I’ve tried to be very open about that fact that I was recently hospitalized for anxiety.
I try not to be embarrassed by it.
But even as I type out those sentences, I feel myself shrinking, wishing I could make the font smaller, put asterisks around things to make them seem nonchalant, like I do when I text on my phone.
*I was recently hospitalized.* *shrugs* NBD.
We live in a time when people are more anxious than ever. At least 18% of adults over 18 suffer from anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. I say “at least” because there are many people who suffer and go un-diagnosed; people like me, who don’t want to be labeled and shunned, so they refuse to see a therapist or ask for help.
I’d venture to say that many more than 18% of adults in this country experience anxiety. Look at the world we live in. Everything is digital, nothing is tangible. Politics are a hot and terrifying mess. We’re all feeling lost and disconnected.
My friend and current intern extraordinaire Mariah wrote a piece about fighting the stigma around mental health and shared it today on Facebook, inspiring me to write this post. Mariah is a junior in college, and look at her, being all brave and articulate about this tricky subject. I wish I could say “I am living with anxiety and depression and I am not afraid of it” like she does. What a badass.
But here’s the thing: I’m definitely afraid of it.
I’m afraid of my anxiety, of its crushing weight, of its constant voice. I’m afraid I’ll “end up” an anxious, depressed person no one wants to be around; a terrible mother; a disappointment to my partner, my family, and myself. Mostly myself.
I recently started seeing a therapist and she is okay. Sometimes I hate going. I hate saying that I’m going. It makes me feel awful to say I’m seeing a therapist, although when I tell my friends, I’m always surprised (and frankly, delighted) to learn that they have therapists, too. Or sad that they don’t. Or I feel bad that I’m fortunate enough that I can see a therapist when so many other people can’t.
I do feel better when I go. The therapist – my therapist – says that I need to try to be more selfish and think about what I really want. This idea seems extremely impossible to me. I’ve spent my life taking care of, and looking out for, other people. I’m such a people-pleaser that I’m trying to do it, this being selfish thing, just to make my therapist happy.
When I think about making choices based on what I want, I’m usually at a loss. What do I want? and then, immediately, How does that affect so and so? Can I afford that? What if I do that and I don’t like it? What if I’m not good at it? What if I do it and people think I’m stupid? What if I plan that and no one comes? What if so-and-so dies? What if I get sick? What if I do it and it’s awful and everyone hates me?
Some of that panic is normal. Some of it is not. I grew up in poverty and experienced a lot of trauma as a child and young adult. I recently found and read this study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the United States based on 15 years of research. According to the study, children who experience poverty have a significantly higher risk of both physical and psychological illness. In fact, 1 in 6 children who are raised in poverty develop mental health disorders. 1 in 6! The article goes on to be more terrifying:
Another thing about these mental disorders that result from childhood poverty and stress is that they can thrust the individual back to poverty. After all, such problems can affect the person’s intellect, the chances of getting a job, and function effectively in a social and occupational environment.
I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want my anxiety to “thrust me back to poverty.” Anxiety about that makes my anxiety worse. Thinking about how I’m only making my anxiety worse makes my anxiety worse. Saying the phrase “my anxiety” makes me feel privileged and that gives me anxiety.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” the nurse at the hospital said to me knowingly as I was hyperventilating about being at the hospital because I couldn’t stop having panic attacks, and then hyperventilating because I was hyperventilating. I remember thinking “OBVIOUSLY.”
What I wanted to know then was: how the hell do you make it stop? It’s a vicious cycle, yes, but how do I get out of it? Is it possible to conquer anxiety? Can I win at this?
Here are some things I’ve learned since then that I wish someone had been able to tell me during that miserable weekend (and the occasional miserable days I’ve had since):
Some ways to conquer anxiety:
- Write, write, write. Write in a notebook. Write a blog. Text a friend. Type in a Word document. Let it pour.
- Be vulnerable. Try to share with people if you can. The more people you tell the better you’ll feel. Send a mass text if you have to.
- Take time off if you need it. Work will be there, or there will be new work eventually. Family and friends will forgive you for missing coffee, or even Christmas/insert holiday-of-your-choice.
- Have someone lay on top of you. Seems real extreme, works real well. If you don’t have anyone to do this for you, pile all the blankets in your house on your body. Try books if that’s not heavy enough.
- Ask for help. I was most anxious, recently, because of a sudden move that felt really devastating – and I physically was not able to do much that weekend. Asking for help with packing boxes and moving across town was so hard, but as things got done, my anxiety lessened. At some, you have to ask yourself: what’s easier, asking for help, or dying a panic attack-induced death?
- Don’t put a price on it. It’s better to wrack up debt in therapy bills/ER visits/medication/a moving company if you need it than to die. My experience is that most hospitals/therapists will work with you if you don’t have insurance or don’t have great insurance.
- Say a mental or verbal “fuck you“ to anyone who judges anything you do. Someone recently told me this and the tenacity that comes from cursing has really helped me. When you say it (in your head or out loud), say it with the words underlined. Really mean it.
I know these ideas won’t work for everyone. I remembering trying to Google “how to stop having a panic attack” while I couldn’t stop having panic attacks and being really pissed at all the suggestions. Just breathe! and Think positive thoughts! Sometimes you really just can’t. Sometimes it’s hard to keep trying.
I don’t have any words of encouragement for that, other than that I think sometimes anxiety, depression, and loneliness are journeys we have to take alone, and that often people survive their journey. Not always. I think I can do it, but I’m not naive enough to say “Everyone can conquer anxiety! We can all do it together!” because I know too many people who have lost their battle. This stuff is heavy, this stuff is hard. I’m grateful for a space to be open about it today.
With thanks and vulnerability,