This has been a profound month for me and my anxiety disorder. Fortunately and unfortunately, there are three big reasons for this. Fortunately because it used to be that my entire existence was one big OCD attack no matter what was going on, so the fact that I only get like this for real reasons now is a great thing. Unfortunately because in some ways, it’s easier to deal with generalized anxiety, to convince myself that nothing is wrong, than it is to convince myself not to stress over things that are actually truly wrong.
Trigger #1: My father is having an aortic valve replacement surgery next week, and while it’s a very common procedure with a 99% success rate, we were given the date over a month ago and this kind of waiting period wreaks havoc on the anxious.
Trigger #2: My husband’s place of employment is closing on August 9th, and we don’t know what he’ll be doing afterward. He’s experienced, connected, educated, friendly, hardworking – it shouldn’t be difficult for him to get something. But the anxious brain hears the mouth say, “He’ll find a gig, we’re not worried,” and laughs heartily.
Trigger #3: The state of affairs in our country right now is overwhelmingly scary and enraging, two emotions, like most emotions, that transform into anxiety inside of me.
It somehow feels childish that I can’t just be a little worried and then set it aside and move on. I feel like I should’ve outgrown anxiety by now, or at least be farther along in the process of dealing with it. But I have to remind myself that this disorder is powerful, mean, and tricky, and that it creates these negative, self-critical thoughts in an effort to keep me in its grip. It doesn’t give up easily. But neither do I.
“Might as well get used to you hangin’ around.
Good morning, heartache, sit down.” ~Billie Holiday
I started therapy back when I was fifteen-years-old, and throughout all of high school and most of college, my sessions focused on my eating disorder, specifically on cognitive behavioral therapy to retrain my brain surrounding food, and not so much on the underlying anxiety. Even when I’d reached a point where I honestly wanted to be healthy and eat like a regular person, my body just wasn’t used to it. I had to wear an ugly, bulky sports watch that did not at all go with my cute hippie skirts, and set multiple alarms to remind myself to eat. I also had to work on identifying the voice of my eating disorder and separating it from my own voice, then replacing an “Ed” thought with a nicer, more positive one (e.g., Ed: You are so ugly. Me: That’s your eating disorder talking. You are not ugly.) This was a long process. Yes, I wanted to get better, but it was hard to believe my thoughts over Ed’s. In time though, I did it. I distinctly remember a moment from my senior year of college, six years after I’d first started therapy, when I was wiping down the surfaces at the coffee shop I worked in and caught my reflection in the refrigerator door. For the first time in my life I thought, Oh my god, you’re actually pretty. That evening at home in my bedroom, I examined my naked body at length in the mirror and thought, Wow girl, you ARE pretty! And then I burst out crying; past examinations in the mirror had been the exact opposite of this experience. It was a huge leap in my recovery.
Therapists at the time were big on reminding us that we’d have our eating disorders forever and the goal was to manage it and stay healthy, not recover. Jenni Schaefer, a mental health activist who coined the “Ed” concept in her transformative book Life Without Ed, wrote in a later novel of hers, “I would not encourage you to go through the sweat, blood, and tears of the recovery process only to reach some kind of mediocre state where you were just ‘managing’ the illness. It is possible to live without Ed.” I agree with her, especially now that my eating disorder is a decade in my past and I love to cook and eat. But I also still agree with the therapists. Eating disorders tend to develop as a result of other things, like anxiety, depression, or environmental situations, to name a few. Ed is no longer a part of my life, but the obsessive thought loops, the heart racing and stomach churning, the desire to be perfect and make everyone happy, are always there in some capacity. And I would never do something like a juice cleanse; it’s not that my relationship with food is that precarious, but rather that avoiding any kind of cleanse/diet is an offensive move on my part. I know how easily I obsess over things and how easily I act compulsively on these obsessions.
I also know how sneaky my disorder is. OCD has an excellent memory. Once it sets in, my whole system reverts backwards; my body seems to like it in a way, like, Yeah, we’re really good at being an anxious mess! It’s familiar, and it tricks me into thinking that because it’s familiar, it’s comforting. In fact, it can set in without my even realizing it. I’ve had many moments where I’m playing catch up, where I find myself furiously scrubbing behind the stove while rapidly repeating the same thought about something I’d said earlier in the day. Then I stop myself like, Becky, it’s 11 pm, why are you doing this? What are you actually upset about? There are also other moments where I’m fully aware of the trigger and the progression of the process, but my efforts to stop it are slower than the OCD’s efforts, and I end up in the midst of a spell despite my awareness. And then there are moments where I succeed before it sets in (high five!). So, when I say that I agree with both Jenni Schaefer and the therapists, I mean that I’ve recovered from anorexia, I no longer focus on my food intake or my thoughts surrounding food, but OCD, the underlying reason for my anorexia, is like high blood pressure – I will never “recover” from it but instead will always be managing it.
Me in college. Cheers!
This thought is encouraging, believe it or not. I’m fairly good at dealing with anxiety at this point – my awareness of it has increased exponentially, I’m familiar with many effective techniques (meditation and acupuncture being the two most useful), I have a wonderful support network, and, most importantly, I’m not as scared of it as I used to be. It still frightens me sometimes, but I’m able to recognize that even this fear is a part of the disorder and that my job is to simply chill out about it. I’ve come up with a new mantra that I really love: Just let yourself be okay. I feel like this responds to all aspects of my anxiety, the over-analyzing, the worrying, the intrusive thoughts, the expectations and criticism. I don’t need to be perfect or always joyful or on the up-and-up in every aspect of my life. Even in the middle of an anxiety attack, I am okay. Just let yourself be okay.
But what does anxiety actually look like for me? On a day-to-day basis, I experience only very mild symptoms that don’t affect my life at all, like I get startled easily and my heart swooshes and sinks into my stomach and then races for a few seconds before going back to normal. Most often it doesn’t phase me; I’m used to it by now, and for this I am grateful, to myself, my therapists, my practitioners, teachers, friends and family – getting to this point took a lot from a lot of people. I’m also able to see how my OCD brain can be a huge boon to my life; it gives me motivation and energy, allows me to productively analyze and act accordingly across various situations, and enables me to multi-task effectively. But the spells are a different story, and while I’m grateful they only happen for specific reasons nowadays, they’re still very challenging.
And this is where my frustration comes in. Anxiety is a hot topic in the media, Twitter, even fiction right now, yet most people don’t actually understand what it really means to live with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad people are talking about it. But I want people to see it and get it, not just talk about it. Therefore, I feel compelled (haha) to describe it for you.
5 am. Your heart swooshes and sinks, waking you up with a jerk. It’s racing and pounding against your chest as if you’ve just finished sprinting. Your throat is tight and you’re having trouble breathing. A short gasp. No, no, don’t gasp, you’ve got this. Breathe in deeply, it’s hard, you’re still gasping, that’s okay, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Your heart is slowing down now. You’re fine, try to sleep.
7 am. You shoot up to a sitting position, heart racing. The baby is awake and screaming from his room, “Mommy, get up!” Breathe in, breathe out, slow down your heart. You love his little voice. Just listen to it for a minute. Such a wonderful sound. Now go squeeze him. You feel a little nauseous as you walk to his room, so you reflexively do that weird tic cough thing that drives you crazy (it’s so strange and it doesn’t even help the nausea, why do you do that?). No, you’re fine, just let yourself be okay. Breathe in, relax your neck. Remember how in college you used to throw up every morning on your walk to class? How you knew all the trees on campus with trunks thick enough to hide behind so no one would see you? You’ve come a long way. Don’t be mean to yourself. Mornings are the hardest and you’re strong. Be here, be present, get out of your head and just be with this little creature and all this love. Also, you actually fell back asleep for a bit, so that’s a win.
7:15 am. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will? Should you reply? Yes, you have to. No, no, don’t, it’s dumb, you don’t even know this person.
Your heart is racing again. Get off the phone and focus on your kid who’s so patiently reading a book by himself while you waste time on this bullshit.
7:25 am. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t – Stop it, you’re thought looping, and your heart is now pounding in your throat and you feel nauseous again. Don’t cough, it doesn’t help.
Wait, when did you even pick up your phone again? Just reply and be done with it.
7:35 am. Why did your comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily.
Stop the loop. Slow down your heart. Breathe.
Why did your comment piss her off?
Stop it stop it stop it!
You shouldn’t have replied. Should you check for a response?
NO, YOU IDIOT!
And seriously, do not look at the news right now. Don’t do it. It will only make things worse. Don’t you dare do it. Put the phone down NOW.
7:40 am. Oh come on, “Meh, whatever,” is the best response she could come up with to your very understanding reply? Your heart is pounding in your face right now. This is fucking stupid. Why do people have to be so mean? Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will?
PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE AND GET OUT OF THE APARTMENT RIGHT NOW.
But you haven’t packed anything, and now you’re walking frantically around the living room picking up objects you don’t need, and Lew thinks it’s a game and is laughing, and you wish it were just a game, and now you’re shaking.
7:45 am. Hooray, you have successfully straightened every single knick-knack on every single shelf while simultaneously singing songs with Lewis. Now you get to enjoy the peace and calm of an apartment filled with straightened objects! Except that your heart is racing again. Because this has absolutely nothing to do with Facebook or women or having an organized home. Really this is about your dad’s upcoming surgery. You simply can’t lose another parent right now. You cannot become an orphan.
Ugh, why do you have to go to the most morbid place imaginable? What is wrong with you?
Shit, you’re nauseous again. Sit down. Breathe in, breathe out. Everything is going to be fine.
HA! You wish. No seriously, it is reasonable to assume it will all be fine. But you know what’s not reasonable? Losing both of your parents before you turn 33! You could deal with it, you have to, you have a kid and you have Dave and your writing and your music. You could write and sing through the pain, maybe even help someone else deal with their grief.
Come on, don’t be so dramatic. No one is dying. It’s like, a statistical improbability. Your neck is so tense is hurts. Relax a little. Let yourself be okay.
7:50 am. So, you just texted like, ten people to see what they’re doing today. You cannot hang out with ten people today. You also somehow read three books out loud to Lewis while sending those texts. Wait, did you make any typos? Go back and reread them.
No. Get outside! It always helps to just get outside. Grab the bag and go – it doesn’t matter what you’ve packed.
7:55 am. Excellent work! Those books Lew ripped yesterday are now all nice and neatly taped up, and look at how happy he is reading them! I can’t believe it took you so long to repair them. Anyway, what can you do next? Yes, prop up the stove and clean around the burners, you love doing that.
8:00 am. Beautiful! The stove is cleaned and also you made a to-do list with 36 items for your week off of work, including ‘shower’ just in case you forget. But that’s silly because you love showering. Cross it out. No, don’t cross it out, you haven’t done it yet! Oh and also, you haven’t applied for that tutoring job, don’t forget to add that to the list.
Ahhhhhh, what the hell are we gonna do if Dave doesn’t have a job come September?
Heart swoosh, sink, throb throb throb.
Oh no, your eyes are glazing over, you’re doing that thing where you’re pulling away again, where it feels like there’s an immeasurable distance between you and your surroundings, where you have trouble interpreting other people’s body language and expressions and then just analyze it all on repeat. You’re getting dizzy, your throat and chest are tight tight tight. Don’t do this, don’t float away. Lew finished his puzzle. Put him in the stroller, get outside. You are fine. Just let yourself be okay.
8:05 am. Phew. We did it. But you’re walking really fast. And dammit, you forgot that you have to move the car today or you’ll get a parking ticket!
Swoosh, sink, thump.
Dude, seriously? Your heart’s doing the whole thing over something as simple as moving the car later on? You need to slow down. Feel the sun. Listen to the birds. Smile at your beautiful baby boy. No matter what happens, you will be okay.
Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I am dwelling in the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.
The most fascinating thing for me is that most of you can probably relate to much of what I just described; it was a huge breakthrough in my process when I realized that everyone has these thoughts and fears, just not everyone has the same physical reactions to them as I do. I’ve really worked on viewing my anxiety disorder as a set of physical patterns and not as a reflection on my sanity. This separation allows me to observe it without feeling lost in it. And it’s a personal mission of mine to be honest about my experiences so that people can better understand and empathize with hopefully everyone who suffers from a mental illness. But it can be difficult, especially in a society that devalues women and stigmatizes mental illness.
So please, keep in mind that you have no idea what another person is going through based on their outward appearance. In fact, people are often shocked to learn that I have OCD. Because I’ve worked so hard to maintain it and incorporate mindfulness and relaxation into my life, I often come across as laid-back and easy-going even when I’m having a spell. Just try to be more understanding. We need to love and support each other right now, not judge and tear down. No matter what happens with my dad, Dave’s job, the Senate, Supreme Court, or the White House, we all need to practice more compassion for one another. An act of kindness can multiply and multiply and make a tremendous difference.
Just let everything be okay.