I am 36 years old. Looking back at my adult life, I can see these cycles I’ve gone through. The peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, without the speed or the rush.
I don’t live with anxiety every day. Instead, it seems to come and go, ultimately triggered by times when I am under a lot of pressure.
I can remember the panic attack that finally forced me to get help. Ten years ago, I was sitting in traffic leaving New York on a beautiful, fall day. The windows were down and I can still see the warm glow of sunlight illuminating the brightly colored fall leaves. Everything about it should have been wonderful, except it was anything but. I wasn’t in a particular hurry, yet my hands gripped the steering wheel. My chest was tight and it was hard to breathe. I felt my heart tighten and I was scared there was something wrong with it. It felt as though there were little worms crawling around inside my heart. It seemed so real that I couldn’t be sure that the worms weren’t really inside me. I was terrified.
I don’t remember anything else about that day. I don’t remember how I was able to drive home. But right after that, I researched local therapists and made an appointment to see one that specialized in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was this therapist that helped me see that I’d had a panic attack and was also suffering from mild depression.
Looking back at that stressful time, it’s easy for me to see the events that led to my attack. I was working for a Big 4 accounting firm with high demands on all employees. I was in my first semester of a prestigious MBA program that I felt thoroughly unprepared for. I had been house hunting, trying to find the perfect first home. I was fostering two feral kittens that had been infested with roundworms (hence the worms hallucination).
Most of the things were just life, both good and bad. So many questions run through my mind: Why couldn’t I handle it? Am I so weak that I dissolve under pressure? Do I simply bite off more than I can chew?
Why can’t I handle things that other people seem to take in stride?
Looking back now, I can see how I have a tendency to go-go-go and push myself too hard, ending up crippled by sheer anxiety. Like the time when I was working at a bank as a head teller of a million-dollar branch and going to college full time. The day to day stress wore me down to the point that I had a panic attack at work and a coworker had to hold my hands and calm me down because I couldn’t breathe. I was only 22.
Or, during the second year of motherhood, I found myself unraveling. My daughter was entering a difficult stage of toddlerhood, I was pregnant with my son, and I was still working full time in Finance. It was a long drawn out period of feeling like I just couldn’t handle anything. I couldn’t handle being at home with my daughter, but I couldn’t handle the pressure at work either. Every ounce of me felt divided, pulled in endless different directions.
Some days it feels like the anxiety has really broken my spirit. I’ve become scared of change. I often feel weak and incompetent to handle the stressors of normal, everyday life. I wonder what is wrong with me that I cannot handle a normal career and be a mother? Why can’t I function like I see the rest of the world do every day?
Even as I write this, I know that the anxiety is not my fault. My anxiety is my reaction to the sum of the experiences in my life. Certain experiences have made me fragile. People have hurt me, with and without intention. I bear the scars of a troubled childhood.
I am trying to learn where my balance is. What am I capable of taking on before it becomes too much to bear? How can I structure my life in a way that includes the right amount of family and work and relaxation in order to keep myself in that healthy range?
I’m scared and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But, I am committed to this journey called life. I will look at this disease straight in the eye when it rears its ugly head. And maybe that fight is what makes me strong, after all.