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Last week I talked about the pressures and stresses that come with caring for a person with anxiety. But I left out an important distinction– there is anxiety, and there is unchecked anxiety. Unregulated anxiety. Ignored anxiety. My anxiety. I’ve been teetering on the tipping point of stable and out-of-control, and sometime around Wednesday night I finally reached it. It wasn’t pretty.
Anxiety is a very self-centered and consuming beast. It doesn’t much care about how it affects other people, because it’s too busy focusing on eating away at the brain it occupies. My anxiety is an avid storyteller– “you’re worthless,” “you’re crazy,” “you’re unlovable,” “you’re weak,” “you’re unworthy” are just a few of its favorites. Those stories cloud my brain’s sensory responses, and makes it impossible to see the detrimental effects that my anxiety produces outside of me. I’m too caught up in agonizing over whether the stories are right or wrong and why this is happening to me to see the corrosive effect unchecked anxiety has on the other parts of my life.
That’s the key: unchecked. Anxiety is incredibly debilitating at its worst, but it does not have to be that way. I knew at least two months ago that something had triggered a bout that I couldn’t cope with on my own. Sometimes, I can use mental defusion strategies to combat the negative effects of my anxiety’s stories, but I am not healed enough for this to work all the time. I should have called my therapist the second I started to think of calling. I did not.
There are many reasons why I put off calling my therapist, and then put it off again, and then again. I felt weak– in the spring, she was so proud of my progress and asked if I thought I still needed to see her. I said no, but that I’d call if anything changed. Did it mean I was weak because I was struggling again? It certainly felt like it. So I didn’t call. My anxiety had a new story to tell:
“Just be stronger.”
After weakness came embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I’d let my anxiety talk me out of getting help after the first signs, but picking up the phone and calling felt like admitting defeat. I was embarrassed for listening to my anxiety, and at the same time embarrassed at the stories it was telling: “you are weak,” “you can’t do anything on your own,” “you are nothing.” So I didn’t call. I remember telling Boyfriend a couple of times over the course of the summer that “maybe I should call Lisa.” Even with his support and reassurances that it was a good idea, I began to feel shame along with my weakness and embarrassment. I had waited too long, and had let my illness control me. I was not worthy of help.
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This is how I experience my unchecked anxiety. Through destructive stories, insecurities, and self-esteem that seems to have no lower limit to how far it can fall. But at my tipping point, it was no longer about me. It was about the acidic destruction my anxiety has wreaked outside of my mind. The tangible effects of unchecked anxiety on my relationships were greater than I realized until suddenly I was upset and sobbing again and had no idea why. It was then that I realized these arguments have been characterizing my interactions with almost everyone in my life for weeks.
So how does unchecked anxiety damage the people around me?
It feels like anxiety kidnaps me and shoves me into a closet when it goes unchecked for as long as it has. I am no longer fully present– if I have the opportunity to be present at all –in my interactions. And let me say, anxiety has very little in common with my true personality. It is combative, resentful, insecure, isolated, and self-focused. In the deepest clutches of the anxiety I experience, I have felt myself picking fights with others for simply feeling the joy of life that I am blocked off from experiencing. It is unfair. It is exhausting. I don’t even see it happening until it’s too late, and then normally there’s crying and more guilt and frustration and shame. My anxiety tells me constantly that I am unlovable and unworthy, and does its best to turn me into someone who believes they are both of those things. Letting it go unchecked, I think it may have almost won.
Moving forward after falling from a (very high) tipping point is terrifying. I keep asking myself why I didn’t get help sooner, and if the damage that’s been caused is too much to overcome for me or my loved ones. At my heart (sans anxiety), I don’t believe that’s true. I definitely played with some pretty intense fire, pushing until luckily it was me who fell off the cliff instead of anyone else.
I have allowed the destruction of an illness to affect my life and my relationships, because I was not treating anxiety like an illness– I was treating like a sign of weakness that I could overcome if I just worked a little harder. I pushed my symptoms under the rug like dust so I didn’t have to look at them and pay attention to what they were telling me– and it came very close to costing me many of the most joyous parts of my life.
Anxiety is a disease well-versed in blame, shame, unhappiness, guilt, and combat. It is a disease that I must manage for my entire life. But it does not have to wreak the destruction I have allowed it to for far too long. It is something I can manage, and something that will become easier to manage the longer I do it. It’s daunting to reach the bottom of the valley and stare back up at the cliff, wondering how you’ll get back up again. It starts with a step, and maybe a hand to hold along the way. Boyfriend continues to offer his hand, showing me each day his compassion and patience even as he’s stood at the front lines of my struggle without help for too long. Today, I called my therapist and made my appointment. Today, I took my first step.
Ignoring the symptoms and hoping they would just go away is a lot like getting strep throat and avoiding the doctor because it will “just clear up on its own.” You aren’t yourself when you’re sick, and I have not been myself. I have looked in the mirror too many days and not recognized the angry, frustrated person looking back at me. I have failed to cultivate my own life and my relationships, and have taken more than I’ve given in many aspects of my life. I can’t change the fact that I refused to take care of myself. What I can do now is move forward and cherish the people who have remained by my side, even when it’s felt like too much. What I can do now is respect myself as the others in my life have respected me, and replace the need to control my anxiety and “win” with a desire to heal the scars it has left. I can manage its effects and prevent more shame, scars, and fears.
Anxiety does not have to be an emotional death sentence, and I am finally ready to accept that while it’s something I must live with, it is not something that must define me. I have allowed my anxiety to define me, and steal away who I am. I am ready to be me again. I am ready to heal. Today is not the last day I will live with anxiety, but it is the last day that my anxiety will control me. Today, I start to become Katlyn again.
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