I don’t remember struggling with anxiety growing up. Looking back, there are few signs and moments that pointed towards what would later grow into a beast. I was social without hesitation, very outgoing, and not afraid of new places or speaking up in public. I don’t remember even knowing what the words panic attack meant.
The Beast Is Born
Flash forward to college. The anxiety beast found its roots in my long-term highly abusive relationship. I was eighteen years old and in love with a nightmare. The domestic violence I experienced involved the typical physical elements as well as nearly every other form of abuse. With this going on for what would be over a decade, I watched who I was and how I coped with life begin to change.
As my self-esteem eroded I began struggling with PTSD and severe depression. I would take entire semesters off from college because I was too depressed to get out of bed or leave my house. The anxiety began to grow and become more apparent although, at the time, I tossed it all up to depression.
I often was anxious about leaving the house because my boyfriend at the time cheated on me quite regularly and he was addicted to online adult sites. I knew each time I left, for class or for the gym, the chances of him straying were multiplied. I became afraid to go out with friends for the same reason. I knew he would go out with his and come home stumbling drunk late at night or a day later.
I became isolated more when he flirted with my friends and I was worried he would cheat on me with one of them. I was embarrassed of his behavior and embarrassed that I didn’t have the strength to leave him. The fear that I experienced weekly at home was intense. He would go out with friends and binge drink and, as I later learned, do recreational drugs. I would wait up for him like a forlorn puppy and wait for him to come home. When he did it was never pretty. This led to the double-edged sword of anxiety. I was anxious when I went somewhere and I was anxious when I didn’t. It was truly a horrific way to live.
The Beast Grows
When I graduated college and moved to attend graduate school, he came with me. It was during this time that the anxiety beast morphed into a throat crushing monster. I had high hopes that things would be better in a new place away from our partying college town. Instead the abuse amped up in new ways and he, of course, continued to be unfaithful. This combined with the stressful and scary upheaval of moving to a new place was the perfect breeding grounds for anxiety.
I became incredibly familiar with panic attacks. My self-consciousness about my looks reached new heights. I wanted to not be seen. Shopping and running errands became near impossible. Anywhere I went, class included, I would break out into a drenching embarrassing sweat. I would often leave stores and race to the car where I could sit in front of my air conditioning. The panic attacks and sweating made it even harder for me to leave my house and the depression mounted. I was becoming a prisoner.
The Anxiety Prison
Despite having nearly a perfect GPA, there were semesters and entire years where I would withdraw from graduate school because I couldn’t leave the house. Life felt broken and not worth living.
I replayed every unkind word my boyfriend ever screamed at me until I believed every single one of them. I was convinced I was unloved by anyone and always had been and would always be. I was convinced I was hideous to look at. And so I hid indoors and watched entire seasons pass by without so much as cracking a window.
When that relationship ended, and I had the courage to not only walk away but move away, I was convinced I could begin to heal. I wasn’t sure how but I knew I needed to find myself again. The me that I was before I met and lived with a nightmare for over a decade.
The heartbreak was unreal. I felt as if the bones in my chest would crush and cave in from the pain. The depression grew yet again and the anxiety beast made it clear it was going nowhere.
I found myself in another abusive relationship. When that ended I found myself in a safe house for women and children that had been victims of violence. I moved again, this time to save my life. The trifecta of depression, anxiety, and PTSD grew to truly epic proportions. This was understandable but not exactly bearable.
I was terrified that being trapped indoors, and in my own suffering, was the only life I would ever know. I grieved for who I once was and who I assumed I would never be.
One day, after crying in the fetal position on the floor for a few hours, it dawned on me that I was going to die this way if something didn’t change. If I didn’t change. There was nobody around to get me groceries, run my errands, or hold my hand when I needed to leave the house.
I realized that all along that person had never truly been there to hold my hand. It was an illusion of comfort like Dumbo with his magical feather. I had always been alone. I had survived alone and it was now that I alone had to resurrect myself.
I began by challenging my anxiety. I went grocery shopping at a smaller store at first. It was more expensive but I was proud of this accomplishment. I ran errands, sweat and panic be damned. It wasn’t easy and it often ended in tears but every small step was like leaping a mountain.
I went to therapy and spoke to advocates about my mental health and all of the trauma I had endured. I began to practice self-care and put myself, for the very first time in my entire life, above anyone else. I learned to practice mindfulness and yoga which helped to calm my nervous system and soothe the stress induced knots along my spine.
I went to new stores I had missed over the years. Sometimes that meant sitting with a few books in a bookstore, waiting for the sweat to go away and my breath to return, for thirty minutes. I went to bigger and more affordable grocery stores and was elated to feel the panic slowly begin to reduce to something manageable.
The yoga made me want to start working out again. This was a huge challenge and had been for years. The very thought of stepping foot inside of a gym was terrifying. I read online about practicing tunnel vision when you are in situations like a busy gym and figured I would be able to do this. I knew going and getting back in shape would not only help my anxiety but it would improve my health and kick start a new life.
I researched for a while until I found a place that seemed welcoming and not too intimidating. I called beforehand and this made me feel less anxious and more in control of what to expect. That day I went, just got in my car and went, before I could over think and talk myself out of going. I was so incredibly proud of that moment. I got on a treadmill and walked, anxiety sweating to the max, and walked for fifteen minutes then left.
Over time I became more and more comfortable at the gym and other places which in turn led me to try more places and events and conquer more fears. I met friends and began going out with them. And, yes, I leaned on anti-anxiety medication for support.
Controlling The Beast
Today I leave my house every day. Well, almost every day. I don’t fault myself for taking a Sunday to vegetate from the comfort of my house. I don’t hesitate to go to the gym or shopping or out with friends. I work. It’s not easy every day but I still do it. I find comfort in the routine and pride in each seemingly tiny accomplishment.
I still sweat sometimes when I’m anxious and still battle the occasional panic attacks. Some weeks it’s worse than others. But I cope and soothe myself with thoughts of a better tomorrow. I can do that now because I know without a doubt that those better tomorrows exist.
Whatever it is you are battling with your own anxiety, this is by no means a cure for all that ails you. It is a simplified article friendly version of what has worked for me. What I hope for is that you will read this and take away possibility. Possibility that if someone that spent entire seasons trapped indoors now leaves her house each day, you perhaps can do something you’ve been unable to do. Possibility that your own symptoms can be reduced or become manageable. Most importantly, I hope you find the courage to stand up and say “This is not how I am going to live for the rest of my life” as you open that door and step outside.