I don’t have many memories of my life without anxiety. It seems to have always been part of me in some form or another. Pretty much everyone in my family has it – I however seem to have gotten the worst of it. I had my first panic attack when I was 6. We were at a restaurant and suddenly I started to feel nauseous, then dizzy, sweaty, and my heart started to beat really fast. I could hear it beating in my ears, it was so loud. I ran to the bathroom and got sick.
The next time we went to a restaurant, it happened again. Then again. I decided it must be restaurants that were making it happen and decided to stop going out to eat. For a few weeks it worked. Then one night at the dinner table I started to feel my stomach twist, and knew it was happening again. I spent the rest of the night in the bathroom shaking and crying.
I decided that it must have been the meal I ate and vowed I would no longer eat that food. There. Fixed. But it happened again… and again… and again. Eat, panic attack, cut out food, repeat.
Until at age 8 I was only eating oranges, white bread, tortilla with beans and cheese (my only protein source) and Spaghetti- Os. As you would expect, I was massively underweight and malnourished. My parents did everything to try and get me to eat.
Of course, there were a string of therapists. One said my parents were too “attached” and I was just spoiled. Another said they weren’t attentive enough and I was seeking attention. Most took one look at my bony body and stuck me with the label of anorexic.
Finally in 1998, I was properly diagnosed with Generalized Panic Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. During this time, both were at its worst. I was having panic attacks daily and spending hours on rituals. Over the next few years, I tried different medicines – some helped, some didn’t. I saw a therapist several times a week and was taught exposure therapy and techniques to get me out of a panic attack. It would get better, then worse again. In the 7th grade, I started getting agoraphobia. Leaving the house for school every morning would send me into anxiety. Finally my parents decided to homeschool me and focus on getting me better. Without the constant stress of school, I was able to work on my mental health. I found a new and amazing doctor and a combination of medication that stabilized me.
A year and a half later, I started fresh in a brand new high school. I had trouble here and there. The anxiety would come when I would be overwhelmed or stressed and that in turn would make the OCD worse. I would take a couple days off and get extra time on homework and that got me through. My mental health has never gotten as bad as it was before high school. I live with it every moment of my life, but most days it is just a low whisper and I can push it away.
When it does get bad, I have a wonderful support system to help. My mom is always willing to take my son for the afternoon, and my husband (though he doesn’t always know the right thing to say) will be there to rub my back and make me feel safe again.
Most importantly, when my son was born almost 3 years ago, I started to feel myself slipping back into old habits. The panic attacks increased as I began a whole new routine and identity as a mom. I started not wanting to leave the house and I knew I could fall back to those dark days if I let myself. So I pushed. I looked at my beautiful son’s face and knew I didn’t want that life for either of us. A mom who would get overwhelmed at the drop of a hat, who was so wrapped up in her rituals that her child was second, a mom who wouldn’t go to the zoo or the park because she was too afraid to leave the house. That thought was scarier than anything my anxiety could come up with.
I began to craft and make things as a way to focus and an outlet for all the worry inside me. When I was feeling burnt out and ready to give up, I would go make something. I found that even a half hour was enough to calm me down and bring me back to center. When my son was 6 months, I started selling the things I made. The feedback was more than I could have ever expected. I took all the negative thoughts I had and instead made something that made others happy. That truly saved me.
So every day while my son naps, I go down to my office, put on some music, and make a card or a mug or something.
The biggest key for me is to not put too much on my plate. I know I could never hold down a full time job. I stay just busy enough to keep me occupied and have a purpose, without overwhelming myself. It’s a tricky balance and not one I can always achieve, but every day is a chance to start over and try again. Most importantly, my son drives me every day to be better, even if that means swallowing the mom guilt and giving him the iPad so I can go into a dark room and breathe through it. After almost 30 years, I have learned to see the signs and catch it early. Anxiety will always be with me but I find ways to detach from it and keep trying every day.