I wake up from a good night’s sleep. It is a bright, sunny day, and I feel great.
But then I spill coffee on my freshly cleaned clothes, and there it is…that little twinge of irritation. I start moving faster almost without realizing. I pinch my finger in the door. Why is this making me so upset? It didn’t even really hurt. I walk into the bedroom and see that my husband has left his dirty socks on the floor…again. I know it shouldn’t bother me the way it does, but it adds yet another layer to my irritation. By now my breath has become trapped in my throat as my chest starts to tighten. I begin to sweat. Now every little noise or mess is frustrating me further. He sees the blank stare on my face and asks me if I’m okay. Yes, I’m fine. The wall I have so carefully built up around my most feared emotions crumbles, and my mind runs wild.
I don’t want to start my day this way.
Why do I feel like this?
What did I do to deserve it?
Maybe I do deserve it.
Maybe I deserve to be alone instead.
I am over reacting.
I continue on the best I can. At this point I still look like my happy self on the outside, besides the red flush that is setting in on my skin as my temperature rises and blood rushes to the surface. Inside my mind is engaged in mental battle. I (the real me) is trying desperately to stop this from going any further, yet there is this distinct sinking feeling as I drift further away from reality, from who I was when I woke up this morning. I start to forget who the real version of me even is, and by now my mind has convinced me that I am worthless. I am not good enough. It’s a destructive mantra that keeps repeating itself over and over. These thoughts rush in from somewhere, but they can’t be mine…right?
I manage to get dressed. Wait, why am I crying? I had plans today. I had places to go. But suddenly the thought of leaving my house seems terrifying. I’m late, but I force myself out the door anyway. Immediately I wish I was back home but know that being home will only make this worse. There is no escape now; I have become a prisoner of my own mind. The person in front of me is driving too slowly. I get caught at a long red light. I deserve it. I’m furious. Ten minutes ago I was afraid. I am losing control of my thoughts, but I have been through this countless times before. I know how to hide it.
I engage in pleasant, casual conversations with strangers at the grocery store. Maybe I’m fine. I sound fine. But did she look at me weird? Did I say something strange? Can she tell I’m just barely holding myself together? I should not have worn this shirt. I look terrible. My pants are suddenly too tight, and I’m so uncomfortable that it’s almost unbearable. I race home.
I get through the door. My dog steps on my foot and her nails are sharp. That’s the tipping point. All the sorrow and pain I have ever experienced comes rushing in all at once. There is no telling when the sobbing will stop. I fluctuate between being intensely afraid, to being angry …but mostly I’m just sad. I’m afraid because my chest hurts, and I feel overwhelmed, angry because I am wasting so much time, and sad because there are horrible, uninvited thoughts racing through my mind. My whole body is tingling as if I am somehow electrocuting myself from the inside. I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes, ears, throat and chest all at once. I am hyperventilating, and it’s making me nauseous and dizzy. It’s like I’m drowning while everyone around me is breathing. I have all of this energy, but nowhere for it to go so I cry until I am exhausted. Finally, the heaviness starts to lift. I take a long, hot shower and hope that my eyes aren’t noticeably puffy.
Eventually the dark clouds break apart, and I can once again think coherently. I feel like myself again only I’m so tired…and numb. For now I am okay. I know there were more chores for me to finish around the house, but my motivation to do anything got washed away with my tears. I put on some music and lay with my dogs. I do anything but what I’m supposed to do. I cancel my plans to meet with friends later because I feel too vulnerable and drained. It’s only 4pm, and I’m ready for bed. I feel ashamed, yet know that I need to take care of myself a little bit better. I find the strength to pick myself back up, but I know that it is going to take at least a day for me to replenish my energy.
Every day is a struggle between trying to connect with myself and others while simultaneously monitoring and managing the persistent feelings of anxiety that I have lived with for as long as I can remember. Every day I fight to stay in the present moment when my mind has a never-ending supply of irrational worries to constantly pitch into my conscience. Some days are easy because I feel strong and motivated. Anxiety takes a back seat. Other days, sometimes with no warning, I feel the extra weight more intensely. Then something happens to light the fuse, and there’s no going back. It grabs on, holds me tight in its grip, and I have no idea when it will decide to let go. And so I wait, just like I always do. I try my best to focus on my breath until it passes.
Anxiety disorders affect nearly 18% of the U.S. population, with twice as many women being affected as men. These disorders are also closely linked to depression and other disorders such as phobias, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), PTSD and eating disorders. They originate in the mind, but have real physiological effects. The entire body suffers from these conditions.
I am not looking for pity, and most certainly do want to be judged. What I do want is bring the discussion of mental health out into the open. We openly talk about weight loss and workouts, but rarely do we talk about how to keep our emotions healthy. There are too many of us who struggle on a daily basis to get through seemingly normal, everyday activities, and there are definitely way too many of us who feel ashamed and embarrassed. There are too many of us who keep our internal conflicts a secret.
You are NOT your anxiety. You are NOT your depression. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is buying into the belief that your identity is embedded in these mental conditions. The other mistake is comparing yourself to the external conditions of others and convincing yourself that they are normal and are happier than you.
The best thing you can do is work towards acceptance and forgiveness. Accept where you are at each moment, both mentally and physically. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it does mean that you have recognized the discomfort and are accepting it rather than constantly fighting. Do not waste your energy fighting with yourself. Forgive. Be gentle. Remind yourself that your current mental state is only temporary and that it is not YOU. Your true self is always calm, peaceful and happy. That is your true state, and you WILL return back to it so long as you don’t forget it is always there. Focus on your strengths and talents. Do not be afraid to ask for help!
Most importantly, you can be happy, positive and motivated and still struggle with anxiety and depression. Suffering from a mental illness does not mean you have to live a life of despair. For those who are not familiar with anxiety that seem contradictory, but my point is that you cannot tell just by talking to or looking at someone what goes on inside their heads. Before you judge someone for their behavior I ask you to pause and remind yourself that maybe they are hurting inside. Maybe they were rude because they are feeling insecure, not because they are a bitter, angry person. Before you call someone “crazy” or “clingy” or “flaky”, consider the possibility that maybe they are dealing with intense emotions that are out of their control at the moment and that maybe they need support and encouragement rather than criticism. Don't we all need that?
I have kept this hidden from most for many years, and despite how vulnerable I feel putting this out there I feel strongly that it needs to be shared. I know I am not alone, but I have often felt that way in the past. I don’t want anyone else to feel alone. Please, please reach out if you are struggling. Even just talking to someone can help to get you out of your head. And even if there is no one around to talk to, remember that you always have your breath. Focusing on your breathing forces you back into the present moment, a place anxiety cannot exist.
Next time you feel disconnected, overwhelmed, frightened or depressed, exhale completely and say: All of this is temporary.