Looking back on my childhood, there was never really a time I was sure of myself. I never thought I was cute enough, smart enough, funny enough, or fun enough. In fact, I doubted that any of my playmates actually liked me.
On my birthday, I wondered whether my friends would show up to my party. And if they did, was it because my parents paid them to come? If so, how much? How much was I worth?
Decades later, I realize this was one of the first indications that I suffer from anxiety. Through countless hours of therapy, research and reflection, I have come to understand the many manifestations of anxiety and the strength of its control. I have also come to accept it as I would any other disease — with patience, understanding, and a stubborn determination to overcome it.
I spent much of my childhood suffering from an ailment that I didn’t know existed, and that even today, many people misunderstand. I wondered why I incessantly worried about my house burning down, or my mother leaving me, or a man in a windowless white van snatching me up and taking me away forever.
My first real airplane trip, at age nine, was to visit my grandmother on the other side of the country. I was excited leading up to the trip, but the minute I walked into the airport a violent wave of nausea came over me. My skin broke out in a dappled crimson rash, my breath became shallow, my heart began racing, my limbs grew weak, and my stomach seized with horrible cramps. I raced to the bathroom and nearly missed the flight.
I later realized this violent attack was my body’s response to anxiety.
Little did I know there would be many more attacks to come. Activities that would excite a normal child would cause me to become a vomitus mess. Spending the night at a friend’s house, roller skating, swimming at the local pool, trick-or-treating — I would mysteriously become sick immediately beforehand.
Normal people get butterflies in their stomach. I get ravenous wolverines trying to claw their way out.
My doctors were stumped. I was tested for food poisoning, ulcers, hernias, parasites, allergies, blockages, and pregnancy, all to no avail. But I was never screened for anxiety; after all, I was an educated young professional who seemed to have it all together. I had graduated college with a degree in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter. I had traveled to Europe by myself. I had friends and boyfriends — a seemingly normal life.
The morning after a remarkably powerful attack at a party that left me writhing on my bedroom floor in pain, I met with a nurse practitioner who happened to be an anxiety sufferer herself. She finally put a name to the problem I had been battling with for years: anxiety. And she gave me a prescription for Xanax.
As with any other mental health condition, anxiety carries with it a stigma that prevents sufferers from seeking the help they need. It is slowly coming out of the shadows, but its acceptance as a legitimate disease has yet to take hold, especially among those of older generations who were raised to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Even my own father once vocalized that he didn’t want his daughter “taking crazy pills.”
People with diabetes take insulin. People with high cholesterol take statins. People with hypertension take beta blockers. Why shouldn’t people with anxiety take medication to alleviate their symptoms?
After my diagnosis, I led an all-out effort to combat the enemy that was holding me back. The medication helped, but it was just one of many weapons in my arsenal of recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dozens of books and articles, stress management classes, deep breathing and yoga, all contributed to my new-found sense of wellbeing.
I’m in no way cured, nor will I ever be. I know anxiety will always be there, just lurking beneath the surface ready to pounce. I still fall prey to it, but these days the triggers are far more domestic: getting the house clean before guests arrive, making sure my son finishes his school project on time, or wrapping the Christmas presents before the big guy comes slithering down the chimney.
I am much more in tune with my mind these days, and I can feel my anxiety rearing its head just before making a formal appearance. I keep it at bay by planning, scheduling, making lists, delegating and letting go of the things I can’t control. When all else fails, I give myself a time out, take a few deep breaths and take a pill, comforted in the knowledge that I won’t let this disease take control.