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.
Nothing was working and I was tired of fighting myself. I honestly wished that I would just die already because I was so tired and so miserable and nothing helped. I sat down in the quiet one day, alone, and in those desperate moments I decided that since fighting it wasn’t making it go away, and superstition wasn’t making it any easier to cope, and none of the skills I learned seemed to be doing me any good, that I would try to accept it. I would try to love it. I took stock of my thoughts and realized the first thing I needed to truly believe in was the fact that I could and would heal from this. I could have a life again, be happy again, and be relaxed again. I had it once, even if only for a short while. I would have it again. So I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, “I accept you.” Then I thought of ways I could show love to myself instead of fighting myself. One of the things I did was give myself permission to take all the time I needed to heal. The next thing I did was eat. A little bit at a time, here and there. Then snacking all day. It was hard at first and sometimes it still is hard, but I do it anyway. I push through the fear. I made sure I had fresh (washed) fruit in the house. And when I would get overwhelmed and feel nauseated, I would think, “I accept myself, and I am healthy,” along with “if I get sick, I get sick, and it will pass, and all will be well” and then I would wait. The panic attack would last as long as it lasted, and I accepted it for what it was. I increased the amount of things and people in my life that made me laugh and feel good, and I dumped everything that didn’t.
Last night I dreamed that I overcame my fear of swimming and spent all day in a pool enjoying the water. Then someone handed me a bouquet of orange roses. Orange is the color I associate with my grandparents who are long gone. It felt like an omen of healing, and a message that even though I feel isolated in this, I’m not really alone. I woke up and felt better than I have in months. And I went out and bought myself a beautiful bouquet of orange roses because that dream is true: I am loved, I am overcoming and healing, and I am never truly alone.
That stalker of mine? It doesn’t come around as much anymore. But when it pays me a visit, I wave and I laugh and I wait.
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