I can't remember if it was my fourth or fifth birthday, but I vividly recall everyone at my party circling around our kitchen table to sing happy birthday to me. This distinct sense of terror came over me as all eyes locked on me. My face started to heat up. My heart began to pound. As everyone started to sing, I began to cry.
I didn't know why, but all that attention was scary and I didn't want it and I began to scream, "Stop singing to me! Stop singing to me!" Well, I was a little kid, so everyone just laughed at how silly I was being. Inside, those laughs made it all worse. I was so, so embarrassed and upset. I wanted to run away from all those eyes, all that attention.
Looking back, I know that was anxiety.
For a long time I didn't have the right words for what I've experienced my whole life. Or maybe I just didn't want to admit that I had a problem because that would have made me a "crazy" person. There is still so much stigma surrounding mental illness, that people who seek treatment often feel guilty or ashamed or both. I know I did for a very long time.
So instead of treating my anxiety, I let it rule my life. I just didn't do things that triggered my anxiety. As a teenager and college student, that meant I didn't date much because I was afraid to touch people or afraid that they would touch me. I didn't go to dances, because the thought of moving my body in public and people seeing that? Yeah, I'm getting anxious just thinking about it, even now. When people invited me to go skiing or boating or something as simple as going to a foreign house, I would find excuses to stay home so I wouldn't have to get nervous about doing something new. And anything that even resembled a competition? No way. Losing, failing, coming in second...the anxiety of competition, of losing, was way too much to handle. I'm still a really sore loser.
Basically, I didn't really live my life how I wished to live it. I lived it avoiding all the things that scared me. And I had a nice quiet life, dreaming instead of doing.
Then I saw this quote by Henry David Thoreau while, curiously enough, buying books at Barnes & Noble. It simply said: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Yes, exclamation mark. And those words struck me to the core—I had so very many dreams, and I'd never really chased any of them. Oh, I wanted to, but I was always too scared to.
That's when I decided to change things.
The anxiety never went away, but I started doing things anyway. I did start dating (and got married). I did start writing. I did start exercising and moving in public. I fought to do things I wanted, and you know what? The anxiety got worse.
Maybe you thought this would be a happy story. It is and it isn't. The truth is, the more I have gone for my dreams, the more anxious I've become. I've had to get out there in ways that leave me panicked and crying and gasping for breath—it all came to a head in 2010, when I was having panic attacks every day for months just for trying to live my life and DO things "normal" people find simple.
I went on anxiety medication for the first time in my life. And it felt like giving up, admitting I was weak and lesser and incapable. At least until the medication began to work, and I saw for the first time how it must be to be "normal." I realized just how anxious I'd become, just how dysfunctional. And I also realized that people who think I'm weak are the crazy ones, because I had to fight three times as hard just to live my life without totally losing it. I learned that my brain really was sick, and I didn't have to keep it that way.
I mean, do people look down on diabetics for taking insulin? Do they say, "Suck it up, you don't need meds—just deal."? No, because a diabetic can't function without insulin. Sure there are types of sugar issues that can be dealt with sans insulin. I'm hypoglycemic, for example. I control my sugar through diet. Right now, I'm lucky I can still do this. I've had diabetes while pregnant, and in all likelihood I will at some point develop Type 2 diabetes when I get older. If I eventually have to take insulin, I really hope people out there won't shake their heads and think, "She copped out. Sad."
Well, anxiety is much the same. There is a level of anxiety that can be controlled without medication. But there is also a line where medication does become necessary, where your brain is just not working right and you can't fix it no matter how hard you try.
This is where I am again, after having had my baby. I have a good life. I am generally happy and things are going well for me in general. So why do I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart racing with panic so crushing I can't breathe and sleep becomes totally impossible? Why do I go through my day on the verge of crying because everything seems so hard and overwhelming? Well, it's because my brain is letting off the panic signal when it shouldn't, and for no reason that I can tell. It's incredibly frustrating to feel this, to tell yourself you have absolutely nothing to be afraid about, and not be able to turn off that panic signal. I know I'm be irrational, and I try to stop and can't. It's a helpless feeling.
So yeah, I just jumped back on medication. And I'm talking about this because I'm not ashamed anymore and I don't want others who struggle with mental stuff to feel like they have to hide or "tough it out." You have every right to get help, to live your life like "normal" people do. Every day doesn't have to be a battle—it can be a joy. Don't let "shame" or "guilt" take that away from you.
Natalie, this is such a brave, wonderful post, and you are such a brave, wonderful person for sharing your experiences.ReplyDelete
"I also realized that people who think I'm weak are the crazy ones, because I had to fight three times as hard just to live my life without totally losing it. I learned that my brain really was sick, and I didn't have to keep it that way."
Yes. That times a million.
And it's not just you! I know you've read this already, Natalie, but I'm going to link for others who might need or want a chorus to help reinforce what you're saying: http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2012/08/how-mental-illness-tried-and-failed-to.html
It's been great to read this post. I just started having panic attacks this summer, and I was scared something was seriously wrong. I mean, there seemed to be no trigger. Just random panic and all of a sudden I could hardly breathe. I wish you so much luck in conquering your fears! You are worth it. That's my mantra :)ReplyDelete
Good for you.ReplyDelete
I've been plagued with anxiety since I was a little kid, even made myself sick enough to end up in the hospital, because I knew something was *wrong* with me and I didn't have words for it.
I do now. Dyslexia. And I'm a lot happier and mire functional now that I just admit it and laugh it off instead of struggling like mad to keep it hidden, to appear *normal*.
So, good for you :)
Besides, no one is 100% *normal* ;)
Thank you for this. As someone who is scared to admit what's going on with myself. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Your story rings true for me. I remember my first "real" panic attack in the third grade. I dealt with my anxiety, some times it would better, other times worse for years, until I was in my early 30's and realized I had to get help. I went to therapy for a little over a year. Never went on any meds, personal choice for myself, I wanted to see if I could do it without it, but I knew meds were there for me if I chose, with absolutely no shame.ReplyDelete
And I can handle the anxiety without meds. it didn't happen overnight. It literally took me until about month eight of therapy for things to click. I still have anxiety, but I deal with the unknowns a lot better. Learning that I can't control everything, just my reaction to it, was HUGE for me. I never would have tried to get published if I hadn't gotten help. There's still a lot about the path to published that freaks me out and gives me anxiety, but I try to deal with it one step at a time.
Thank you for sharing your story!
PS-I have that quote on the wall in my office. :)
Tara, it's definitely a personal choice, and for a long time I did okay without medication. But anxiety *does* run in my family, and it is something that usually gets more intense with age. Crossing over that threshold from manageable to very NOT manageable was clear for me, and still it took me a long time to go to meds.Delete
I completely agree that anxiety gets worse as you age. I hit my crisis point when I was 33, when I got married, had a family crisis, and bought a house all within about nine months.Delete
I'm glad that the meds are a help to you. I re-read my previous comment and realized that it might have come off a little "I'm a special snowflake, I don't need meds!" which was not my intention. I very well might need meds at some point in the future. Anxiety ebbs and flows.
Tara, I didn't read it that way! Anxiety management is a very personal thing. Everyone has a right to decide how they want to go about it, and that decision should be respected. I wish I could avoid meds, but I have learned the hard way that I'm to a point where that doesn't fly anymore. There's definitely an ebb and flow:)Delete
I think that what we are shown as "normal" is greatly over exaggerated anyway. Lots of so-called "normal" people have mental issues and hangs ups that they can just hide easier. It's really a shame that we as a society don't tolerate people with mental disorders, no matter how minor (Anxiety being minor compared to say, full blown Multiple Personality Disorder).ReplyDelete
Not that you didn't already have issues with anxiety, but I am sure those postpartum hormones aren't helping things either. My son is 6 months old, and it's better now, but I vividly remember those first months after he was born I just wanted to cry all the time. I was so depressed and tired and hurt (I was sore from an induced labor that took three days and ended in a C-section).
Gradually I started to feel better, but it took a lot of effort on my part. And you're right, knowing that there's nothing wrong and yet you feel horrible anyway is such a crummy feeling.
Take your anxiety medicine and be proud to know you're doing everything you can to be as healthy as you can.
I am so glad that you are taking care of yourself and the meds are working. And glad that you are writing about it so openly! I have anxiety and panic disorder, and have written about it a bunch myself on my blog. It's liberating to be who you are, good bad and otherwise.ReplyDelete
From one crazy person to another: Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your story, Natalie. The more of us who suffer from anxiety (and othe mental illnesses) and speak up about it, the easier it will be for people who come after us to get help. Every courageous post like this does more to tear down the negative social stigma.ReplyDelete
Your openness about this stuff has really helped me, Rob! I've admired you so much for what you say. It's so important to talk about it, for others and for myself.Delete
Good for you for being strong enough to get through this. I think that a lot of people criticize people with issues like this one because they don't understand what it's like; they don't see how serious it is. But just because they don't think it's serious doesn't mean it isn't serious.ReplyDelete
Thank you very much for sharing this, Natalie.ReplyDelete
For me it's depression, and it's something I'll have to live with the rest of my life. I don't need meds for it, but for a long while I was in a very bad place. I've been getting help from a professional, getting at the root of it all, finding ways to push back against it. And it helps.
There is a stigma about it, and I think we so often feel that to admit we need help is a sign of weakness.
Love you Natalie, from one crazy person to another! <3 <3 (Man, those babies can really mess our brains up, dangit!) Thanks for writing such a brave, beautiful post.ReplyDelete
Oh Natalie, I'm sorry you struggle with this. I'm happy that you are strong enough to talk about it and get help for it though. Thank you for sharing your story.ReplyDelete
Well, MY respect for you just skyrocketed. I can't imagine having to push through every day with panic instead of confidence--life is hard enough when your brain says there's a high likelihood of GOOD things coming.ReplyDelete
Robison Wells (above at 10:00 am) didn't link to his own post on this, but he should have: http://www.robisonwells.com/2011/07/panic/
I'm especially grateful when writers share this sort of thing with other writers--if we all understand it better, we can all help erase the stigma.
Thanks for the extra link, Robin! The more stories the better:)Delete
I don't have anxiety problems, but something just really rung true with me in your post. I AM very shy and I tend to curl up on myself rather than try new things.ReplyDelete
But if you can try new things despite your anxiety issues, I can too. =) This is a hugely inspirational post for me. Thank you so much!!
I'm proud of you for being aware of your health, facing your fears, and seeking the medical help you need. The effort is definitely worth your sanity. Hang in there! Love ya lots!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm so glad you've found meds to help control the anxiety. Because you deserve not to be that anxious. So hope you don't have to experience those times anymore. I'm anxious sometimes, but I think it's pretty normal and that we all have some anxieties, especially as we get older and live is not always bringing great things.ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for writing this post, Natalie. It just helped so much to read this and know I'm not the only one, especially after a day like this at school. Just, thank you. I'm so happy that you've found medication that control it and that you're not embarrassed about it. :D That's just amazing.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Natalie! This is such a great post, and I totally agree with you that taking medication for anything or admitting to our weaknesses shouldn't be a shameful thing. Thanks for this! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks very much for this. It's inspiring to so many of us who have big dreams and that invisible wall getting in the way of them.ReplyDelete
What a great post, when not writing I am a Child And Youth Worker by day so I help children and teens, sometimes adults deal with their mental health issues, one of which is anxiety no matter how many books I read to further help me in my career when a client(s) tells me how it feels for him/her to try and get out of bed, face the world and the fear, that is associated with that that's when I finally got it. Reading this post and also all you went through in regards to getting published, I myself may have crumbled but I also believe there is strength in everyone we have to believe it for it to come and there is no shame in taking medication for that strength to come out as well. I am happy that you shared this and also for all your success and more to come.ReplyDelete
I know just how you feel. After I got married I started taking medication for anxiety. After my first baby I added medication for depression to it. Even after baby #2 I still take them. I hate having to rely on little pills to make me feel normal. Another thing that bothers me is a lot of people don't think anxiety and depression are real. They think it's just an excuse to not have to do something. It's always nice to know there are people out there as crazy as me. ;)ReplyDelete
I'm so glad you wrote this! Also, I'm a life-long anxiety sufferer too :)ReplyDelete
It's funny...I'm not sure if it's because I live in Boston, a pretty progressive place, or something else, but I don't even consider anxiety (or depression) anything to be ashamed of. It's so often talked discussed that it's almost the exception if you're NOT anxious or depressed! (lol but actually, I'm serious!)
I teach yoga and at the beginning of every single class, I ask if my students are working with anxiety or low/depression energy and then assign breathwork based on where their mental energy is (either energizing or calming breath counts). In my years of teaching, I've only had ONE person, ONE time say, "Actually, I'm feeling perfectly balanced." (Good for them, but definitely the exception.)
I often use a similar analogy to your diabetic one. If you broke your arm, nobody would suggest you forgo a cast. I say use any/every tool that works for you and take the stigma out of it altogether.
Thank you for writing about this so freely. It means a lot to me to see other people struggling with the same, or similar, things that I am. Also, I appreciate your talking about medicine because it's something that I struggle with deciding on. I think it's been easier for me to step back and start blogging about depression which I never would have done in face-to-face conversations before.ReplyDelete
Also, did you see that article on Today.com, "American anxiety: Why we're such a nervous nation"? Very interesting!ReplyDelete
And if you're interested in how yoga can help with anxiety, I actually blogged about it a few weeks ago. I suggest a few simple things you can try if you've got 5-15 minutes. I've found yoga to be very helpful for anxiety.
You are awesome. Thank you for reminding me I'm not alone.ReplyDelete
I started having panic attacks in high school coupled with crippling nervousness and anxiety, and for the longest time we had no idea what they were. I'm on medication and have been since I started seeing a therapist.ReplyDelete
One of the things that irks me that you addressed so brilliantly in your post is the stigma not only surrounding mental illness, but around medication and taking it. I have a friend (well, several) who suffer from anxiety just as crippling as mine was, and who refuse to take anything because they worry they wouldn't 'be themselves' anymore. Those people both frustrate me and make me so sad, because how are you supposed to 'be yourself' when you're so much in your own head that functioning becomes impossible?
I don't know. I really related to this post on a variety of levels. Thank you for writing it.
Amen, sister! Amen! Thanks for sharing something so personal. However, I know it will be a beacon for many people, me included, who are a little crazy too. *take a bow*ReplyDelete
Having everyone at your party "laugh at silly you were being" rather than acknowledging and respecting your feelings is highly invalidating. I realize it was done to you with the best of intentions because your family and friends wanted you to feel "better," but it's no wonder you continued to suffer from anxiety which only worsened after being treated like that (especially if experiences like this were typical throughout your childhood).ReplyDelete
Not to be too harsh, but an awful lot of mental illness could be prevented if adults (being us, now) made a greater effort to let children know their emotions are normal and okay, rather than turning them into something to be embarrassed about and afraid of. I'm glad you've found relief from your suffering.
I deal with anxiety, too, and I'm totally with you on the post-partum anxiety. I get it every time. I hope you're doing better now:)ReplyDelete
Natalie, thank you so much for this. It means so much to me that you wrote this post. I hope you don't mind, but I blogged a link to it:ReplyDelete
I love this post so much. I'm medicated for a ton of anxiety too, and for five years I didn't have a single panic attack. But when I went off my meds this fall, I had a massive panic attack that caused me to have to stop going to college. Even though I'm just on medical leave, my anxiety put a huge dent in my plans. I'm still having trouble leaving the house.ReplyDelete
Now to occupy myself I've been writing flash-fiction on my blog. It's fun and pretty distracting. I haven't written in a couple years, but I'm glad to know that anxiety doesn't have stop people from writing. :)
I just came across your blog and it's somehow comforting to find another person who understands the torture and stigma of anxiety. I recently went back on meds as well. I wish you all the best! We can fight our demons!ReplyDelete
P.S. I just completed "Fish Out Of Water" and I loved it!! :)