Looking back I think my anxiety started more than 20 years ago at about the age of 17. I don’t really recall any symptoms before then. I didn’t like all eyes on me, but I was still able to do everything I wanted to do.
At 17 I started working at Wal-Mart. Overall, I enjoyed it there even with the amount of people I needed to deal with and the pressures the job had. Still, I would find myself unable to force myself into work some days. As I drove closer, I would tear up, and if I made it to the parking lot I would hyperventilate and not be able to stop crying. I didn’t realize I was having a panic attack. On those days I would usually swing by my boyfriend’s house halfway to work and ask him to call me in sick.
He was a huge support for me. I always called him my personal Valium or Xanax. I’m married to him now, and he still has an amazing gift when it comes to soothing me. Since early in our relationship I relied on him to calm me and make me feel safe. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t need another person to calm me down. At first because I was only 17, and then because it was just how things had always been. I thought it was sweet.
Over the next few years I began avoiding new situations, places, etc. For example, my husband learned to not suggest a new restaurant for us to try. I reliably had a panic attack anytime I would attempt such a thing, and declining the suggestion would also bring one on as I panicked at the idea of disappointed someone. Some days would be so bad that I couldn’t even bring myself to get food in front of extended family at a get-together.
In my early 20’s a set of circumstances escalated my symptoms in a way that left me misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. In actuality I had depression and generalized anxiety (along with social anxiety) that wasn’t treated. Still, we got my symptoms down to where I could function and be a better mother.
Things get worse
Over the next 10 years I would have two more kids (4 total) and be on a few different treatment plans. In between, the types of situations that brought on my panic attacks increased. On one occasion I was asked to join in a game at my child’s scout meeting. Although I didn’t want to, I went along with it and held myself together until it was my turn. Suddenly I panicked and ran out. Sitting on the step crying, I was so embarrassed. Even more so, I was so grateful to my child and the troop leaders for their understanding. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to go back into the room, and we went home soon afterward.
Another time I was determined to take my oldest to their first clogging lesson. As we drove past the building, I just couldn’t make myself stop and go inside. There was an unexpectedly full parking lot, and it was overwhelming to me. I felt like a failure as a parent, but I knew that I would have a full panic attack if I tried to push myself. I’d learned that lesson at the scout meeting. So, I explained what was going on, apologized to my child, and we drove home. Again, I’m so thankful for the understanding they were able to give me even at a young age. We were able to make it to the next lesson, and since I was familiar with things from then on, there wasn’t another time that I couldn’t do it.
During all of this, it never occurred to me that anxiety was the problem, nor that it could be treated. It wasn’t until my early to mid 30’s that I finally looked for answers.
It was my tight muscles that did it. No matter how much stretching I did I couldn’t get my neck/shoulders and my calves to relax. After some Googling I came to the conclusion it was likely anxiety, and I decided I should talk to someone about it.
I had just restarted treatment for depression, so it was just a matter of mentioning it at my next appointment. Surprisingly, I was so scared! Talking it out with my husband, I figured out I was nervous about the idea of not being anxious.
Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, looking back I had anxiety for so long (almost 20 years!) that the idea of not being anxious was completely strange and scary.
Asking for treatment is the best thing I could have done. It’s hard to describe the relief I felt once I noticed the anxiety receding. A whole new world opened up to me, and I felt such gratitude! I’m still working on overcoming the last bits of my social anxiety, but most of my general anxiety seems to be under control.
And then there’s today
With my most recent meds adjustment, I’m doing really well. Just prior to this, I was doing okay, but still had some struggles.
It was most noticeable at night. Lying in bed intrusive thoughts popped into my head, and I had to distract myself so I didn’t spiral down into self loathing. Telling myself the negative thoughts aren’t true is only so effective at night. There is too much time to think. When that is an issue, games on my phone help me through the worst of it usually. Once my mind quiets down a bit, I move on to listening to music. Music helps me to fall asleep, and in the morning the thoughts are a distant memory that I know to not be real. This was a problem almost every night, so I knew my meds weren’t quite right.
I went in to discuss it and we made adjustments that improved my anxiety and also decreased some side effects I was dealing with. At this point, I’m doing much better, and I’m very happy with our choice.
I’m confident that, while there will be ups and downs, my anxiety will continue to improve. Continued learning, pushing myself, and support from loved ones will make a big difference.