Full disclosure: I'm terrified for you to read this - whoever you are. But my hope is that it can help ease the stigma of mental illness that I struggled with for years and that if this relates to you in any way, you find the strength to seek the help you deserve.
Looking back, I struggled with anxiety from a very early age. I remember being deathly afraid of my two-story childhood home starting on fire – especially when fire safety month came around each year. My parents wouldn't buy me the rope ladder to throw out my window in case of a fire. I had no clue how I'd get out without breaking my legs, even though my room was right beside my parents’ room and my dad would have done anything to get me out. I remember seeing a far-off neighbor with a fire in their yard, probably burning garbage or something, and making my parents drive me past it to reassure me that it wouldn't spread to our house.
There were a few other red flags that I didn't realize were not normal until later in life:
-Touching my vent in my bedroom a certain number of times before going to bed. But if I would touch it the wrong way, I would need to start over. This was the same with my light switch. Needless to say, some nights it was like a strobe light party until I got the pattern right.
-Counting everything - there were good numbers and bad numbers. I remember trying to explain my system to some friends: The number 6 was the worst number (number of the devil, of course!), 7 was good, 8 was bad, but 7 + 1 was ok. Once you got to double digits it got tricky. 23 was perfect, because 2+3=5, and 5 was a good number. 29 was bad. 2+9=11, 1+1=2, but the square root of 9 was 3, and 3+3= 6 which was bad. Doesn't make sense? That's because there was no logic to it. Even the number of times I would kiss a boyfriend/husband was counted. I couldn't leave it at 6... 5 was ok though.
-Playing piano - I had to touch the keys with the right amount of pressure at just the right point or I wouldn't be able to go forward in the song.
My mind never stopped. It was always counting, always full and busy. I felt as though I couldn't handle one more thing inside of it.
I've always had an up and down personality. In high school, I was outgoing and loved to be in the centre of everything. I was in every choir, band, committee and group possible. I had to be busy all the time. The summer after graduation, my boyfriend of two years broke up with me, I left for Bible college, and 9/11 happened - which made my anxiety and worry go through the roof.
I withdrew. I was alone at college. I was full of fear. I was on my own, away from friends. I had been rejected by a guy I had invested a chunk of time into (which wasn't a healthy relationship to begin with). All my ticks came back in full force.
I wouldn't eat in the cafeteria. I couldn't stand the thought of waiting in line - who would I be waiting in line with? Where would I sit? What if I had to make small talk with someone I didn't know? What if nobody sat with me? What if I went to sit with someone and they didn't want me to sit somewhere? I was eating EZ Mac in my dorm room by myself, twice a day.
I was napping entire afternoons and weekends. I was counting my absences in my classes to make sure I was using up every single one I was allowed because it terrified me to go to class as there wasn't a seating plan. I didn't know where I would sit, if I would be called on, or who would try to talk to me.
I was too scared to join the rest of the girls at the end of the hall to hang out in the evenings. I was too scared to go to the library because I didn't know exactly who would be there or where I would sit. I went to one sports game in the gym and sat in the bleachers stressed because I didn't know how I would get out to leave.
I had a small group of friends, but I only spent time with them if we were in one of their rooms, or one-on-one going into town... and then I would feel a glimpse of my real self come back, with my dance moves and lip syncing to 'N Sync.
Some nights during meal time, I would drive out to a beautiful bridge my friend had shown me and look at the sky and just cry and pray. I was so ashamed and embarrassed and hated the person that I was, not understanding why I couldn't change and be the person I knew I had the power to be underneath - the person I wanted to be.
After three semesters I came home to my comfort zone and was high-functioning. I had a job, I met a guy, I got involved with some volunteer work, and I ended up with a successful hairdressing career and a not-so-successful marriage.
Eventually the cracks started to show and it gradually spiralled. I became a control freak about everything - mostly because I felt that I couldn't control my marriage or our financial problems or my life.
The fear of walk-in clients at work - the unknown - would cripple me the night before. Would they hate me? What if they want something I couldn't give them? How would I win them over? It was fear factor. Literally. I would get home and shut down. I'd sit in front of the TV and tell my husband (ex-husband now) not to speak to me. I was at my limit.
It all came to a head in 2009. My sister and I were running our own salon and I was doing a horrible job of it. My controlling ways and moodiness were bringing us down. We couldn't keep staff. We had bitten off more than I could handle. I kept all my stress inside until it exploded on whoever the unlucky person was that brought me over the edge.
I wasn't sleeping at night. I didn't have friends. I would make plans and be excited about things, but then as the day got closer, I would come up with an excuse and call it off. Eventually people gave up on me. Usually even as I was coming up with the plans, I was coming up with a way out of them.
In the midst of this, I got pregnant. I was incredibly sick. My hormones were raging. Then I got a call at work from my doctor and he told me my ultrasound came back and the babies had died. “Babies?” I asked. “Oh, that's right. It was twins” he replied. Something snapped in me and I was done. The miscarriage journey is a story for another day, but it seemed to have triggered everything else that had been piling up.
I slept. I slept and cried and slept more. I couldn't do an entire day at work. I was too tired. I didn't have any tools to equip me to handle this information, this much emotion, and this much lack of control in my life.
Finally, my husband and my parents met with me and told me I needed to get help. I was relieved and embarrassed all at once. I did not view myself as a weak person. Nobody else needed meds to act normal- what was wrong with me that I couldn't keep myself under control? I felt I was letting down my family because I wasn't strong. The shame overwhelmed me. I had failed. I couldn't even be a normal functioning human without medication. I didn't want to be medicated and numb. I liked the times I was happy and having fun and was worried that it would cloud those times. I was a Christian. God was supposed to be enough to get me through anything. All I should need is His strength. All I needed was to pray more. But I did what they asked.
I began anti-anxiety/depression medication and after a couple of weeks after it took effect. I felt like me again! I got so healthy and felt so good that I thought I was cured, so I went off my medication after a couple of months. I went through brutal withdrawal, even though I was on the smallest dose available, and within a week I was back in fetal position in bed crying. I wasn't clear enough in my head to make the connection to what had gone wrong.
My mom finally asked if I had been taking my medication, and it clicked. And it killed me. If I was going to be healthy and happy, I needed a pill for that. Even during my next pregnancy (twins again!), I told my doctor I wanted to go off my meds to prevent harm to my babies. He looked me in the eye and told me that those babies needed their mom to be as healthy as possible, and that now more than ever I needed to keep taking those pills. If need be, he told me he would prescribe something a little stronger because of the hormones and risk of postpartum. He's the one that told me it was the same as a heart condition. We don't shame people for taking those medications. The only difference was that this was my brain, not my heart. Since then, I have a new perspective and it makes the medication a little easier to take.
It took me a while to prove myself again. To rebuild friendships. To avoid triggers. When I find myself laying in bed overthinking how I am doing as a parent, what I need to improve on, overanalyze anxious habits I see in one of my boys, and feeling overwhelmed, I stop myself and remember that this is just one day. Tomorrow is another day, and I can face that as it comes.
I've also come to acknowledge that I don't need to blame everything on anxiety - some of it is just normal life with adult stresses.
I have shed many tears over the years which is probably why Psalm 56:8 resonates: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book”. The bottle He has of my tears is huge. But He knows each one individually, because He's been there for every single one.
People often struggle with God when they deal with stuff like this. But I have seen Him everywhere. He was in my parents when they told me I needed help. He was in my doctor when he explained to me that there was nothing wrong with taking something to help my brain. He created the doctors that came up with the medication that helps me. He helps me deal with my shame and embarrassment when I tell people that I struggle with anxiety. He gives me strength to know that I am no less of a woman or any less useful to Him just the way I am. We live in a broken world and He uses broken people. I want Him to use me.
Philippians 1:6 says, “For I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He's not done with me. He's not done with you.