I cannot tell for sure how long I have been living with my mind. Eight years? Ten? It’s hard to say. I finally hit a breaking point my sophomore year of high school when my silly little problem with stress began to manifest itself into debilitating and daily bouts of nausea and vomiting. Getting through the school day was a feat, and lasting until the evening without needing to be hunched over a bucket was a miracle. I could not sort out what the issue was. My doctor was convinced I was just not eating enough, that my blood sugar was low, and that I had to start considering frequent snacking. I listened. I got worse.
It was only until the dreaded, “Is everything okay at home” talk with her did she realize I was suffering with something that was hidden well, but manifesting as a monster. Anxiety. Crippling anxiety.
I was sent to a therapist. I got a bit better. I left after six months because of the financial burden I began to feel like for my parents. My mind only atrophied under the constant nagging of my anxiety, which would then progress into almost obsessive and compulsive thought patterns. A constant loop of “This isn’t good enough”, “You need to do better”, “Do more”, “Don’t forget” assumed, and my daily tasks of being a student were constantly interrupted by my loud and annoying anxious brain. If my hair wasn’t coming out just right, I would have a complete mental collapse at 6:30 in the morning, screaming, crying, and all. If I pulled up to the parking lot and it was too busy to navigate, I would turn right back around, and sob at the local gas station until I could pull myself together and pretend I was fine.
I’m sure people just thought I was an uptight high achiever. And I certainly was. But I cannot help but wonder if that was my doing, or the anxiety.
I graduated and went off to my dream school, where living with my mind became a monumental task. I was on my own and now solving “big girl” problems. Dates. Times. Classes. Credits. Broken appliances. Booking appointments. Interviews. Parasocial relationships. The darkness of campus once the sun went down. It was a lot. But it’s a lot for everyone, right? I’m lucky enough to be at a university with really kind and fun peers. Shut your mouth, and keep it moving.
I wasn’t moving. I was stagnant. Every day my anxious brain would be so wrapped up in the next made-up disaster that I would leave my keys on my desk and have to frantically beg my roommate to let me in to grab my books. I was sleeping more than I should have, eating until I grew out of every pair of pants I owned, and constantly running as if the clock was ticking faster than normal.
I went back to therapy and finally realized anxiety isn’t a tiny little annoyance I can solve and move on from in six short months. This thing is invading my space and beating me up. I’m living with my mind. I’m not in control of it or with it.
I have been in therapy, now on my third therapist, for a year and a half. I’m finally taking care of myself. But I think I’m finally ready to really say it like it is, and really explain what an anxiety disorder is.
An anxiety disorder is not feeling a bit stressed by a long line at Starbucks. I am sure we have all felt that stress, though, and it’s absolutely natural. If you’re running behind and your boss decided he just needed coffee, and you are met with a ridiculous line, you are going to feel the pressure. What would this look like for me?
I’ll be panicking before my boss even texts me, looking at the clock, knowing I’m really not that behind, but feeling so incredibly late that I start to imagine myself getting fired. I’ll get the text from my boss asking for coffee, and I will instantly start to spiral. My heart will race and my hands will tense up. I am in fight-or-flight mode. I will drive like a maniac to get to the nearest Starbucks, even though the boss explicitly told me to “be safe” and “take my time!” I will pull into the Starbucks parking lot and start to cry; he didn’t tell me his order. How can I know? What if I get the wrong thing? What if he hates me? What if the barista laughs at me because I have no idea what the difference between a latte and a normal coffee is? Is there a difference?
I won’t even go inside. I won’t even be able to bear the eyes on me. I will break.
I’ll drive to the next best Starbucks, but this time with a drive-through so I can hide my fear behind my windows. I’ll google the menu in line and rehearse my order 5 times, minimum, before getting to the ominous and impersonal box. I’ll recite the order, almost perfect, and replay the moment I stumbled on the word “venti” for the next week. I’ll pay for the coffee at the window and feel my heart pounding as I try and plan out how I will get out of this literally empty parking lot.
All the while, you got your coffee, navigated the long line, and are already back at work, feeling at ease once again.
Anxiety is not irritating stress. It is a constant feeling of emergency and adrenaline. There is no such thing as relaxation because you must be preparing at every minute. Preparing for what? I have no idea.
The really incredible thing is that I can finally recognize this. After years of struggling with embarrassment over my mind, I have accepted it, I have embraced it, and I have learned how to rewire it to be happier and much more me. I still struggle everyday, but I won’t be having a panic attack outside of a coffee shop anytime soon.
That happened a couple of years ago. And I still think about it.
I’m not ashamed anymore. I’m not going to hide that I have an anxiety disorder. But I’m also not going to allow it to define me any longer. I am the pilot of my own plane. I determine what baggage gets on or off. I determine the passengers. I determine the final destination.
My anxiety disorder was the pilot for far too long. It’s my time to choose. And, I’m thinking Fiji for my first stop; change it up a bit, even if my anxiety is screaming at me to just play it safe.