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…

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. fairiesandsparkles
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 10:48:59

    *hugs* to you sweetie… you’ve come a long way xxx

    Reply

  2. Niki
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 11:44:16

    A friend on Facebook posted a link to this and I wanted to say thank you and well done. Thank you because I have recently realised that the depressive episodes I have suffered from all my life weren’t entities in themselves, they were triggered by chronic anxiety – manage the anxiety and the depression disappears like magic! I am 46 now and this has been a lifelong condition – Knowing what I know now, I can see the earliest manifestations at around 4 years old when my parents separated. I am working through it with CBT currently (counselling has not helped me in a lasting way as it never helped me identify the anxiety, rather tried to deal with the depression and self esteem issues). I am now going through, possibly, the most stressful time of my life, but for the first time I’m not seeing it as hopeless – on the contrary, I can see the first glimmers of a future in which I can control my anxiety and actually deal with issues rather than be paralysed by them (which is where the feelings of hopelessness actually originate). I haven’t done any reading around attachment theory but it sounds interesting so I will look out for some books,
    Well done on being kinder to yourself – thats something I still need to learn xx

    Reply

    • poppythistle
      Feb 11, 2012 @ 13:03:27

      Isn’t it strange that being kind to ourselves can often be one of the hardest lessons to learn! Yet, it makes life so much easier when we’re able to be kind and understanding about our reactions.
      I ended up spending thousands of pounds to study counselling for years before I was able to treat myself with the empathy and acceptance that I was so easily able to show my clients.
      I utterly believe in the power of treating ourselves everyday – whether it’s just acknowledging that this particular cup of tea is for that thing we got through – doesn’t have to cost money or even be different from our usual routine, just an awareness and a conscious thought that this time it’s a reward (or sometimes a comfort for a rough time)
      Keep on practising kindness, it’s like any other habit to break or start, it takes practise. Good luck!

      Reply

  3. Sarah
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 12:57:48

    So much love and admiration coming your way. xx

    Reply

  4. Julia
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 16:37:33

    Well done and well expressed. I am sure this will help lots of people also as it is. Issues that are close to me in certain circumstances. I like downloading meditations from the heaven on earth website which are full of reassurance on self acceptance and love. Xxxxjulia

    Reply

  5. Emma C
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 12:19:00

    Well done you. You are amazing, and don’t forget it. You should be proud of yourself.

    Also, you might find this blog interesting. It’s similar, but different, but expresses some of the same things you have struggled to deal with.
    http://notaloneinthere.wordpress.com/

    Reply

  6. wildjuju
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 11:48:34

    Bravely expressed. As for labels, well just remember they can peel off in time. Sometimes you have anxiety, but you might not always, so don’t lead your brain to expect it. It’s been a real thrll as one of your friends watching you take these steps and learn to love yourself, build for yourself the walls foundation of love and understanding that we know you deserve. well done.

    Reply

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