I had an epiphany while driving the other day. I was thinking about my anxiety. Not the popular, feeling nervous or uneasy anxiety that someone might normally feel while driving on a Canadian road in winter time. No, I was thinking about the real, heart-stopping, brain-freezing, paralyze you, mental health struggle with anxiety. I wasn’t feeling anxious while I was thinking about my anxiety, but I was thinking about how I have struggled with it throughout my adult-life. I didn’t know that is what I was struggling with, I just knew things were hard. I just knew that I had to struggle, grit my teeth, push down my feelings, and persevere.
I remember many moments in my life when I didn’t show up, or follow through, because anxiety had me in its grip. Instead of whispering my truth, and pleading for understanding, I just shrugged. I endured the exasperated sighs, the eye-rolls, and the loss of respect from people I cared about or admired. I never once thought, “I wish people understood.” No, because that is not how anxiety works. Instead I asked myself what was wrong with me. I berated my self. I told myself to pull it together. The problem lies with me, and it is my problem to solve…which is not entirely incorrect, but the underlying assumptions about what that problem “really” is, and how it is actually going to be solved were very incorrect.
After a near fatal car accident, I sustained a brain injury. Because of the brain injury, I would often be confused or forget important information. One time, when I had first returned to work, my head began to ache, so I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall for a moment. When I opened my eyes, I panicked because I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing. Another time, I was speaking in front of a group of people and again my head started to ache. I paused for a moment and when I looked up, I couldn’t even remember the topic, let alone the next thing I was going to say. I don’t remember what proceeded it, but I have a very clear memory of being at work, and running to the bathroom to hide. There I was, locked in a stall, and trying to convince myself to just grit my teeth, push down my feelings, and get back to work. “You are going to get yourself FIRED!”
It was at this point that I realized I had gone back to work too soon. I made an appointment with my doctor and off of work I went for a couple more months. In that process of describing what was going on to my doctor, she prescribed me medication for the anxiety and therapy. The medication helped. It didn’t cure me, but it did improve things quite a lot. So did therapy. Therapy gave me words to describe what was happening to me. Therapy also gave me words to describe to others what was happening to me. My therapist often challenged my negative thinking or assumptions…not that I appreciated it at the time.
I now find myself in a place where I have a deeper understanding of who I am, and how I react to things. How I had always reacted to things. Sure, the anxiety got worse after my car accident, but there were elements of it throughout my adult life. I don’t know much about my childhood, except that it was hard. The older I get, the harder I can see that it was. When I come to the edge, and look over the cliff, trying to summon the terrifying, and often heartbreaking memories of my childhood, I am confident that the source of my anxiety is not a defective part of myself. It can be traced to the defective parts and processes of my upbringing. Not getting what I needed as I was growing up, left me with poor coping strategies for life’s challenges. That’s the bad news. The good news is, once I understood that, I could set about fixing it.
How would my life have been different if I had known that I struggled with anxiety?
Well, that I have no way of knowing that… What I do know is that I am happier now. Now that I know what is happening in my mind and in my body. Now that I can name it. Now that I can speak about it with other people. “Please, give me a moment, I struggle with anxiety.” I don’t know that there will ever be a time that I don’t struggle with anxiety, but I do know that I can be gentle with myself, and honest with others. There is a certain feeling of contentment I feel just knowing that.
“Living your truth.”
A phrase often used in regards to sexuality or gender. But to me, living your truth, is anytime you experience something that has historically been mocked, ridiculed, belittled, and shamed. And to stand in the place where fear once stood, and say, “This is who I am, and I will no longer be ashamed.” “You can mock, ridicule, and belittle this in me, but I will no longer feel ashamed.” “I will make peace with myself, I will love myself, and I will seek understanding and support from those broad-minded enough to offer it.”