I’ve been considering my relationship with anxiety lately and while I would like more than anything to break up for good, it’s like the stalker I never wanted. My sister used to make me breathe into a paper bag as a child when my parents would leave us for a night out, which was almost never. I never wanted to be alone, because what if? When I would panic, my family was there for me. I called my brother one night when I was alone at my house and afraid to eat.
“Why?” He asked.
“I could choke and die and no one would be able to stop it!”
“Jess, stop watching ’30 Rock’ and eat your dinner,” he responded, and oddly it made me feel way better (hats off to Liz Lemon for throwing some humorous light onto that treacherous fear by the way).
Then a period of my life began when I was really, really happy and suddenly I could do things like pump my own gas, eat by myself, sleep at night without anyone in the house, start a random conversation with a stranger, not have to follow a specific routine that made me feel in control. I was doing things I never thought I would do. I didn’t feel co-dependent anymore. It took my lifetime (so far) of work, of learning to listen to the rational thoughts over the fearful thoughts, and a new habit of not thinking so much and just doing, to really change things around for me. I was free.
I hadn’t had a stomach virus in at least 15 years. It came at a time when my entire identity was in flux. I was shedding old beliefs and ways, trying on new, rediscovering myself. Stepping even further out of my comfort zone. My foundation was shaky. It was not an ideal time psychologically for someone like me to get sick. But I made it through and I felt I would be OK, I felt I would recover wholly on every level. About two weeks later my stomach felt like it was on fire, I felt nauseated, and this intense fear that I was sick again came over me and became the nail in the coffin of my progress in freedom from anxiety.
I recognized every signal that the anxiety was taking over and I was powerless to stop it. I didn’t want to, but I found myself avoiding the movie that I was watching when I originally got sick. I avoided the gas station I went to the night I got sick. I didn’t want to wear the same pajama pants I was wearing the night I got sick. I didn’t want to, but I stopped eating. I would go all day at work and not eat anything because I felt it was unacceptable to get sick at work. I felt guilty for it. I felt guilty for existing. And then I felt it was unacceptable to get sick at home. I could control my eating if I couldn’t control anything else. I felt like I was literally wasting away, and I didn’t want to, but it was happening anyway because the fear of “what if” outweighed any rational thought. I knew that I needed to eat and I wanted to eat. I knew all the coping techniques for anxiety and panic. They weren’t working. I was at the height of superstition and even the things I didn’t do or wear, because I associated them irrationally with getting sick, did not make me feel any better or any more in control.