Fear and I have been friends for quite some time. Well, I use the term “friends” loosely. Fear is more like an unwanted constant companion, an annoying sidekick, a stubborn thorn in my flesh. The point is, we’re well acquainted, fear and I.
Anxiety came to a head in my life when my family moved from Thailand to New Jersey as I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager, but, if I’m being honest, it had probably been festering for awhile prior to that. When I was seven, I had a traumatic experience at a boarding school in Malaysia. Shortly after that, I also got very sick with Typhoid and struggled to breathe. The details aren’t terribly important, but I’m certain that these events contributed to my struggle with an anxiety disorder. Though, there were probably many contributing factors.
Needless to say, the catalyst was the big move from Thailand to the USA. Adjusting from Southeast Asian culture to culture in America was a shock to my system that eventually led to a pretty extreme bout with anxiety, which made it difficult for me to even go to school.
I had severe stomach issues that led to some noticeable weight loss. I no longer enjoyed things I used to dearly love, like figure skating. I had loved skating up until this point, but all of a sudden it felt entirely too much for me. I began to hate it. I would get so anxious before competitions that I would lose sleep for days, vomit beforehand, and one time, even during a competition, which wound up adding to my already mounting anxiety.
My parents didn’t quite know what to make of it. Adjustment issues are fairly common among “third culture kids” (google it. It’s a thing) so they did the best they could at helping me navigate through this time and they hoped and prayed it would pass. I remember at one point, after about 6 months of this, my parents did suggest counseling, but I seemed to start to heal on my own, so it wasn’t something that was pursued at that time.
Things started to normalize for me after that. The anxiety wasn’t affecting my day to day life as much, but it was still there under the surface, a sleeping giant, lying dormant for the time being. Eventually, the culture shock started to wear off and I made some really good friends and started to adjust to my new life.
By the time I entered High School, I was thriving again. I wasn’t confident by any means, but I did well in school, had a good group of friends, and participated in a fair amount of extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, I never recovered my love of figure skating. It remained a source of anxiety for me, but because I was talented, my parents wanted me to keep it up.
I eventually joined the High School swimming team, with some reluctance, but it wound up being a positive experience for me. The anxiety before swim meets was there, but it wasn’t unmanageable. I made varsity, was in peak physical condition, and continued to do well academically.
The sleeping giant began to rear its ugly head my junior year of high school. This anxiety seemed more “random” and less situational than it had been in the past. Now, looking back, it could have been attributed to my own stubbornness. A good friend of mine had been pursuing me romantically for a year and I had denied his advances, feeling only platonic towards him. Somewhere along the line, my feelings started to change, but pride kept me from being honest with him. He eventually began dating a friend of mine at the time, and this was probably a catalyst for the anxiety that seemed to come out of nowhere (spoiler alert: it eventually worked out. I wound up marrying the guy).
I think anyone who has ever had a panic attack probably remembers their first experience. I certainly do. It was my junior year of high school. I was sitting in French Class when all of a sudden I felt really odd. My mouth went dry, and even though I couldn’t put my finger on it, something felt very wrong. I believe everyone experiences a panic attack slightly different. Some people think they’re having a heart attack, some feel like they’re going to pass out, some feel like they can’t breathe and some feel like they’re losing their mind. For me, it was hard to describe (also common), but my experience probably felt the most like I was losing my mind.
Somehow, I managed to make it through the class but I went to the nurse in between periods and she had me lay down. I felt better after that but I was concerned about the strange episode. I got through the rest of the day, went home and chalked it up to a weird one off.
But it wasn’t a one-time thing. It happened the next day too. I went to the nurse again. This time, when I got home, I went straight to the internet. Good ol’ google, both a worst enemy and a best friend. In this case, it wound up being helpful. I found out what I was experiencing was a panic attack, that they weren’t harmful in and of themselves (even though they felt like the worst thing ever), and that they would pass.
Over the next several months, I continued to experience them, often in class, but sometimes at friends’ homes, in the grocery store, on walks alone. It was becoming difficult to leave my house and function but I suffered silently for quite some time, pushing through with self help information as well as memorizing scripture, which actually was a lifeline for me. I had grown up Christian and always held to those beliefs, but at this point I really dug into my bible and clung to my faith. It was probably the one thing that got me through this terrible time. I endured episode after episode, and finally broke down and told my mom, who told me I needed to face my fears and be honest about my feelings.
It helped to tell someone and I took her advice. I wasn’t courageous enough to do it in person, so I went on AIM (remember those days?) and I told my crush, Matt, what I was feeling. He felt the same, and eventually we began dating. The panic attacks didn’t immediately end but they improved little by little, again with the self help information the internet armed me with and my spiritual life/faith.
Also, young love is pretty wonderful.
I fell hard and fast for Matt. I was head over heels and so happy. Love healed me, for the time being. My anxiety went dormant again, this time for years.
I excelled. I got into a good University, did well academically, got involved with college life, and got a campus job. Again, anxiety was present for some situations in my life, but overall I kept it at bay. I felt happier than I had been in my whole life. I went on adventurous trips and travelled all over the world. I appeared confident and happy, and for the most part, I was. College was wonderful and I told myself I really didn’t have an anxiety problem at all. I had felt a deep sense of shame about it, without realizing it, for a long time, so it felt really good to be able to sweep it under the rug. But, that’s the thing isn’t it? You can’t sweep things under the rug forever. Eventually, the dust and the dirt build up and things get dirty and you can’t ignore them anymore.
I wore the façade well.
I graduated with honors in two majors. I had an amazing boyfriend, wonderful friends and a bright future ahead of me. After graduation I got a job, despite the market crash at the time. It was an adjustment to say the least, but I didn’t have any real flare ups of anxiety at that time. A year and a job change later, Matt proposed to me on a family trip in Thailand. I felt a strange surge of anxiety when he did, but I said yes. Overall, I was happy. I loved him deeply and wanted to be with him.
Over the next two years, I continued to thrive at my job and I threw myself into wedding preparations. It was going to a be a grand affair and my mom, my friends and I enjoyed the process of planning all the details. Again, there was some apprehension at the changes coming and when thinking about the big day ahead, but I subdued those feelings and forged ahead.
About a month before my wedding, the day before my bridal shower, I was in a Zumba class, and I had an odd, yet familiar sense of dread and anxiety about my shower the next day. The anxiety grew, and by the time my bridal shower arrived, I was filled with fear. I was afraid I was going to throw up from the stomach distress I felt and I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.
The anxiety was mostly anticipatory. Once I started opening gifts, I could feel myself calm down and no one really knew, besides close family and friends, how anxious I truly was that day. I chalked it off to just jitters, as I’ve never liked being the center of attention.
However, over the next month, my anxiety grew. I became incredibly nervous about my wedding day. I didn’t think I could go through with it. Fears of throwing up or fainting or “freaking out” at the alter plagued me and I allowed myself to dwell on worst case scenarios. I couldn’t stand the thought of all those eyes staring at me and the once grand affair I was so excited to plan became a source of dread. I was so amped up with stress, I eventually went to the Doctor to ask for something to “get me through” the nerves of the day. He prescribed Ativan, which didn’t seem to help me much at all.
Eventually though, the day rolled around, and despite some extreme anticipatory anxiety, by the time I walked down the aisle, I felt a sense of calm. I was able to relax and let loose after that. I enjoyed the day. No one, besides my bridesmaids and some family knew what a wreck I had been before the event.
I was looking forward to our honeymoon in Greece. We were staying at five-star hotels, eating some of the most delicious food, and lounging on gorgeous beaches. I thought I would feel a serene sense of calm and relief after the wedding. After all, that’s all my anxiety had been about the last month, right?
Wrong. I had a panic attack the first night on my honeymoon. And throughout the next several months, I would experience anxiety symptoms like never before. I had irrational fears, panic attacks, racing and intrusive thoughts that seemed to come out of nowhere, and strange emotions I couldn’t quite describe. Anxiety manifested itself physically as well. I experienced stomach issues, throat tightness, dizziness, blushing, muscle tension, eye tricks, hypersensitive senses, and on and on and on. I developed an intense fear of throwing up in public. I feared I was losing my sanity. I cried constantly and barely managed to make it through each day.
My new husband (bless him), my mom, and the internet (again) confirmed that what I was experiencing was anxiety, which is common after a big change (like a marriage) but after several months of this I felt like I couldn’t cope anymore. I stumbled upon a really helpful website, www.anxietycentre.com, which I still recommend to people regularly. It truly was a Godsend at the height of my battle with anxiety. Anxiety Centre offered self-help information as well as a number of therapists situated throughout the world, able to meet with clients remotely.
At 24 years old, I had never undergone therapy before but I was at the end of my rope. It’s honestly hard to describe how awful I felt. Fearful, yes, but also this heavy, dreadful despair. The self-help information wasn’t enough anymore and I finally reached out for professional help. Therapy was a game changer for me. In fact, years later, I still meet with my therapist once a month.
My therapist helped me to see some of the underlying thoughts and behaviors that contributed to my struggle with anxiety, things that I wasn’t consciously aware of and, little by little, I began to get better. Slowly. It took two full years to really get over the worst of the symptoms. I learned that the intrusive, frightening thoughts were a result of overstimulation and stress hormones. I learned physical strategies to calm my body down, like deep breathing, meditation, exercise and I avoided sugar and alcohol.
I learned to passively accept anxiety symptoms for what they were. I no longer hit the panic button when a fearful thought or emotion popped up and I learned to challenge some of the unhealthy thought patterns I developed.
One such thought pattern was the idea that something was wrong with me. It was a long held belief, one that I wasn’t even conscious of, but one my therapist identified pretty quickly as a thought that needed to be challenged. It’s one I still struggle with honestly, but I’ve learned to be more conscious of it.
Slowly the worst of the anxiety symptoms seemed to subside as I learned to take care of myself better physically, contain fearful thinking, and address underlying factors like self-esteem issues, events from childhood that led to unhealthy behavior, and feelings of shame and fear of vulnerability.
My struggle with anxiety these past nine years has been the biggest struggle of my life. I’ve made loads of progress. I have to remind myself of that every day. I no longer struggle with the majority of the symptoms I mentioned previously. I am much more well equipped to battle the anxiety that comes my way than I once was. But, it’s still a struggle and it’s one I’ve decided to not put a time frame on anymore.
My anxiety has changed over the years. It’s more situational now. Some social situations and some specific people are really big triggers for me still. I still battle feelings of shame over my struggle with anxiety and self-acceptance seems to be a very hard concept for me to grasp. I still have to face old fears that rear up, things from my past that cause me to hold onto really unhealthy beliefs and behaviors. I still rely on anxiety medication in certain situations and I still speak to a therapist on a regular basis.
This is my journey. I’ve learned so much and I’ve made so much progress. I have to constantly remind myself of that, especially when discouragement rears its ugly head. Yes, anxiety has been a struggle, one that I’m not completely free of yet. This journey is hard work. The hardest work of my life. But, I am at a place where I can look back and see how much this process has taught me, how much more compassionate it’s made me, how my faith has grown as a result. God has taught me so much through this. He’s revealed truths to me that I wouldn’t have seen had I not struggled so brutally with fear.
So, I want to say to you, if you’re reading this and you’re someone whose feeling lost at the moment, someone whose struggling with anxiety or depression and wondering if you’re alone and if you’re ever going to make it out of what feels like this incredibly deep hole, what I want to say to you is this: Please don’t lose your hope. Know that you are not alone, that there is not something wrong with you, and that you don’t need to feel shameful about your struggle. Healing is possible. Where there is life, there is hope. If you’re breathing, there is hope. Join me on this journey. There is beauty in it. There is freedom.
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.” – Psalm 118:5