How Anxiety Made Me Better
I experienced my first panic attack at the age of four.
My memories of what surrounded the event are cloudy: I was alone, naked, sitting on the floor of our bathroom. Why? Not sure; perhaps I’d just gotten out of the tub. There was a wooden cabinet in front of me, painted blue. I wanted to know what was in it, possibly because I’d been told not to open it.
So open it I did, or I tried. I could just reach the glass knob on one of its doors from where I sat, and I pulled on it. The door stuck. I yanked harder, and the whole cabinet tilted forward, its doors bursting open, spewing its contents onto the tile floor.
Somehow the cabinet rocked back into position, leaving me unhurt but screaming in terror. A glass bottle had shattered in front of me, the acrid, sulfur-yellow liquid inside pooling around me. The label was still visible on the largest remaining shard, and I could see its poison warning printed in bright red: a skull and crossbones.
That was the first time I was sure I was about to die.
And it was all my fault. At the age of four, my carelessness and disobedience — my wrongness — had condemned me to annihilation.
Not that I put it to myself in those words. But that was the conviction I had then, and it was the same crushing sense I had in my teens when I began having cascading anxiety, attack after attack.
This was the 1970s.
I was sure there must be something fundamentally wrong with me, but I couldn’t tell anyone. People didn’t talk about anxiety back then, and any mention of “mental illness” conjured images of straight jackets and ice baths in grim institutions. Certain I would be locked up or rendered fish-eyed with tranquilizers if I let on how crazy I was, I learned to repress my panic.
It didn’t occur to me until decades later what strength and determination it took for me to soldier on despite periods of crushing anxiety. Overcompensating, I became a straight-A student, got leading roles in high school and college plays, graduated summa cum laude, went to grad school in a distant city I’d never even visited.
The anxiety would recede for months or even years.
It would be gone long enough to make me hopeful that I had pulled off my ruse of normalcy. But then it would return with a vengeance, as though to punish me for my overconfidence. I was overjoyed when my first son was born, but when he was three months old I was rocked by a succession of panic attacks so debilitating that I finally told my husband what I was going through.
That was a very hard thing to do, because even talking about it — whatever “it” was, because I still didn’t have a name for what was wrong with me — gave me the shakes.
But at least I got help. Although it wasn’t all that helpful.
In the early ’80s, depression was beginning to be seen as a legitimate condition. But anxiety was years away from being understood as a common complaint, and cognitive behavioral therapy, the first evidence-based, effective talk-treatment for anxiety, had yet to become widely available.
I went through a succession of therapists, with varying results. At least it was a relief to feel like I was doing something about my problem. At least they reassured me I was not psychotic, nor likely to become so.
But I wouldn’t take the meds.
Mostly what people like me did was take Valium. And I, like a lot of anxious people, more than anything feared losing control. What if Valium or, later, Xanax, relaxed my guard too much? If I didn’t keep a tight enough grip, what was to prevent me from spiraling into howling madness?
Eventually, I found a cognitive-behavioral approach that involved weekly lessons and a workbook and techniques to practice. I learned a whole lot about myself. I found out I was far from alone in having spells of the wobblies. I learned how to breathe my way through an anxiety attack, and at last how to head one off before it got fully underway.
At last, I decided I deserved some biochemical support.
I was in my mid-fifties, battling post-menopausal symptoms and working too many hours in a high-stress job. My family medicine doctor recommended ten milligrams of fluoxetine (Prozac) a day — the smallest dose.
After years and years of gutting it out, I told myself I wasn’t so special as to be beyond the reach of a medicine that helps millions of people. Think of it as a supplement, said the doc, an adjustment to your serotonin levels.
God bless serotonin, that’s all I’m sayin’.
Did I have to go through all this to be a better person?
I wouldn’t wish generalized anxiety or panic disorder on anyone. But since that was the card that was dealt me, I can now appreciate its hidden gifts. To overcome it required that I take myself on, in a way I doubt I would have chosen to otherwise.
I had to shape my temperament, naturally sensitive and suggestible, into a force that served me instead of the other way around. I had to learn to manage my energy levels and my time and my intake of things like sugar and caffeine.
Above all, I had to overcome my habits of negative thinking and overreacting.
It took a lot to even admit these were part of my personality: I prided myself on being a positive person, and one whose responses to things were certainly justified. Anxiety — or, more accurately, addressing anxiety — required that I be honest with myself. It demanded both strength and humility. It meant I had to take the risk and start trusting myself.
And now, it means I have something to contribute.
The Kids May Not Be Alright
Anxiety and depression are increasing in some American students who feel the weight of a troubling world
I work at a middle school. A week rarely goes by in which I don’t have to help a student through a wave of anxiety or an outright panic attack. At least these kids know what to call what they’re feeling — but they’re still terrified and bewildered.
Because of my experience, I am well versed in simple techniques that help immediately, including breathing exercises, reframing thoughts, and a certain amount of literal hand-holding. Most powerfully, once a student is through the most critical phase and breathing regularly again, I can reassure them.
Because I know exactly what they’re feeling. And I know they will be okay.
I wish I hadn’t had to go through all those years of not understanding what my problem was. But I can’t do anything about that. What I can say with all honesty is that I’m grateful for the compassion it’s given me, and something approaching wisdom.
Check out my other posts this month as I explore radical gratitude, in a challenge to find the miraculous hidden in the everyday. If you feel inspired to join me, by all means, write on!
Here’s an example: