On the anniversary of my falling apart, I’m not going to preach. I’m not going to lecture. I’m not going to beg for sympathy or accolades or anything, other than your attention, and maybe, hopefully, your understanding.
This is about the anniversary of my falling apart.
Last year, tonight, I thought I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t, and even today, a year later, I’m almost convinced that it would have been easier had it been a heart attack. At least heart attacks are very physical things. They can be fixed with surgery, and actual tangible things can be done to repair a heart when it’s physically broken.
But when it’s not your body that’s broken, it’s a much more difficult thing.
In my case, the little man inside my head that managed all of my emotions walked off the job. I say that jokingly, but what I really need to say is that every ability I thought I’d ever had at managing everything in my brain was gone. Poof!
Suddenly, it was just me and everything I had bottled up since 1970-something.
To say that that was difficult would be the worst sort of reverse hyperbole. I do exaggerate and embrace the hyperbole in life because it’s so much fun, but when I’m talking about the week that led to my anxiety diagnosis, I am not exaggerating or hyperbolizing or making things up.
Anxiety is a very real thing. It is such a very real thing that even a year later, I am still fighting for control.
When that little emotional manager left his post and walked away, I was left with nothing to control everything up there. That’s not to say that I didn’t try to cope or deal with everything as it was happening over the course of my life, because I really was trying.
But I wasn’t doing it in a any sort of healthy way. I canned things up and stored them in the little twists and turns of my gray matter. Then, I’d have a meltdown, or I’d pick the callouses off my feet and cut my toenails too far down. TMI and gross, yes. But it’s true. I ate all the wrong things and binged at all the wrong times. I went through a well-hidden drinking phase. I hit abysmal depression amidst genuinely happy stretches. And it all felt normal to me.
Looking back, the little guy in my head probably needed to walk off the job, because in retrospect, he pretty much sucked at it. I just wish I’d had some notice; you know, the standard two weeks. I’d’ve really appreciated that.
So last year, thanks to the sudden absence of my Angst Manager, I was forced to face myself. And I was not prepared to do that.
Mental illness, like any other illness, manifests differently in all its targets. (It helps me to personify Anxiety. If it’s a person, I can stand up to it and strategize and eventually win.)
Anxiety takes away my ability to be me. It takes away your ability to walk into your job, and do your job, the same job that you have done thousands and thousands of times. It takes away your joy in your job, and your confidence that you’re pretty good at what you do.
It takes away your ability to drive home, to walk into a store, to watch a TV show with your kids. Because you never know when it will strike.
When it strikes, I can’t breathe. My heart races, palpitates, and I feel like I’ve been running, which if you know me at all, you know is not something I do unless there are actual zombies after my brain. That’s why the first time it hit me, I thought it was a heart attack.
My hands shake, and that feeling of not being able to hold something securely in them is body-wide—nothing is safe, nothing is secure, and everything is wrong. There is an almost uncontrollable need to release primal terror that’s building up, and curl up in a corner and hide. It makes me want to escape whatever I am doing right that minute, and GO. Doesn’t matter where, just go. All of this even though I’m doing something I’ve done hundreds, if not thousands of times.
There is an absolute certainty that everything is going to fall apart. Right. This. Minute. And at first, Anxiety shows up completely unannounced. No one likes unannounced guests. Especially not like this.
When those moments hit, I have to physically stop everything I’m doing, and focus on breathing. It sounds like a horrible cliché, but it’s probably a cliché because it’s true. If I don’t concentrate on breathing, my heart rate escalates into scary three digit numbers, and everything else kicks in.
Sometimes I have to take my shoes off and with my toes, massage the ground below me.
Sometimes I have to turn on music and ignore the world around me, sometimes I need absolute silence, the kind that allows you to hear that fly buzz. Sometimes I have to color. All while breathing in, holding it for a count of four, and blowing it out to a count of seven.
But in all of those times what I really want to do is disappear to a dark corner and sob hysterically for hours. That’s what anxiety feels like for me. It feels like there’s nothing in my life that I can control because I never know when I’m going to fall apart again. To be clear: Normally, I don’t ever want to hide in a corner and sob for hours, but when Anxiety attacks, that’s what my brain feels like it’s screaming for.
Sometimes—even a year later—it feels like I’ve forgotten to breathe normally. It took some time to figure out that I’m not actually forgetting to breathe: I’m holding my breath. That held breath becomes the cliff the rest of me tumbles off of into anxiety’s chasm of racing heart palpitations, sweatiness, rapid breathing, loss of focus, and the urge to hide in a corner under a blanket. There’s always something that triggered that held breath, and a year later, I’m working on identifying and controlling those things. Sometimes I can manage it. Sometimes it wins. But I’m starting to win more than I lose.
And on the anniversary of my falling apart, I can tell you that I’m still breathing, still alive.
I can tell you that I have learned who in my life I can trust with absolute certainty, and who I can’t. I think a part of me always knew, but didn’t want to face the fact that a good many of the people I really wanted don’t feel the same way about me.
Modern pharmacology is a beautiful thing. But I can also tell you that all of those wonderful pills and drugs aren’t a permanent fix, and they aren’t enough to live on when anxiety attacks. Medication has its place in treatment, but education, therapy, and practice will always trump it; medication will numb the attack, but education can head it off and stop it in its tracks.
And prayer. Faith. Priceless parts of my fight, they have helped sustain me on the many sleepless nights. Wait, I didn’t mention the loving gift of insomnia that anxiety often gives? (If you didn’t read that line with oozing sarcasm, you read it wrong.) God didn’t give me a spirit of fear, and I miss the joy I once had.
Therapy. Oh, how I love my therapist. I’ve told her a few times that I’d love to be friends with her, but have realized that the client/therapist relationship is better; she’s required by oath and professionalism to push me really hard to learn, to practice, and to embrace me. Friends will encourage you, love you, and stand by you, but often, they don’t push for fear of hurting your feelings. I’ve had to hurt a lot of my own feelings to get this far. And my success in this is largely thanks to the guidance I get from her.
On the anniversary of my falling apart, I can tell you that a good savasana is one of the absolute best ways to end a Sunday night. Savasana is the last thing done in a restorative yoga class. You’re lying on your back, a small pillow on your eyes, arms outstretched, a blanket over your stomach, legs propped up as high as you want them.
And you’re breathing. Deeply in. Slowly out. Controlled.
There’s soft music, usually stuff you wouldn’t listen to under other circumstances, but it’s relaxing and soothing, and pretty much my new favorite thing ever. There are no distractions, and all you have to do is stretch and breathe. If I could do this every time the big A shows up, it’d be a totally different fight. But people frown on you lying down and getting comfy in public, so I relish those times when I can go to yoga. Set all your blockades aside and go to a restorative class; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
On the anniversary of my falling apart, I can tell you that anxiety requires its victims to stop everything and focus on it, and how I focus on it will determine my success or failure in that moment. I’m a high school teacher, and sometimes, I’ll be in the middle of class, and I’ll have to do one or more of the things I mentioned earlier to hang on. I have had to stop what I was doing, put my head down, and just count my breaths. I’ve taught barefooted at my board, and from my desk while coloring, all the while desperate for them not to notice how on edge I am.
I’ve done yoga in my classroom during lunch so I could get through the hour and a half until my planning period when I could let myself fall apart a little, and not do it with a room full of teenagers. I’ve even had students join me in my lunchtime practice.
Yeah, they think I’m a little weird, but that’s part of the fun of teaching. I can be a little odd and it’s charming or quirky. Were I in any other profession, I’m pretty sure it’d be different.
At home, my husband has been wonderful about tagging me out so I can get it together. My kids have noticed me “breathing funny” but hopefully, they’ll grow to see that as a good thing: Mommy handling herself so everyone else can handle themselves too.
And as I type this, I noticed that I was holding my breath, and starting to shake a little. I’m nervous about this piece, and being nervous about something is a trigger. But I’m still typing.
Because on the one year anniversary of my falling apart, I am sharing. I am letting the world in, and giving it a tour because so many people deal with anxiety silently, and I never thought that person would be me. If you know me, you know I’d talk the ears off a donkey given half a chance, and maybe my sharing will help someone who isn’t so chatty.
Many other people don’t think anxiety is a real thing, and I can tell you unequivocally that they are wrong. It is real, and can be debilitating. In my case it’s trying to be, but I am not letting it. I am slowly winning this fight, because it’s a fight for my life, and I won’t live it on someone else’s terms.
So, on the anniversary of my falling apart, I hereby declare that I am now falling together, pulling the good pieces back in, and discarding the things that don’t fit, don’t feel good, and don’t encourage the positive.
I am looking for and embracing the lights in my life—those lights are who I am and why I’m here, and anxiety will not get to steal them away from me.