Owning my Anxiety

In a way, this post has been over 20 years in the writing.

That’s how long I’ve experienced the physiological and emotional effects of anxiety in my life. That’s how long it’s taken me to get to this point, where I freely admit to having an anxiety disorder to anyone who cares to know. I’ve let my workplace know (I’m lucky that I work for a “Mindful Employer” with a commitment to supporting those with mental health issues) and am getting more and more comfortable with identifying myself this way. Whether my anxiety is predisposed or inbuilt into my genetic make up or purely a reaction to the environmental factors around me isn’t important to me any more.

It’s not easy… I’d rather not stick this label on myself, but dealing and living with my anxiety symptoms has become steadily easier the more comfy I get with this label. Some think (and I don’t disagree) that labels are confining to people, but I’ve found this one has freed me. At least so far. I guess it depends on how the label is used. If I start waving that label in people’s faces and using it as a reason to not engage with life, to not challenge myself and push back the boundaries of my comfort zone, then it is confining. Not only that, but I’d be betraying all those who live with anxiety and don’t use it as a reason not to try. So far, I’ve used this label to ask for the help and support that I need to function at my best. It’s allowed me to recognise my limits, to accept that I’m human, not super-human, and to counter the decades old voice in my mind that still judges me for my anxiety.

For twenty years, I’ve surfed the waves of anxiety. It’s not a constant condition, it’s not (often) a severe condition, although there have been at least 4 times that I can easily bring to mind where my anxiety stopped me functioning pretty much altogether and it took a lot of effort from a lot of friends to start me moving again. Consider that those 4 times would have had at least a year of chronic anxiety and stress to get me to that point and took at least a year to recover from each time, and that there were many times where the anxiety lingered but didn’t get severe enough to stall me so I limped along best I could not accepting that I was in need of help because, well, “it wasn’t that bad”. I hope you can start to get a sense of how much of my life has been spent in this state. In some ways it became normal…  and it’s only years later looking back that I realise it wasn’t normal to spend so much of my life in that way.

This made it easy to see it just as me being weak, failing, not being strong enough, not coping with things that other people find easy. With that attitude toward myself I fell into the old traps of being harsh on myself, expecting even more of myself and berating myself terribly when I just couldn’t cope. I couldn’t accept these emotions that I didn’t want, I relied heavily on my husband to accept them for me, and I fought as hard as I possibly could to push these feelings away. Of course that didn’t work, and they just fell on me when, exhausted, I could finally fight no more.

My first breakdown at 17 created a critical voice in my head that through psychosynthesis therapy I labelled Horrible Harry. HH would drip poison in my ear, telling me my anxiety was a sign of the bad person that I really was inside. The bad person that I hid from the world, but that everyone would see if they just scratched deep enough. The bad person that would get out if I wasn’t careful enough, if I let myself slip up somehow. My friends would stop being my friends if they only knew the real person below the “act”. I wasn’t anxious, I was lazy, this was just my way of getting out of things I didn’t really want to do.

My fearful and negative thoughts were the real ones, the strong ones, and they drowned out the thoughts that told me how hard I was working, how much I was overcoming, how deserving I was of love. How deserving I was of support and help.

Through therapy, I discovered that Horrible Harry was actually a terrified little part of me, it was such a stunning breakthrough to realise that this vicious poisonous voice that I’d been swallowing whole-heartedly and believing for years was like a terrified toddler screaming angrily at the world to keep it at a distance where it couldn’t hurt any longer. It was far easier to be angry at myself rather than scared of the world. And I was scared of the world, for a very long time. The world had done some mean things to me, turned my life upside down at times and generally proved itself unreliable and untrustworthy.

Another stunning breakthrough was when I studied Attachment Theory and read my personality and the reasons why I was the way I was in the pages of a book that John Bowlby had written several decades before! That allowed me to start letting go of the harsh judgements of myself and start accepting me just as I was (instead of making my friends and husband perform that duty for me). Was that’s saying again… what we resist, persists… when it comes to emotions, that’s so true. Resisting your emotions just keeps them around. You may hide them for a while, drown them with substances, distract from them with activities, but ultimately they will be there once the lights are off and the noise has stopped, and they are “magnetic” – they draw other emotions to them until finally, feeling ANYTHING at all will link to the painful stuff you’re trying to avoid. We can’t avoid ourselves, and eventually we run out of strength and it’s at this point we experience some kind of breakdown where normal life has to stop for a while until something changes.

So here I am, twenty years after my first breakdown, having gone through several more since then. Actually, the trigger for writing this post is having actually just gone through a couple of weeks of severe anxiety due to work pressure – but this time… it’s fine.

Yes, I was so anxious I could barely breathe, eat or sleep for a week, but not once did I tell myself off for not coping, not once did I think I was a bad person for not coping. The feelings were still there… I was scared, I was panicked, I was overwhelmed, I was a rabbit in the headlights, I broke down and sobbed that I just couldn’t do this to my ever-understanding husband – but as CBT states, just because I feel it, doesn’t make it true. A single day later and I’m singing along to the theme tune of the “Big Bang Theory” happy in the knowledge I got through the week and my emotion now is pride! That one I’m going to take as I’m feeling it AND it’s true! 😉

I was able to separate my feeling state and my rational recognition of a situation that was no one fault, but was too much pressure for me to deal with. Plus, unlike previous times where the fear is that the feeling state will last FOREVER without surcease, I knew this would end and I knew ultimately that I would cope (coping here means getting through and still being in that job weeks later when things had calmed down), I was coping as well as I was able within the limits that my anxiety sets for me. And gradually, through working with rather than fighting, I get to extend the limits of what my anxiety will let me do.

I wrote this for me, to recognise what a big step this was, to mark this moment in the hope that it’s not just a step forward, but it’s a corner turned, a corner that stays turned forever.

I wrote this for you in case you’re someone living with anxiety to try and offer some hope through my story.

For you in case you’re someone who maybe doesn’t really understand anxiety but tries to support a loved one through it.

Or maybe you’re one of the people that has walked with me for some of the past twenty years, maybe you pulled me to my feet when I’d stopped moving, reminded me time and time again that the inside of my head lies to me, or provided a map when I lost my way. If you are… there are no words to express my gratitude at your patience and love. Just know it worked…