I struggle with anxiety.
I think I have struggled with it my entire life, but I didn’t know I struggled with it until a few years ago. I thought I was obsessive-compulsive (how many people do you know who get out of their car and immediately vacuum the car after every drive and how many people do you know cannot leave the house or go to bed without everything neat, in order, and in its place?). I’ve always been a control freak. If I can’t control it, I’m not interested. For nearly 39 years, I’ve lived with this and just thought of them as personality traits. I now know that I’m merely labeling myself, but I also know that these things are close cousins of anxiety.
I live with anxiety, and I didn’t know it.
I didn’t know it until it reared its ugly head following my son’s unprovoked grand mal seizure in 2019. Suddenly, the woman who’d been traveling her entire adult life with her husband was crying hysterically and begging not to get on a flight and leave the kids. The woman who once answered phone calls from the kids’ teachers and schools without fear suddenly felt immense fear picking up the phone. The woman who looked forward to date nights with her husband was suddenly in tears and struggling to leave the house. The once calm, albeit slightly obsessive-compulsive, mom and wife and woman who had not a care in the world could not handle anything.
The mom who never stressed with the kids had a cough or a runny nose? Suddenly, she was unable to sleep thinking it was some sort of horrible disease or that someone would choke on vomit in the middle of the night and render themselves unable to breathe. The mom who bandaged up a cut from an unsuccessful bike ride with a kiss and a ‘you’re a rock star,’ was suddenly fighting back tears and up all night terrified of infection. The wife who loved that her husband was the picker-upper and dropper-offer of our middle schooler every day? She was suddenly panicked senseless until both were home safe and sound.
I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t want to travel any longer. I begged my own mother to stop calling me when she was with our kids and we were not home because the fear and panic that set in when her name flashed across my screen stole my breath. My brain knew she was calling to ask where to find a deck of cards or if I knew where Charlotte’s favorite swimsuit coverup was, but my anxiety told me that something terrible happened.
I didn’t know myself anymore. I couldn’t sleep. I have been downing nighttime sleep aid (the non-habit forming type) for years just to get some sleep at night. Otherwise, I’d lay awake in bed imagining all the worst things that might happen but will likely never, ever happen. I was paralyzed with fear after seeing my son’s body as he seized and felt helpless at that moment. I was 35-years-old and I’d never really been through anything difficult – and it’s an ugly wakeup call to float through life without a care in the world and no reason to believe that anything bad will ever happen to you only to have something bad and horrible and awful and terrifying shoved down your throat out of nowhere.
My anxiety was making me crazy to the point that those who know me and love me the most were noticing I wasn’t okay. I did so much research in the years my anxiety started to overtake my life, and I realized that my brain was hardwiring itself to use catastrophic thinking. It’s baseless thoughts without evidence or any reasoning – and I’d allowed myself to let it settle in. A normal, everyday occurrence was suddenly a nightmare that would play itself over and over in my mind until I was in tears. I was struggling. I didn’t want my husband to know how bad it was getting. I pretended to be just as happy and just as much a lover of life as I’d always been, but I was falling apart. I didn’t want to tell him because when I told myself, I realized how stupid and how crazy I sounded. I could hear myself. That’s the thing about anxiety. You know better, but you can’t accept better. I mean, I could literally hear myself and the words coming out of my mouth when I talked to myself about it, and I knew I was being ridiculous. But I couldn’t make it stop.
Earlier this year, I finally broke down and I told my husband how bad it had gotten. He’d noticed. He just didn’t know how to tell me he noticed and how to help me without making it worse. Instead, he did what he does best – he was just extra helpful. He’s been killing himself for years doing more and more and more for me and taking more off my plate and making my life as easy as possible so that I would feel better. Honestly, had we both known what to say to one another months ago – it would have been a game-changer. I pretended I was okay because I didn’t know how to handle it, and he loved me so hard that he was basically killing himself trying to be both a husband and a father and a mom at the same time. We were both exhausted.
I did everything I could to make my life easier. I started saying no to things I didn’t immediately want to do. I made family activities and quality time the biggest priority in my life. I made sure to keep my attitude in check so that I didn’t lay awake in the middle of the night wondering if I was a good mom that day. I worked out harder than I already did and ate better than I already did so I could have all the endorphins and serotonin and good feelings. I stopped giving my time to those who don’t fill my cup and make me feel excited and good being around them. I minimized contact with people who aren’t happy with their own lives. I did every single thing I could to make myself feel better, yet it still wasn’t working.
I thought about therapy. But, I’m not the ‘type’ who goes to therapy. I don’t have trauma or problems or a dark childhood or marital issues or troubled kids or a job I hate. I have a good life. I work for myself. I am successful. I have happy kids who are also just really good kids. I have an amazing husband who is also my best friend, and we have fun and we respect one another, and enjoy being together. I have a great family and amazing friends and everything I’ve ever wanted in life. My dreams have all come true, and I certainly don’t lack anything. I’m not therapy material.
Did you know that May is national mental health month? I didn’t know that until recently. But, it is. And guess what? There isn’t a type. There is no ‘type’ of person who needs therapy. We are all a little crazy. Actually, my therapist and I joked about this during our chat this afternoon – and we couldn’t remember who said it or what the line was, exactly, but we both felt confident it was the cat from Alice in Wonderland. He said, “We’re all mad here,” and he is not wrong. We are all a little mad, a little crazy, and we all have our thing. We let ourselves get too busy. We take on too much. We don’t give ourselves as much love as we so freely give to everyone else. We doubt too much. We talk to ourselves with a bad attitude and ugly words.
My therapist is the gift that keeps on giving. I love our chats. I never feel bad when I know I’m about to sit down for a video call with her. In fact, my husband snapped a photo of me sitting on my pool deck a few weeks ago laughing hysterically while I was chatting with her – because that’s what we do. Sure, I’ve teared up a few times. Some of our conversations are heavy, but she’s the kind of person who listens intently, and then she asks very pointed questions about how I feel about this or that or how I can find something good from my anxiety.
In the few months I’ve been seeing her, she’s taught me coping mechanisms that have changed my life for the better. I have learned that my anxiety will never go away. But, I can do things each day to make it easier or better. I also know now that my anxiety is not always a bad thing – sometimes it’s the thing that keeps our lives running smoothly and together because my anxiety allows me to prepare our family of six for all the things. I know how to validate myself. I’ve learned so much about cognitive dissonance. I have learned so much about myself, all through simple questions and a slightly different perspective.
What I’ve learned most about myself, however, is that I am going to be anxious for the rest of my life, but I don’t have to let my anxiety get the best of me. Talking about it to someone who knows what to say in return is such a gift. I might be anxious forever, but it’s not all bad. It’s okay. It’s a part of who I am, and it is a part of what’s shaped me into the person I am now. I like who I am. Dr. A’s calls leave me feeling so much calmer, so much more educated, and so much more in control of my own life, and I appreciate her every single day. in fact, last week, my schedule did not allow me an hour to chat – I know, right? That’s sad. Trust me when I tell you that I missed our chat. This week found me excited to talk to her and to share, and hear what she had to say.
My point is this – mental health problems? They don’t have a type.
And that, my friend, means that taking care of your mental health is more important than you realize. I know what it’s like to know with absolute certainty that my thoughts are absolutely crazy and not remotely realistic, but I also know it can be next to impossible to make myself feel that even when I know that. Does that make sense?
There’s such a stigma attached to therapy and mental health issues. There is no discrimination. You are not a bad person. You are not less of a person. You are not weird or strange or broken or wrong or damaged because you struggle with your mental health. You are far more like everyone else than you think. What is that saying I see all the time on Pinterest? Something about how we are all a hot mess but some of us just hide it better? I never want to be the kind of person who hides the fact that I’m struggling. I’m imperfect as they come. Throwing a pair of Manolos and some great lipstick over it isn’t my attempt to hide it – it’s my way of controlling what I can. I can’t control so many aspects of life, but I can control how I look, and how I look has a direct effect on how I feel. When I feel good, I have a much easier time telling my anxiety to get out of here (or at least to simmer down and shut up). My point is that I’ve heard ‘you don’t look like someone who needs therapy’ more than once since I began opening up, and I want to be very clear that no one looks like it. Well, maybe some people do, but you get my point.
You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to share. You don’t have to tell your own mom you’re seeing someone, but I implore you to seek help if you are feeling as if your mental health is a problem. It can cut you down quickly, and you might not even see it coming. No one has to know if you are worried about that. I ask that you give it a shot if you feel the need to see someone – even if you don’t think it’s a big problem or you feel it’s normal…because it might be very normal. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer.
So, there you have it. There’s my story. I’m not perfect (not that I’ve ever tried to hide that fact). I have a therapist because I live with anxiety. I am better for it, too, and I am always here to listen if you need a friend. I’m not a therapist, but I can tell you where to go find a good one.