House of Cards:
My Life With Anxiety Disorder
Trigger warning: panic attacks, anxiety, infant loss, and birth trauma
I have suffered from debilitating anxiety my entire life, but I didn’t know what it was until I was 32 years old. If you don’t know much about anxiety, this video offers a solid introduction.
I was somewhere between four and six years old the first time I remember feeling what I would eventually come to know as anxiety. I was in my bedroom at the first house I remember living in, the one with the delicious Strawberry Shortcake canopy bed and the Scholastic poster with glow-in-the-dark ghosts on the door.
I was sitting on the floor playing with my plushies alone and in an instant out of nowhere, I became cognizant of time’s passing. I was suddenly seized by the paralyzing reality that I was growing up quickly and would only be a child for a short time. I would not always play with dolls or have this bedroom I loved. The fear of it tightened around me; I felt unable to breathe. My mind raced with the thought of it, the icy talons of existentialism gripping my child’s mind. I eventually pushed it aside, but it never really left me.
By middle school, I was overweight enough for other kids to make it an issue and, partly owing to problems at home, seriously lacking in social graces. To make matters worse, I had a mom who didn’t really see the value in dressing to fit in, which meant I wore what she thought was cute, usually clothing aimed at a much younger age group.
Every day at school offered a fresh series of new humiliations, and Foster Middle School became a hellscape, as I’m sure it was for many tweens in the '80s.
The insults were innovative and ceaseless. The other kids would ask me if I was Pentecostal because of my hair (not that there’s anything wrong with being Pentecostal–many of my relatives are). “No, my Mom doesn’t let me cut it” was an answer that only made things worse.
I would hear them sitting behind me talking about how I probably had lice or bought my clothing at the Goodwill, something that today’s kids admit freely and even proudly, but back then was social doom. These interactions fueled a kind of paranoid narcissism. When two girls would whisper or giggle near me, I would look down in shame or ugly glare at them, certain they were talking about me even when they weren’t.
I would sit in class feeling as if something was crushing my chest. Racing thoughts were common now: You’re failing school. You’re going to be in so much trouble. Expect a beating. You’re so fat. No one likes you. Your own mom doesn’t even like you. Don’t look at anyone. Your shoes are stupid. You look like a baby. You shouldn’t have said that thing in first hour two days ago. You sounded like an idiot.
Too often, I would leave school with my head throbbing, a deep pulsing against my temples like thumping bass. Sometimes I threw up when the headaches were really bad.
My old bedroom, my first lifeline.
At home, my mom’s mental health was on the decline, which meant when she was holed up in her room, my brother and I helped ourselves to a lot of canned Dinty Moore stew for dinner, tiptoed around on eggshells, and thanked God for small favors. If something set her off, she could scream at us for literally hours, often talking in maddening, gaslighting circles. Even when she was silent, a lo-fi fear would envelop me as I lay in my bed waiting for the inevitable. The thought of walking up those steps to school the next morning filled me with dread.
1 a.m. If I fall asleep right now, I can still have 6 hours.
1:20 a.m. Oh my God, I am going to have the worst day tomorrow. Five and a half hours.
1:45 a.m. Dread, dread, dread, dread.
2:30 a.m. Don’t think about it. Stop looking at the clock.
3 a.m. I can get by on four hours.
The later it got, the more intense the racing thoughts and blinding white anxiety would become.
I vividly remember my first severe panic attack. I was about 14 years old, and it came out of nowhere. My family was at Wendy’s waiting for our food as if we were any other normal family, and Mom had been on an upswing of late. No one was yelling. I wasn’t in trouble or going to school. If ever there was a time to not have anxiety, this was it. And yet one minute I was talking, joking around with my family doing a bit, and the next I couldn’t breathe. I heard my mom say I was hyperventilating, and in my head, I almost thought it was funny that I couldn’t make myself just stop. The dimensions of the room shifted around me, and everything took on a surreal quality.
It would be 20 more years before I learned that I had a panic attack that day.
In my mind, I believed that everyone had these kinds of thoughts and feelings but that I just wasn’t coping with them as well as other people did. It was another item on the list of reasons I was not good enough.
I forced myself to cowgirl up, and in some ways, it worked. I developed a strange coping mechanism of being able to talk over my anxiety, a house of cards that falls apart when any pressure is applied. I can hear the flat, tinny tone of my voice when I’m talking through anxiety, but I make eye contact and smile and try hard to breathe and not think.
A Tolerable Misery
Throughout my twenties, my anxiety was a tolerable misery. I learned to duck into the bathroom or a walk-in cooler when I was waiting tables or call a quick restroom break when I was teaching, then slump onto the ground next to the toilet and wait for it to pass, make a list, put on lipstick, force a hundred mundane actions to propel myself past the racing pulse.
*Suppressing existential terror*
The anxiety wasn’t constant, but when it hit, it hit hard and often without warning.
Some nights, I would lie awake in bed at night gripped by every insecurity and failure just as I did in middle school.
At my cousin’s house during a Pampered Chef party with her beautiful suburban friends with their designer jeans and tans, I suddenly couldn’t breathe and took to the bathroom for a solid ten minutes.
At breakfast with my in-laws, when, mid-conversation, eggs would turn to paste in my mouth and my hands would suddenly tremble, I would excuse myself with hardly a word.
Making eye contact with colleagues would suddenly make my throat dry up and my voice crack; I would lose the ability to focus as thoughts began skipping through my mind.
People take notice of these things, and that makes it worse.
I still didn’t have a name for it, but in a dark corner of my mind where I didn’t want to look too closely, where the internalized stigma of mental health resided with the image of my mom hiding in a blacked out room, I piled shame upon self-loathing.
Getting the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis
In a way, I have Arthur to thank for bringing about my diagnosis. The trauma of losing my first pregnancy was compounded with the trauma of Arthur’s birth a year later when an infection from my C-section put me in the hospital for the better part of five weeks. After I finally went home, I couldn’t lift him for months, relying on others to place him on my lap or in my arms. I was unable to work or drive.
In a short time, I had lost almost all autonomy and was completely at the mercy of those around me, and after 12 years of estrangement, my parents had volunteered to help out with Arthur every day while Justin worked.
I had felt it creeping up for days, tightening around me, constricting my chest, amping me up with a low-grade adrenaline buzz, but I had to go here, be there, change the baby, try to pump milk, take my antibiotics. Justin was out of the room and Arthur was in my arms when it happened.
It was as if someone suddenly lit a match inside me igniting an explosion of blinding fear. I couldn’t hold my baby. What if I dropped him? I was terrified to hold him suddenly, and that terror spun me into the most terrifying panic attack of my life. I felt detached from my body. I felt I would stop breathing and die. I knew logically that I wouldn’t, but that knowledge was like a balloon floating away from me just out of reach. Justin came back to find me sobbing and Arthur tucked away in his baby papasan safely out of my reach.
In that moment, I somehow suddenly realized what had been happening to me my entire life. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew as clearly as I knew my name. I called my doctor, who prescribed an anxiety medication to get me through to my appointment and referred me to a psychiatrist over at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic.
When I told him my story, the doctor immediately confirmed what I suspected. After I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), my brother became visibly upset. He told me he remembered my being diagnosed with anxiety as a teenager. My mom had taken the diagnosis as a personal criticism of her parenting, telling the doctor and anyone who would listen that I didn’t have anything to be anxious about and that I was just dramatic.
Beginning to Manage My Anxiety
After receiving my diagnosis, I started counseling for a while and spent a few years on low-dose anxiety meds until I could develop my own strategies for coping with anxiety. In many ways, I think those medications saved me–saved my marriage, saved my self-worth.
While they don’t fix anything, meds can be a powerful tool to help you bring yourself back to life so you can work on finding new ways to take control. Most days, I do pretty well, but I know that anxiety disorder can ebb and flow over the years from my own experience and realize I may need to call on them again someday.
People who haven’t experienced chronic or debilitating anxiety often have a hard time empathizing with it. They think what I used to think about myself, that anxiety sufferers just need to deal with things in their lives better. They don’t realize that anxiety is both a physiological and psychological response. It’s like being pressed into a restrictive rollercoaster harness you can’t unlatch. Once the ride launches, you can’t come back until it ends, forced to ride out the twists and turns, sometimes feeling quite literally as if you’re going to die.
Anxiety is Surprisingly Common
Knowledge is power, and understanding the nature of my anxiety disorder has helped me realize a great deal about who I am and learn to forgive myself my shortcomings and let go of many insecurities. I know now that I would have had anxiety disorder even if I had a perfect family and fit in easily at school. I think the problems I faced exacerbated what was already there, fanning the fire and impeding my ability to develop healthy coping mechanisms, but it was always there from the beginning.
If I wasn’t sure of that before, I am now as I see what might be symptoms of anxiety surface in both of my biological children. I am careful not to assign a name to anything, but I listened and took it very seriously when one of my children told me they had trouble sleeping at night because worries race through their mind and the other began to dread school and experience regular headaches. I enrolled them both in counseling through the local organization that serves Noah’s autism needs.
I’ve read almost everything I can find about anxiety, and I’ve read enough to know that it’s more common than you might expect–about 18% of adults. I’ve come to believe there are plenty of people out there in the world suffering needlessly like I was, unaware that it isn’t their fault.
But it’s not your fault, and you don’t have to live under that shadow.
I’ve learned that anxiety doesn’t look the same for everyone. For some people, it takes the form of a lower appetite and an amped-up energy level that comes from all that extra adrenaline. For others, it can mean severe panic attacks that seem to jerk you from your body. It can make your fingertips go numb like it did to Betty Draper in “Mad Men” or cause digestive woes like Adriana in “The Sopranos.” No one experience is more valid than another, and what works to help one person may be of no use to someone else.
Each person’s anxiety and best treatment plan is as unique as their fingerprints. In my own experience, what works one day doesn’t always help me the next.
Developing Strategies for Coping
For the most part, I manage my anxiety by carefully regulating my activities. I’ve learned that when I try to take on too many extra commitments, especially the kind that require a good deal of social energy, I can end up triggering a panic attack. I stopped caring what people think if I have to cancel plans. I have three kids, two jobs, and a struggling writing career–I reserve the right to duck out if I need it to preserve my own mental health.
I’ve done a fair job of surrounding myself with good long-term, low-maintenance friendships, the kind of people who are fine with meeting up every six months in real life and talking back and forth online in the meantime.
Justin has been my lifeline through the years.
I’ve learned to be patient with my loved ones because I can’t fault them for not understand something they haven’t experienced. I truly believe that even if they aren’t perfect, everyone is capable of being a better ally if their heart is in the right place. Justin used to be the absolute worst, but over the years he has become my strongest ally and my lifeline when it comes to anxiety.
I have tried to foster a culture of open discussion about anxiety in my home. If I feel anxious, I will tell my family directly that I need to step away for a little while and then retire to my bedroom. I’ve found that watching streaming video can help a great deal if it’s something I’ve seen before that doesn’t require much focus. Nine times out of ten, it’s the same show that kept me going back in the '90s on late night syndication–”Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Talking openly about my anxiety is one of the best tools in my arsenal. It might make others uncomfortable at first, but we have to be able to speak about it, laugh about it if we need to, and heal. We have to do this because anxiety is so much easier to cope with when you have support and can work through it with people you care about. We have to talk about it because it really does take a strong support network to live your best life with anxiety.
With a good deal of work, anxiety has become just one piece of who I am, something I can manage with support and self-care.
Hope for Anxiety Sufferers
If you think you might be suffering from anxiety, know that you are not alone and you didn’t do anything wrong to deserve it. I want to encourage you to reach out and find the help you need to get out from under the weight of anxiety disorder. If you don’t know how to find a counselor or don’t have insurance, leave me a comment or send me a message at TulsaKids, and I will help get you in touch with community resources.
If you’re not ready to reach outside physically, take the first step of joining a Facebook group for people suffering from the same issues. In the right group, you can develop strong connections and get support and advice on self-care. Whatever you do, remember you don’t have to face this alone.
If you think someone you love may be suffering from anxiety, find a way to reach out and support them so they know they are not alone.
Share your experiences in the comments, and remember that sharing your hearts and small acts of kindness go a long way to making the world a better place.
Thanks for reading. Peace in the Nebula!