Naming foods does not bode well when my anxiety attack has me filled me fears of puking. Nope, not at all.
So there’s my bit of over-sharing. I sometimes feel like I could write novels about my experiences. Everyone who has dealt with issues of anxiety or depression (the two are so often and tragically linked) will know what I mean by this– It’s an every day battle. Sometimes the troops are at rest, there’s no worries for a day or a week or a month. Then– BAM! The grenade explodes. Open fire. Head for the foxholes. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Anxiety is like warfare in my body, or more specifically my mind. And we fight back with all the force we can muster. Our strategies grow and change as we, in turn, grow and change. It’s a lifelong battle, but it doesn’t have to be a war.