Four. I am my mom’s shadow. I am scared of sleeping by myself and the dark and bad weather and being dropped off at daycare and strangers. I have stomach aches and sometimes breathe so fast and shallow that I get dizzy. I cry at… well, anything. I am so sensitive. So, so sensitive. I don’t even know what sensitive means. I just know that I have a lot of emotions in this small body.
Eleven. I begin having intense anxiety. I have no idea what it is. I’m riding in the car with my mom and just feel dread. Stomach-churning dread. Except I don’t have the emotional vocabulary to identify what I’m feeling. I start crying and can’t articulate what exactly is wrong, other than “Mom, I’m scared of everything.” I’m terrified of 4 major things – someone bombing the United States, a meteor destroying earth, Y2K, and my parents dying. There are many, many other fears, but these are at the forefront of my mind, like, all the time.
Fourteen. My youth group and I are going on a church trip. We’re riding in the HURCH VAN (it was missing the C), and the sun is setting. Everyone is laughing and joking. I look out the window and just know. I know something is wrong. I don’t know what. The world feels ominous, like something is coming. Do they feel it too? I think to myself. Something keeps me from asking them, because I don’t think they do.
Sixteen. I have my first panic attack. I’m at the beach with my friends, and it’s spring break. We are all having fun, and I have 3 sips of a Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I pretend I’m tipsy, but I’m too scared to lose control to actually finish the bottle. We drive around the city and something just feels… off. I can’t explain it. It feels evil here. There’s something wrong. We get back to the condo and my heart starts beating fast. I can’t breathe. I need to get out of here. I look at my two friends, Lindsey and Whitney. “Something’s wrong. I think I’m dying.” They sit me down and start trying to talk to me, to figure out what is wrong. “Does your chest hurt? Can you take a deep breath?” “I don’t know, I don’t know.” I’m crying. Whitney’s older sister walks in the room, sees me, and goes, “Oh. She’s just having a panic attack. She’ll be fine,” and walks out. Somehow, this is exactly what I needed. I needed for the beast to be named. Once I have a name for it, it shrinks away, but I am left reeling for weeks. My mom takes me to a therapist who does a couple of assessments and diagnoses me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder. Again, once the beast has a name,it doesn’t seem to loom quite as much. The Lexapro and Xanax helped, too.
Eighteen. I have a health scare and my world crashes. I begin having panic attacks again. My arms and legs feel weak and my eyes twitch and vibrate. I become agoraphobic and once again am attached to my mom. She is my safety blanket. I have so much constant panic that I don’t eat. I drop out of school for the semester. After being off of anxiety meds, I begin taking Zoloft. I pass out in the shower. I talk to Jesus every single day and I ask Him to take this cup from me every. single. day. My relationships deteriorate because I quit communicating. I can’t leave the house – not without my mom. I pore over my Bible for hours every day. I think that if I just say the right prayer, recite the right verse, that I will be cured. That I will be healed of this hell. Eventually the meds kick in and I am able to enter back into society. Things settle down for a while.
Twenty. My husband deploys to Iraq. We decide that I will move back from our apartment in California to my parents’ home in Georgia. We say that it’s the most financially responsible thing to do, but really, I am just terrified of living by myself across the country from everything that I know. I hold it together and am able to say goodbye at the airport, then I promptly have a panic attack after Chase walks away. My mom calls a medic and they take my vitals. “I’m just scared I’m going to pass out,” I say. “If you don’t get your heart rate down, then you will,” they reply, helpfully. The panic attacks continue for weeks. I feel like I can’t take a full breath, which ends in me gasping for air. I pull a muscle by my ribs because I’m trying so hard to just breathe. I am convinced I have asthma, or cancer, or ALS, or all of it. Eventually the attacks lessen.
Twenty-one. It’s my birthday, and I agree to go to dinner and a local bar with some friends. We’ve been waiting for this, after all. I plaster on a smile. I’m really good at hiding it. I am able to make it through dinner unscathed. When we get to the bar, though, I feel the familiar sensation curling its way through my chest. “I’ve got to go, I’m sorry.” One of my friends gets mad at me because she bought me a shot and I’m leaving. “I’m about to freak out, I’m sorry.” I’m crying. I call my mom to pick me up because I didn’t drive. I can’t stop crying. I’m so mad at my friend for not understanding. I’m so mad at myself for not being a normal 21-year-old. I’m so mad at God for not listening to me. WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?? WHERE ARE YOU?? DO YOU EVEN CARE?? I get home and my mom starts praying over me. I can’t breathe, so I’m pacing and crying and pulling my hair out as she is praying out loud. Eventually the panic attack subsides and I’m able to sit on the bed beside my mom, who is still praying for me. Silent tears slip down my face and I no longer have the energy to wipe them. My mom is softly speaking in tongues and I am silently, desperately calling to God. I just need to know that you love me. I need to know that this pain isn’t pointless. I need to know there is a reason that you won’t just take it away. I just need to know that you love me. Please let me know that you love me. “I love you, my child,” my mom replies, having no idea of the silent plea I had just offered to God. As they always do, the panic attacks become fewer and further between, and my life returns to as close to normal as it ever does.
Twenty-four. We live in Virginia, but we are home for Christmas. Chase and I fall into the familiar habit of spending the days with our families and spending the nights getting drinks with friends. I’ve been fighting my anxiety for a couple of months now, and I still have the upper hand… until the end of the Mayan calendar approaches. I know deep in my bones how ridiculous it is that I am nervous about this, but I can’t ignore the incessant scratching at my brain. I’m getting worse. If I were in a stable place, this would not bother me. I stay up all night on December 21, because if the end of the world is coming, then I’ll be damned if I don’t go out swinging. Nothing happens, of course, but the scratch, scratch, scratch of the anxiety doesn’t stop. When we return to Virginia, I begin having stomach pains. I convince myself that I have stomach cancer. I go to the doctor and am diagnosed with chronic gastritis – most likely caused by a combination of stress and coffee and wine, which are the 3 things on which I survive. He starts me on medication, which helps my stomach, but doesn’t help my anxiety. I begin to see a therapist again. She teaches me about catastrophic thinking and how people with this cognitive distortion think the absolute worst case scenario is going to happen (like someone bombing the US or a meteor hitting the earth or Y2K or my parents dying or the End of the World in 2012). FINALLY I have a name for it. Finally, this beast doesn’t seem quite so looming. I start Zoloft again for 3 days but follow the advice of Chase and God (that’s a story for another time) and stop.
Twenty-seven. Chase and I just brought a beautiful new life into the world. I don’t know anything about babies. I don’t think I’m ready for this. Too late now. We buckle Law into his car seat and start our terrifying drive home. “The world seems different, don’t you think?” Everything just looks different. It all feels off. There was a shift that happened while I was in the hospital, but I don’t know what it is. We get home and I feel lightheaded, so I go to sit in the rocking chair. I feed Law and lie down to take a nap. I wake up 2 hours later and feel sick. Something is wrong. I don’t know what. Am I dying? My skin feels sore like I’ve been in the sun too long and the air seems heavy. What is going on? I call the doctor and ask if something is wrong. “I feel like I have the flu or something.” She seems annoyed by me. I ask if it could be from lack of sleep. “Could be,” she says. I can’t stop crying. Family comes and goes and Law is hungry all the time and I constantly feel dizzy and weak. I’m convinced I have a heart problem or that I am going to bleed out or that I am just going to up and die for no reason at all. Why am I crying so much? I am stubbornly committed to breastfeeding and make a game of wiping my tears before they fall on Law. I want to die. I am terrified of dying. I constantly call Chase to come home from work because I can’t handle it. I feel like it will never go away. I start seeing another therapist, one who specializes in postpartum depression. In the first session, I cry the entire 50 minutes. She is kind and holds space for me. She teaches me breathing techniques and grounding techniques and they help a little, but not enough. Chase goes to work one day and I feel dizzy and something snaps. I call Chase. “I need you to come get me. Now. I need help.” I don’t know what kind of help I’m even talking about. I’m not suicidal, but I want it all to stop. I can’t handle this anymore. If I have to live like this one more day, I am going to go insane. Chase takes me to my therapist appointment and she agrees that I need medication. She tries her best to get me in sooner to see their psychiatrist, but she is booked. They are able, however, to contact my OBGYN and have her write a prescription for Lexapro and Ativan. Beginning the medication was a bumpy start, but eventually I begin having hope again. Eventually, I am able to talk to Law and sing to him and dote on him. Eventually, I am able to leave the house again and laugh again and move forward again. Eventually, my life resumes a new, better normal.
Thirty. Anxiety is a beast that I fight every. single. day. The beast is smaller, though. On average, it is more of an irritating buzz than an all-consuming black hole. I am a therapist now, because I know. I’ve been there. And I want to spread hope and hold space for those who feel hopeless and alone. I want to let them – and you – know that it is possible to have a mental health disorder and to still lead a rich, fulfilling life. I know that the beast can rear its head again one day, but the more I intimate I get with it – the more I examine its bumps and edges and hold it in my hand – the more power I have over it.
I’m Haley. Anxiety is a bitch. And this is my story.