“Anxiety is the most silently painful experience. It makes no sense and you sit alone and suffer for an unknown reason. You can’t explain it. You can’t stop it. It is horrible.”
I’ve been told that being highly sensitive and an empath set me up, to some degree, for an increased susceptibility to an developing anxiety and panic disorders. One of the many therapists/counselors/psychiatrists I saw when I was in and out of therapy from when 22 to 27 years old told me that it’s often having a sensitive, empathetic, and naturally thoughtful or worrying personality that combines with certain experiences that will trigger these mental illnesses in someone. People who don’t have those inherent qualities tend to be less affect by the similar experiences and therefore won’t end up with the same extreme anxiety. So I ended up both having the nature to predispose me and the experiences to lights horrible overwhelming uncontrollable panicky fire of anxiety inside me. Like I mention over and over I’ve always been a deep thinker, an over-thinker, and a worrier. But during this period in my life it was as if someone flipped a light switch and I couldn’t turn it off. I still can’t. Sometimes it will dim. I won’t notice it as much. But it won’t ever completely turn off.
First semester of my Sophomore year of college it was the perfect storm; in hindsight (of course, isn’t that just the way it always works!?!) it was a combination that cause my generalized anxiety and panic disorders that I’ve been struggling against ever since. As frustrating and depressing as my Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, Raynaud’s, stomach issues, etc all are if I could just be free from one health problem/issue/condition I would chose mental health hands down. That has been the hardest to deal with, affected me the most, and I’ve had to fight the hardest against it all. Every day is a fight. Some days I have to fight more than others and there have been moments when my anxiety, panic, and depression have almost won. But I won’t let them. I can’t let them. I’ll definitely talk more about my panic disorder/panic attacks, depression, and PTSD in separate posts, as they make up significant parts of my mental health struggles also. But this is they story about the beginning of my battle with constant generalized anxiety disorder. Like my Raynaud’s, something I never imagined I’d have to face, but do. I had enrolled in the pre med program and was caught up in a horrible sleep deprived cycle my freshmen year. I didn’t know what Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome was but after serving on naps in high school I didn’t know any different than to try to continue that coping mechanism in college. Fortunately that year my intro science classes weren’t terrible and I was still able to get A’s and B’s in everything. I studied but was used to working pretty diligently in high school too so it didn’t feel like a huge leap. I also had a group of friends that I made in my dorm and was going out with them often. A lot of the time it was to parties and I was the only sober one who would end up driving. I would try to dress in cute outfits and shoes and looking back I know my Raynaud’s flared up and sometimes I’d be pretty miserable and cold and just wanted to leave. Even though it was San Diego the weather was a lot chillier than I thought it would be when I decided to go to undergrad there. Being so close to the beach we would often get the marine breeze and the temperature would drop, especially at night. I’d usually bring at least a light jacket with me when we’d go out, but with my open toed high heels and not enough layers I’d end the night shivering and with numb ish feet and hands. But I had a few close girlfriends in that dorm who were beautiful and popular and made me feel less invisible and like I was wanted. We’d go the gym or pool or shopping together also.
'The anxiety monster is small enough to sit on it's victims shoulder and whisper things into their unconscious, eliciting fearful thoughts and irrational worries. The anxiety monster is often seen as weak in comparison to others, but it is one of the most common and is very hard to get rid of.
They often carry small objects linked to their victims anxieties such as clocks which represent a common but irrational fear of things that might never happen. No-one has ever seen the face of the anxiety monster for it always wears a skull as a mask.'
A lot changed my Sophomore year. I was in harder pre med classes, most notably Organic Chemistry. I had thought one of my good girlfriends was planning to room with me Sophomore year instead of moving to the beach like a lot of students did. But at the last minute she ended up deciding to move to the beach too. I didn’t want to try to live there. The University of San Diego didn’t have fraternity or sorority houses so a lot of students would rent beach houses together. It seemed like chaos to me down there- parties all the time. I was always relieved to go back to the dorms at the end of the night. So I decided to stay in the housing on campus and room with a friend who I wasn’t quite as close to. I just didn’t realize how much things would change with everyone else living farther away.
As the semester started I realized not only was I feeling lonely but also that organic chemistry was a lot harder than I ever imagined. I would study and study late into the night and early morning, but it never really clicked in my brain. I was able to get by the year before in general chemistry with A’s and B’s but I was getting D’s on my organic chem quizzes. I felt like such a failure. There was no way I’d even be remotely competitive for medical school with those grades. I’d go to the bathroom after class, lean into the wall sliding down until I was sitting on the floor, and just sob into my hands. My stomach problems got worse and I felt nauseous a lot. I know now that the stress combined my misshapen gastroesophageal sphincter and GERD that they found when I was 16 and me getting up WAY before my DSPD clock wanted me to at 6am for my pre med class was all completely throwing off my system. It was hard to eat anything and my appetite disappeared. My Raynaud’s attacks started getting worse and much more noticeable. My roommate noticed how cold I got and let me borrow her heating pad at night. I would cuddle up with that as if my life depended on it. I was sad and lonely; I missed my friends at the beach and hardly saw them anymore. I was studying all the time yet I felt like a failure in my classes and I wasn’t enjoying them. I was so sleep deprived I could barely function and would crash on the weekends, sleeping whole days away to try to recover. I remember sometime before Thanksgiving Break I was standing in the kitchen that my roommate and I shared with two other girls (they are probably worth a whole other post too…what a nightmare) when I felt this wave of absolute panic wash over over me. Like a light switch went on inside my soul. I felt terrified, but strangely detached, as if I was outside of my own body and numb at the same time as I was absolutely panicking inside. It felt like the world was going to fall apart. My logical brain kept asking “why do I feel this way? I’m ok, I’m safe…there is no reason to be panicking.” But the harder I tried to fight against it, to stop it, to turn that light switch off, the worse, more scared, and more frustrated I felt. I kept putting on a happy face though pretending as if everything was ok and didn’t open up about my anxiety and panic at all until a full year.
(This image illustrated how I’ve been trying to deal with my anxiety. I’m not great at it and need more practice, but I find allowing myself to accept it helps me let go of it better than trying to fight so hard against it.)
Through the years following my anxiety light switch turning on I’ve learned a lot, but I know I still have a lot to learn and work to do on myself and to better cope with my mental health issues. I did reach the point where I accepted that they’re always going to be there, like my Raynaud’s, DSPD, stomach issues, and low blood pressure. So managing them is still and will always be a work in progress. It helps to know I’m not alone though, that it’s not my fault, and it’s real. Although I wouldn’t wish these struggles on anyone, knowing others are going through this and we can be there for each other and pick each other up is reassuring. I hope to get the word out there and raise awareness about metal heath because it’s something I tried to hide for a long time and felt ashamed of, but it really shouldn’t be!
Until next Friday,