Hey everyone! If you’ve been following my blog for long, you’ll maybe have noticed that I rarely post about my personal life. I don’t normally have a lot of time for that, but I also think there’s some right to privacy, you know? But the topic of the last book I read was one that I felt compelled to write about.
I feel like anxiety gets trivialized in the media, like how we’re the Prozac nation or the Xanax generation, but anxiety can’t be trivialized when you have it. This is my story.
For most of my life, I’ve been what people have referred to as a worrier or a worry-wart. I stressed out about things I had no control over and mothered people as a way to retain that control when I could. Since I was 7 or 8 years old, I’ve picked at my nails, and around 18 or 19 it started to include picking at the skin around my nails. (Both of these are symptoms of anxiety, I’ve read.) I worried about everything. I worked hard on all my homework so I wouldn’t worry about grades, Google-mapped every route 12 times to make sure I wouldn’t worry about going new places, and listened to all the health experts about what I should and shouldn’t do with my body so I wouldn’t worry about my health.
I’m not going to sit here and proclaim that I have full-blown anxiety syndrome. I don’t. (Or at least I don’t think I do. You may not agree by the time you read all this.) But like many people, I suffer from somewhat frequent (and random) bouts of anxiety over many things. Making phone calls. Driving. Confrontations. Hospitals. Churches. (Those are all real anxieties I have, by the way.)
And of course, anxiety takes many forms. Many of us feel anxious going into a job interview or working on homework or going somewhere new. That’s normal. I get that too, but sometimes I think it goes beyond what most people feel. I sometimes let that anxiety win. If I’m too afraid of what parking is going to be like downtown or if I don’t know if I’ll like a restaurant, I just won’t go. If I’m afraid of what people will think of me eating at a restaurant by myself, I won’t do it. While I’m better now than I used to be in some ways, it’s still a problem at times.
Let me tell you about my latest (and worst) anxiety attack. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a wedding with my boyfriend for one of his college friends. I’d met the groom before, but he and my boyfriend were the only two people I knew. And, being an introvert, I was worried about constantly being surrounded by people I didn’t know and how I’d have to make small talk or risk looking like a loser sitting by herself.
Ironically, this wasn’t what set off my anxiety attack. The church was. Or, more specifically, the mass.
See, I grew up Catholic. And for a number of my formative years, I enjoyed parts of it. As a kid, I liked the songs and my Sunday school teachers and the Bible stories. But I never liked communion. And as I got older, the constant Catholic message of needing to be perfect, of being worthy, absolutely terrified me that I wasn’t enough.
I have always been a perfectionist. My anxiety stems from perfectionism, whether it’s grades or sports or crafts. I have to keep working at it until I perfect it. And if I can’t master it, then I’m not good enough. Sometimes that challenges me enough to keep trying, sometimes I shut down and panic.
And Catholicism, in my experience, feeds on that doubt and panic.
What my boyfriend neglected to tell me (because he knew I’d freak out) was that this was going to be a Catholic wedding. So when we arrived for the rehearsal the night before the wedding, I got quite a shock. But the rehearsal went well and I started to meet a lot of new people. Everything was going ok. I was having fun.
Until the wedding. If you’ve never experienced a Catholic wedding, they tend to combine the wedding with an actual mass service, communion and several readings included. And one of the things they say in that service is that you should feel worthy before accepting communion, like by making peace with yourself before you come up to the priest or something. I’m actually not entirely sure what they intend when they say “feel worthy.” But I know how I interpret it.
As a perfectionist, I never feel worthy. So over the years, I’ve become conditioned to freak out as soon as I see the communion part of mass start. Is this logical? Maybe not. But, I argue, when has anxiety every been logical and rational? All I know is that part of every church service I’ve ever sat through has a section where I feel like I’m not good enough and everyone around me feels like they are. (It doesn’t help that those who don’t receive communion sit in the pews by themselves, further ostracizing them from the herd. Like an injured gazelle in the savannah, everyone notices you and does nothing about it.)
So when the priest started going through the communion rituals at the wedding, I started panicking. Like, legitimate panic. Normally, I have someone near me (family, etc) that I try to stay calm around because, you know, I’m a perfectionist and I don’t want anyone to see me freak out over something like this. But I was alone. My boyfriend was a groomsman and up front. Everyone else I’d met the night before was in the wedding party and also up front. I was in a pew by myself, with no one around me. One guy was across the aisle from me, but that was it. No one in front of or behind me.
And I panicked. My breathing sped up, my heart pounded against my ribs, and I started to feel light headed. It felt like I’d just got done jogging a half-mile, the way I was breathing. I wasn’t quite gasping for breath, but it was close. I was sweating and my fingers were trembling. I could barely get my fingers to wrap around the pew in front of me to hold on (we were standing at the time). I was losing strength in my hands and legs. I even intentionally bent my knees to keep from locking them and passing out. I stared at the pew in front of me with wide eyes and tried to take deep breaths, all the while attempting to drown out the priest’s words so something he said wouldn’t make it worse.
It was terrifying. I’ve never been that far gone in an anxiety attack before in my life, and here I am, doing it in the middle of someone’s wedding ceremony. I was terrified, on top of that, that I was going to either A) hyperventilate and pass out, thereby creating a scene or B) have to leave the church during the service, also probably creating a scene. I did not want to be remembered by all these people as The Girl Who Fainted in Church. I had to keep mentally telling myself that everything was ok, I was going to be ok, the service would be over soon. Because the minute I stopped saying those things, a mental chant of “I’m not ok, this isn’t working” started to run through my head and it got worse.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I remember little of the end of the ceremony.
It felt like eons before we exited the church, though it was probably only another ten minutes. I was still shaking even after that as we welcomed the happy couple into the world, though I think I did a good job hiding it. I didn’t entirely feel better until well after we’d left the church. And even then, I was still freaked out that it had been that strong.
So when I read Eliza and Her Monsters, which is about anxiety, I connected with Eliza on a number of levels. I understood her anxiety about people and wanting to stay home and watch TV reruns rather than go out. I understood her need to hold onto her anonymity in the world. I understood her fear and worry and (obviously) anxiety when everything started to fall apart. I had gone through something that felt similar to that only recently.
And it was because of Eliza’s story that I wanted to share my own. I think that’s part of why stories about mental health are so important and why I gravitate so much toward Francesca Zappia’s writing. I think that’s exactly why she keeps writing books like this. It not only makes us more aware of what other people are going through, but it makes us also want to speak up about our own experiences.
I’m not going to say there’s a happy ending to this. Sorry. Anxiety is something I deal with in moderation basically every day. It could be a little thing like posting a personal story online or it could be bigger like wondering if I made the right career choice.
All I can say is that talking seems to help me. And I have to teach those around me how to listen. I have a few people that I trust to talk to about these worries. Sometimes I only talk to one of them, sometimes I talk to multiple for different perspectives. But the best listeners are the ones who just let me get it out and ask questions about how I feel or what happened next when I don’t know what to say. (Word of warning: watch out for the ones who say, “You’re fine, there’s nothing to worry about.” For me, that only makes things worse because clearly, I’m not fine and telling me not to worry doesn’t magically make the panic go away.)
So, from one person to another, be kind. If you see someone struggling with anxiety, even if it doesn’t make sense to you, try to be understanding. There may be a story behind it that you don’t understand yet, like me panicking in a wedding ceremony. Just listen and be there. Or, if you’re the one with anxiety, talk about it. Truly, sometimes mentally working through your worries and discussing them out loud decreases the fear they hold over you. And, by talking, you’re increasing your support system rather than isolating yourself. And that support system is key to feeling better.
If you’d like to leave a comment with your own stories, feel free. You aren’t alone in this.
Update July 2018: It’s been a year since that wedding panic attack and, if it hadn’t been for rereading this post, I could have safely said I’d forgotten about it. Partially, that’s because I have since been to another Catholic wedding and I didn’t feel any panic. (That was a family wedding, though, in the church I grew up in. There was a level of comfort there, even though I constantly grimaced at the misogyny coming from the priest.)
The other part is because I had a far bigger panic attack in December. Or at least the hospital staff told me it was at least half panic attack.
I’ve had a medical condition for over a decade involving my thyroid. It doesn’t function at the level its supposed to, so I’ve always taken medication for it. Well, another doctor had me try a new type of medication on top of that and my body went crazy. I felt on top of the world for the first month and incredibly depressed and worthless the second month.
It was during that second month (when I truly didn’t feel stressed about much of anything in my life outside of this medication fiasco) that I started experiencing breathing issues. My throat seemed to tighten up, my breathing would speed up, and a couple of times my vision started to get just a little dark on the edges. This happened anywhere, for any reason. Laying down watching a movie with my boyfriend. Teaching in class. Alone on my computer. It didn’t matter.
It came to a head in December, when sitting down made half of my body suddenly go numb. I’d move and the other half would go numb. I got my mother to drive me to the ER because I was convinced I was dying. I felt like I was suffocating, which is one of my phobias to begin with.
Anyway, they ran some tests, determined my thyroid was overreacting and that I needed to stop taking the medications, but they also gave me an injection of something I referred to as my Goofy Juice because it was meant to mellow me out so they could talk to me without me crying all over the place.
It’s happened since in milder bursts (pressure in my chest, trouble breathing), but it has not since gotten anywhere near that dramatic.
And for now, I’m happy. I’ve discovered painting as a way of expressing myself, I’m more easily embracing my weirdness, and I’ve accepted that there are parts of me that are never going to change and if someone has a problem with that then they can deal with it. Because this is me.