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Have You Ever Been Debilitated by a Phone Call?: My Anxiety Story
TW: anxiety, panic attacks, mild germophobia and agoraphobia.
For a while, I thought my birth to be somewhat of a miracle. From tales my relatives told, it seemed like a huge, important, dramatic event. I'm talking doctors running around and anticipatory waiting room foot-tapping, all leading up to my entrance, or exit, depending on your perspective. And perhaps I was somehow a miracle to my family, but the reality was that the rest of the world was completely indifferent to my joining it; perhaps no better but certainly no worse, and perhaps that's all one can hope for.
My childhood, looking back, seems straight out of a story book. As an only child, I'll admit I was spoiled as a middle-class family could manage. I was never lacking in anything I needed or wanted. I was fed, clothed, and loved endlessly. I was a happy kid; to describe myself as a child would take one word: exuberant. My happiness was boundless and impenetrable. I was under the impression I could be or do anything I set my mind to. I had what I thought the best group of friends anyone could hope for, and a family that seemed picture perfect. I was purely fearless: long blonde hair flowing in the wind, diving into the deep end of the pool, singing concerts in the car. My world was a sunny spring morning and I seized every day with unmatchable eagerness.
I was a picky eater as a kid, and in complete honesty I still sometimes am. My repertoire of foods was small-- if they touched, forget it; and if they looked funny, they were out of the question. I was an exceptionally shy child; hiding behind my mother, refusing to speak, running away from new people. I didn't even talk to my aunt when I was small because I didn't see her often enough to solidify in my mind who she was. I had a terrible fear of the dark, and an even worse aversion to thunder. I had a habit of running into bed with my parents if I had a nightmare, or otherwise helplessly crying for them. Likewise, if there was a thunderstorm while I was at school or summer camp, I insisted a teacher or counselor call my mom to pick me up, each time complaining of a tummy ache. But these were only small hiccups in an otherwise idyllic childhood world; nothing to be concerned about; a lot of children are afraid of the dark and overcome it eventually. I did overcome my fears, but not gradually as you'd think. I was afraid of the dark and insisted on a nightlight, but then one night I was perfectly fine without it. Even one dark cloud sparked my fear of thunder, then one day a storm boomed and crashed and I was perfectly fine. While still shy, I talked and was friendly toward new people. In the blink of an eye, it seemed, I was fine.
I started high school in what I'd like to think a clumsily elegant manner and found myself in a completely new environment. In the typical teenage fashion, I carved out a small place for myself among my friends and peers, a place I felt I belonged, but I still constantly felt like something wasn't quite right. Maybe it was the new environment that took some time to adjust to, or maybe the workload was more than I had in middle school. Once fearless, I found myself more fearful than I had ever been. I found myself vaguely stressed, nervous, or anxious at times when I felt it was uncalled for. Things like talking in front of a class, that never used to worry me before, suddenly did and I didn't know why. I stayed up later, woke up earlier, had occasional headaches or upset tummies. These things, small at first, eventually piled up until they couldn't be ignored.
When I was fourteen years old, I thought I was going to die.
It was going to be long, painful, and horrific, and the killer would never be caught. Of course, I already knew who my killer would be: my alcoholic neighbor a few houses down: the Boo Radley of our street, so to speak, and an easy scapegoat. In my mind I was certain, in classic horror film style, he would don a hockey mask and wield a knife; creep into my bedroom in the middle of the night, and kill me. This fear, I suppose, was sparked by a Halloween prank the drunkard pulled in which he stood in our front yard, in classic horror film style, wearing a long coat, hockey mask, and wielding a prop knife. The result of his stunt was my blood-curdling, earth-shattering, glass-breaking scream, a call to the police, and my still-lasting distaste for Halloween. I didn't stop shaking for an hour, I couldn't bring myself to eat my dinner, I didn't sleep a wink that night. For months afterward my sleeping pattern was dysfunctional at best and I formed a new habit of closing every blind and curtain in the house at sundown, in fear of a repeat incident. I even began avoiding the living room. At night I was bombarded with false scares of danger, which I combated with a trail of logic used to convince myself I was safe. On more difficult nights, I resolved to repeating the words "I am safe" until they sounded true or I succumbed to exhaustion, whichever came first.
Was my reaction disproportionate to the event? Quite possibly. I assumed I was crazy before turning to denial, which gave way to acceptance. Basically, "I'm crazy," then "no I'm fine," then "I guess this is just normal for me." By the time I turned fifteen, my fear of imminent death seemed to subside to a dull hum in the back of my mind, easily ignorable. I was my old carefree, confident, indestructible self. I was unbreakably happy. Until I found a new fear to obsess over: the Florida bath salts man who allegedly ate other people and made headlines being chased by men in hazmat suits.
I never heard the full story, and it's quite possible I combined a few stories in my head from tidbits that popped up on social media sites. Nevertheless, I quickly became terrified of a zombie-like disease spreading in apocalyptic proportions and claiming everyone I loved. Only making matters worse were the other kids at school hypothesizing similar apocalypse scenarios in stunningly convincing probability. This fear, in my memory, materialized as my peers and I were sitting around a table, killing time by conversing until the bell for summer rang. One boy brought up the bath salts story and his accompanying end-of-the-world theories in such casualty that my mind couldn't comprehend. Thus I excused myself from the conversation, then the classroom, then left school completely and walked home. Somehow I'd gone from fearing my own death to fearing the death of an entire civilization. This terror, like my first anxiety, and like my childhood fears, seemed to gradually subside over time.
Until my mind found another new fear to obsess over. This continued until my anxiety spread over so many areas of my life I couldn't pinpoint it anymore. It wasn't too long before aspects of my anxiety started appearing in places they hadn't before. The school lunchroom was too loud and crowded. I felt trapped at family parties. Restaurants were overwhelming and the mall was unfathomable. Waiting in line was hell. Reminiscent of my childhood finickiness, I found myself pushing food aside because it looked funny, tasted different, or had an unsettling texture. I was suddenly, startlingly aware of germs and washing my hands more often. Changes in plans completely threw me; I had a constant need to know what was going on. The most noticeable was my aversion to the living room, a result of accumulated Halloween flashbacks and my parents' watching the news in the morning. Even the local news was insufferable to me, and national broadcasts were guaranteed to ruin my day. I couldn't fall asleep or stay asleep at night and during the day I was constantly exhausted and experienced frequent headaches, upset tummies. I didn't speak out as much in class, I didn't hang out with my friends, or even leave the house as often as I used to. My world was suddenly very small.
Have you ever been completely debilitated by a phone call?
It was a cold November evening, the night of my best friend's eighteenth birthday, and I wasn't there. My cellphone relentlessly vibrated in one corner of the bed, while I wrapped myself further into a blanket burrito in another corner. I was in the middle of a textbook panic attack: shortness of breath, racing heart, tightness in my chest, sweaty palms, upset stomach, trembling, chills. This panic attack was triggered, I can only assume, in anticipation of facing a busy restaurant with bustling people, loud noises, and a generally overwhelming level of mental stimulation. But it was also months in the making. That autumn I was absolutely miserable, peak anxiety levels mixing with periodic depression and pent-up anger transforming me into someone I didn't recognize. With the culmination of months of depression and anger mixing with the anxiety of the party, I broke. Something within me snapped and I was shattered. The panic attack gradually faded and guilt settled in its wake: guilt for missing my friend's birthday, for not answering her calls, for having to make an excuse or flat-out lie about why I wasn't there; guilt because I couldn't explain why I was feeling the way I was. I felt like I was undeserving of my anxiety. Not because I was better than it, but because I knew so many people who had much tougher lives than I did but were fine. If their lives were so much harder than mine but they were okay, what was my excuse? My life, to be frank, was great. So why me?
It wasn't until I took a psychology class my senior year of high school that I learned about anxiety disorders. Imagine my simultaneous revelation and dismay when I found I fit many of the signs and symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. In GAD, one experiences prolonged anxiety symptoms with no one distinct trigger; it may be multiple triggers or none at all. GAD, like other anxiety disorders, is believed to affect people who are genetically predisposed to it, though it may also be "set off" by some sort of trauma. Also like other mental disorders, anxiety affects people all over the world, no matter how “hard” their life is. On top of our anxiety unit in class, I began conducting my own Google-research, pulling up dozens of articles from psychologists, psychiatrists, scientific periodicals, mental health organizations, even Psychology Today magazine. The more I searched, the more GAD symptoms resonated with me. I found symptoms I experienced that I didn't even know were caused by my anxiety. The clouds parted and the heavens opened up, revealing the cause for all my quirks, mannerisms, and neuroses. Perhaps I thought my knowledge of my possible mental illness would magically solve everything.
This is usually the part where our hero musters up a fraction of strength, puts herself together, faces her fears head-on, and lives happily ever after. But I'm no hero. This may be the part in other anxiety stories where the protagonist "recovers," but I haven't done so. I still struggle with the monster that is my anxiety. I'm still not ready to reach out to a lot of people in my life about my GAD in fear of the stigma surrounding mental illness. I don't want people to see me differently so I keep quiet, find ways to deal on my own. I still question the legitimacy of my anxiety and feel guilt over not telling the people close to me, but I hope someday that'll change.
My anxiety story isn't quite complete yet, and perhaps it never will be. I still have really bad anxiety days, but in-between those are amazingly good days. I can see there's always a silver lining and I know something within me won't let me lose this battle. My anxiety story doesn't tie up with a pretty ribbon and happy ending, but it's real and un-sugarcoated.