How do you understand when anxiety is finally over?
I’ve asked myself this question many times. Let me be frank: I have no answer to that.
Nevertheless, a few months ago I casually stumbled upon the following quote and I believe I couldn’t have found a better way to describe my feelings:
Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
— Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
This is exactly what it feels like to me. Fourteen months after everything began, almost a year after I hit my lowest point, I still have no idea whether the storm is really over. But luckily enough, I haven’t been alone in my storm. I’ve had the good fortune to have a therapist by my side, guiding and reassuring me about the changes that were occurring to a still-unconscious self and explaining to me that those changes were proof of my healing process.
Yes, changes, because once you are in the middle of your storm, there comes a moment in which it all becomes about changes: letting changes happen, making changes happen, noticing and accepting changes as they occur. As I opened up to changes, first times became more and more frequent.
My entire journey down to the lowest circle of my hell and back up to my new life is paved with first times. When I look closely at this journey, I find proof of how important and formative it has been for me, exactly in the list of my many first times:
I had never fainted before. I’ve been living with low blood pressure and mild-to-strong anxiety all my life, but nothing — no exams, no competitions, no meetings, no embarrassments, no quarrels — nothing had ever made me collapse to the ground. I had never lost control over my consciousness, over my senses, over my body. I had never lost control over anything, that’s it. On that mid-March morning, I crumpled and I lost all of it in a moment, for the first time.
Paroxetine (Paxil) and Xanax.
The mere term “psychopharmaceuticals” made me shiver. It still does, actually. I fought against the idea of taking psych drugs until I realized I had no other options. I accepted paroxetine first, because it was clear to me that I was not going to make it by myself. I procrastinated on Xanax, but then I had to give in to my exhausting insomnia. And so I had my first time with those dreadful pills and scary drops.
God knows how much I needed it. But being a super-rational monster, I tend to be unbelievably skeptical about pretty much anything. So I had been very reluctant toward the possibility of psychotherapy for all my life. Well, I was wrong; I was dead wrong. Therapy has done a lot for me. I’ll never stop being grateful for the blackout that took me to my GP on that mid-March morning and for the moment in which my GP scheduled my first appointment with my future therapist for the following day.
I was not used to seeking physical contact with other people. I’ve never intentionally avoided it, but it was just not natural to me. It all started when, feeling completely lost during one of my worst days, I hugged my dad for the first time in decades. I was feeling weak, both physically and psychologically, and all I could think of was to reach for him and find my place in his arms. I wasn’t expecting any solution from that, but it felt good, it made me feel protected for a few seconds.
Since that moment, it became clear to my family how much I needed their physical proximity. Plus, it made me realize how much comfort I could find in a simple hug, even though for few seconds, and it gave me the strength to seek for that support again and again from my loved ones.
My slow comeback.
Once the worst seemed to be over and I gradually got back to my ordinary life, I felt like a baby taking her first steps. I clearly remember the first time I was back to my office, the first time I attended a meeting, the first time I saw my friends, the first time I spent a night out, the first time I had lunch in a restaurant, the first time I took a plane, the first time I slept far from my home, after my breakdown. They all felt like absolute first times to me, despite having been very common activities for all my life. Each time I felt like I had just been born and everything was brand new to me.
I was a 30-something-years-old virgin. One of my many first times of this period was that First Time. If you are thinking that having turned 30 and still being a virgin could explain a lot about what I’ve been through, welcome to the club: I definitely agree with you!
I had always been so stiff and embarrassed in front of other people that I wouldn’t have ever allowed myself the sweetness and the candor of having a baby in my arms and sounding like an idiot while talking to her. But one day, when things had started to look up, I found myself doing it and without even having to force myself into it. It just came out naturally, and it felt amazingly liberating.
Petting a dog.
My difficulty letting go and getting intimate with the others spanned to animals as well. I don’t remember having petted a dog without feeling wary and uncomfortable before. One day, when I was starting to feel better, I found myself tenderly petting my friend’s dog. I think I won’t forget the warmth of the moment in which I realized how good it was for me to show my affection for that little dog and how much she was enjoying it, returning my feelings.
I have felt home very rarely in any place that’s not my real home. Being a guest in someone else’s house has always made me feel unbelievably uncomfortable. One of the many signs of the changes I was undergoing occurred when I realized that I had just spent a night at my friends’, sat on their couch, played with their son, helped them cooking and setting the table for dinner and I had felt at ease all along, enjoying every second of it.
I’ve always been very shy. I’ve always preferred to hang out with the same small group of long-time friends and avoided small talk with people I don’t know. I’ve always tended to blend in with wallpaper in any social event. Once I started to feel better, I realized that I was starting to enjoy small talk with people in shops, in the elevator, while queuing at the register. During my first business travel after my breakdown, I realized that I could enjoy both office hours and free time with people I barely knew, that I would even be looking forward a dinner out with them, instead of making up excuses to allow myself a lonely dinner in my room.
Basically, as I was recovering, changes were starting to feel less scary. A new idea was taking shape inside my head: maybe changes, and therefore first times, were not as dreadful as they had looked until then.
Woman in the mountains photo available from Shutterstock