It’s been two years since I wrote and shared the following essay about my 2013 – the year I found out I have an anxiety disorder. At the time, I was still struggling with talking to people about my anxiety. Would I seem weak? Would people think I was crazy? Was I crazy? The answer to all three questions was, resoundingly, no. I learned that I was not alone.
Often when I see posts about mental health and other struggles, I find myself wanting to know more. How is the person coping today? What techniques might help me or others? Well, at the bottom of this post I’ll share an update about where I am today. Spoiler alert: I’m in a much better place than I was in 2013.
The transition from one year to the next traditionally brings with it a time of reflection. For me, 2013 was relatively uneventful – no job changes, relationships, big purchases, etc. Internally, however, it was a year of unrest. I’m calling 2013 my year of fear.
The symptoms started weeks earlier; almost a year ago exactly. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but most episodes started behind the wheel of my car. I would be driving along, no blatant triggers to speak of, when my face began to tingle from a lack of oxygen. After the tingling stopped, there were dizzy spells. All of these symptoms caused more anxiety, which only made everything worse.
At the end of January 2013, I had my first full-blown panic attack. I’d heard about them. I’d joked about them. I had no idea what it felt like to actually experience one. To give you some idea, it started in the car, as per my usual. I began thinking about my symptoms (as yet undiagnosed anxiety) and what they might mean. I thought of an impending thunderstorm. After arriving at home, I worked myself into a frenzy. I couldn’t breathe. I called my parents multiple times, hoping their calm voices would settle me. I called my best friend, who came over and sat with me. He left, but I didn’t feel better. I thought that if I fell asleep I would literally die. I called my parents in the middle of the night, telling them I thought my heart was stopping. I drove to my friend’s house in the middle of the night. I made him feel my heartbeat over and over to see if it was steady. The night was fitful, to say the least. By morning, I felt physically sick, but otherwise normal.
I was fortunate that the night in January was my only major attack to date. I continued having pre-attack bouts of nervousness, especially while driving. (A weekend of Atlanta traffic could do that to anyone, though, am I right?) While I felt most anxious in cars, the context of my anxiety became largely health related. I was so worried about health issues, it became difficult to tell which symptoms were real and which were psychosomatic. For example, after one appointment with my doctor (that should have been comforting), I became convinced – for a couple of hours – that I could have multiple sclerosis. I was also watching lots of The West Wing at the time. This was coupled with a year when I did have real, odd, but (thankfully) minor health issues. Anyway, health obsessions are a “classic” anxiety presentation. Nothing feels classic or normal when you’re scared for no reason. I even worried about getting worried.
Given all of those issues, and agreement from my doctor, I decided to begin taking a low-dose anxiety medication last summer. Though I resisted this route for months, I don’t regret it. I know this approach has some stigma, and it doesn’t work for everyone. And I’m not without nervous days, of course. Overall, however, I feel like myself again.
I realize my experience is not unique. I’m lucky to have a great support system of close friends and family. I’m even lucky to have such “minor” anxiety symptoms. What I’ve realized this year, though, is that there’s value in all levels of experience. Though this is difficult for me to write about, I’ve taken comfort in talking with family and reading other bloggers’ posts and photos about their struggles with anxiety and/or depression, including Kendi Everyday and designlovefest.
Perhaps most importantly, last year taught me that shame and embarrassment are completely counterproductive when trying to live with anxiety or any other mental issue. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t control my own mind, and, except with my closest friends and family, I tried to act as if nothing had changed. Things did change, will continue to change.
So, in 2014, I resolve not to let anxiety define my life, yet I will no longer deny that it’s a part of it. This is me saying goodbye to my year of fear. Good riddance.
Fast forward to now, 2016. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack since 2013 thanks to my medication. I still have days where I feel the strange creep of an anxious fog even with it, but I’m thankful these days aren’t as often as they once were.
Now I’ll share a couple of things that have helped me in the past three years. It’s funny the things you learn about yourself when things that shouldn’t induce panic do.
- Cut out caffeine. Seriously. I love, love, love coffee, and I’ll occasionally grab a decaf, but it is a major trigger for me. I stick with herbal teas most mornings now.
- Switch out car audio. I used to jam out to fresh playlists every month, singing with abandon (to the chagrin of my passengers). However, given my travel-induced anxiety, I learned that trying to sing like Adele does not help me maintain normal breathing. Plus, I’ve always been very moved my music, and the emotional toll can be a little much. Thus, 90 percent of the time, I’ve got podcasts or NPR on in the car. This works for three reasons: 1. Stories provide a good distraction for me. 2. I’m not singing, thus I’m breathing in a normal-ish way. 3. Calm voices = calm(er) Lindsey.
Also, I just started therapy in January. I’m learning Cognitive Behavioral Techniques (see the fun worksheet above). My therapist is helping me see my triggers not as warnings to continue my path to freaking out, but as reminders to draw attention to needed behavioral changes or distractions. A non-judgmental outside party is super helpful, too. Sometimes I have catastrophic thought patterns so scary I don’t even want to admit them to myself for fear of jinxing my life (see plane crashes, health scares, and other simple, daily life things taken to the scary extreme). Opening up isn’t easy for me, especially with strangers, but I feel like I can admit to most of them in the safety of a therapist’s office. Plus, it’s great to have someone to unload on besides my poor family members and friends. (Love you, Mom.)
That’s the end of my update for now. I hope this helps someone else who might be struggling. Talking about mental health is so important, especially for those who may not know what their symptoms mean or who feel a shame stigma because of how their mind works. Life is weird. We have to stick together. Anxiety is still a part of my life, but, true to my resolution, it does not define it.