Learning to Live with Anxiety
I woke up this morning to a cold gray rainy Chicago day, the kind that makes it painfully clear that winter is coming. This morning it was merely an annoyance as we struggled to get the kids to school on time and relatively dry despite umbrellas blowing inside out and ill-fitting rainboots slowing down the 6-year-old. But it wasn't that long ago that a day like this would have set off my anxiety in a debilitating way.
In November of 2015 terrorists attacked Paris and killed over 100 people. In December of 2015 my uncle died of cancer; he was 61 years old.
These events were completely unconnected in every way, except that the combination of them in close proximity upset the delicate mental balance I'd been maintaining since the start of my second pregnancy, and I went into a tailspin of anxiety. I found myself scared to leave my house or get in a car (I did keep leaving the house because I had to; I don't generally need to get in a car, so I didn't). I started freaking out about little health issues and running to the doctor before I even had a chance to see if the issue would resolve itself.
I knew I needed help before anyone else realized I did. I remember having a conversation with my husband, telling him that I thought I needed therapy, and he was surprised because he didn't think my anxiety was affecting my life. He wasn't being insensitive; I had been doing a great job hiding it from nearly everyone.
Things got worse before they got better. Shortly after I started therapy I had a health scare. A routine ultrasound of a thyroid nodule I'd had for twenty years found an abnormal looking lymph node. The two weeks between that ultrasound and my scheduled biopsy were the longest and scariest two weeks of my life. I started having regular panic attacks. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't be alone, but I also couldn't be present for my children. I told very few people what I was going through. I didn't want to make it real, and I also didn't think I could handle either people telling me it would be fine or people telling me stories of their own cancer. When I finally went in for my biopsy, the formerly abnormal looking lymph node now looked so normal that they decided against even doing the biopsy. I was so relieved at the thought that I’d be able to keep food down again that I stopped on the way back to my office and bought a vanilla cupcake that I scarfed down.
My relief was short-lived. I quickly found other health concerns to obsess over. It took a lot of time, a lot of therapy, and a lot of work, but I eventually started to climb back out of the depths of my anxiety. I stopped avoiding hearing stories about cancer. I managed to Google health symptoms without hyperventilating. I drove a car.
Two weeks before the 2016 election, having finally managed to wean my second son, I started Lexapro. My therapist and I had agreed to try therapy without medication, but it eventually became clear that I needed the medication to really make progress. It was good timing. I’m honestly not sure I would have survived the outcome of the election without Lexapro.
The best description of living with anxiety I've ever seen was in a Berenstain Bears book called The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers. In attempting to caution Sister Bear to be careful around strangers, Papa Bear goes too far and makes her terrified of everything. The world did not change, but Sister did. Even at the height of my anxiety, I knew that the world hadn't changed. I knew that I hadn't always been that way and that the people around me were always acting as they always had. That was hard to accept because it meant that there was something wrong with me, but it also meant that there could be a solution.
I haven’t been cured of anxiety. I still have moments when it feels like my stomach has dropped out of my body when I hear about someone else’s health problem. Just this morning I asked my husband to look at a mole on my face to confirm that it hadn’t changed (it hadn’t). But I no longer approach the world with fear as my lens. I’m able to recognize and face my anxiety. I’m able to be present with my kids and laugh with them.
And I’m able to walk outside on a cold gray rainy Chicago day and enjoy the beauty of raindrops in a puddle. It may be me who’s changed, but to me it feels like the world has changed.