It had to have been 2009 or so. A year-ish perhaps, maybe less, into my first long-term relationship right after high school (that would last another five years). He was living with my family and I - long story - and working at a popular pizza spot downtown. I expected him home late but as the hour crept beyond midnight, I began to wonder. Called - no answer. Called again - no answer. After all this time I can recall what it felt like to stand in my room as the TV lit the walls in this haunting sort of way in the darkness. The clock kept ticking and I was worried now. Not that he was doing something wrong - nothing like that in that moment. In my mind scenes of his forest green, Ford Ranger being submerged in a body of water with his lifeless body inside played on repeat, mixed with other images depicting the tragic demise of the boy I loved. Soon his phone went straight to voicemail (I had to have tried at least 30 times). I was terrified now and losing my grip quickly. I called the police station - crazy, I know. I called his friends (it was WAY too late to be calling anyone). I called his job. Before I knew it, it was about 3 AM and I was driving around downtown and past his family's house praying for a glimpse of him. Nothing. Around 4 AM I went home and went to bed, on the phone with a sweet friend of his who assured me that he was safe and that there was an explanation of some kind for all of this. By the time I found any rest, the sun had come up. Dis-ease and pure panic still radiating in my bones.
*In case you’re wondering, he turned up eventually the next day very much alive and with a story I believed. I would find out a year after we finally broke up many many moons later that he was cheating all along. Not important at all to this story, however. Label no one surprised, though.
This would only be the beginning of my interactions with my anxiety.
Things got worse from there. My mind became a dark and scary place that I hated being alone with. The fear that something terrible was going to happen to the people I loved was an energy that haunted me every single day. If someone didn’t answer the phone I instantly imagined the worst possible reason that could be so - something unspeakable happening to them. My boyfriend. My family. I had no friends at this time in my life so at least those four people were the extent of my uncontrollable worry. Over the course of many months, being with my own psyche was causing me not just discomfort, but a very real pain that was interfering in a significant way with my ability to live my life. I recall a night where my boyfriend and I were house-sitting for my mom’s boss at the time, and the feeling that the walls were closing in on me and that I would ALWAYS feel like that was submerging me in a darkness that I couldn’t drown out no matter how many lights I turned on in the house. There’s a journal somewhere with my harrowing thoughts from that night that I kind of wish I still had. It’s probably for the best that I don’t.
Then came a night much like most others at my parents’ house where I still lived probably somewhere in 2010. My boyfriend and I were both home as were my dad, mom, and brother. It was getting late and my mom and brother were standing outside talking about something. They were just outside our front door and I was flooded with fear. What if someone drove by and shot them (in our gated, middle class, security monitored neighborhood)? This fear was so incredibly real that I begged them to come inside. Frustrated with my irrational request, I remember that tone in my mom's voice as she tried to make sense of why I so desperately needed them to retreat. Everything came crumbling down. As my family circled around me, I wept and wept as I let them in on just how far away any control of my mind felt. I’d lost my grip on reality. Every moment was laced with sadness and fear. It was time to do something about my steadily declining mental health. I needed help. I really, really needed help. In the coming years, I’d go on to experience a year of debilitating depression and then several years later, another stint of anxiety that was different but still as disruptive as the first.
Anxiety and Depression are nearly impossible to understand if you have no direct experience. I am here to tell you that they are very, very real illnesses that impact millions and millions of people and they do not discriminate. There is biochemistry involved in these experiences included but not limited to imbalances related to such chemicals as Seratonin, Thyroid Hormone, GABA, Epinephrine/Norepinephrine, Endorphins, and Dopamine.
Any combination of nature + nurture can be at play here. Personally, I absolutely have a genetic predisposition to these particular strands of mental stress, AND there’s no question that various aspects of my environment contributed to what ultimately manifested in my mind, body, and spirit. Recalling the fact that there were several, accident-related deaths of peers in my close sphere as I neared the end of High School illuminates just one way my mind and body subconsciously stored trauma and became programmed to perceive a tiger (let that be a symbol for a threat) lurking around every corner. I could (and have) fall down any number of rabbit holes to trace the roots of my anxious and depressive seasons. The point is these things are so real, so visceral to the person fighting them.
Everyone’s path is different obviously, so help and healing aren’t to be offered in blanket solutions. However, information is power, so no intelligently informed suggestion hurts as long as you’re intuiting what is right for your journey to the best of your ability. From one person who understands to you, here’s what I did to invite healing into my life as I summoned the courage to face my Anxiety and Depression:
1. Tell someone - I’d go as far as to say that healing these energies cannot be done alone. The moment I let people I trusted into my pain, healing could begin. Not only because they provided support in accessing the help I needed, but because being known in our pain is medicine in and of itself. Connection and love are important remedies not to be overlooked. Be held in your struggle. Trust me.
2. Get PROFESSIONAL help - as wonderful as family and friends and spouses and your dogs are to talk to, and as crucial as that is, it does not replace the experience of processing with someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing. I got my ass RIGHT to therapy and I stayed there for a hotttttt minute. I still have a therapist. Ask people you trust if they have anyone they’ve been to and can refer.
3. Reprogramming thought patterns - before I had any indication that I’d do this for a living, and quite intuitively, when I was in the midst of an anxiety attack with fearful thoughts swirling, whenever I was able I’d bring myself through some prompts to come back to reality. When I was terrified that something had happened to someone if, let’s say, they didn’t answer their phone, I’d make myself write out five more likely reasons they weren’t responding. I realigned my consciousness with my ability to choose what I gave power to - my anxiety or a health-filled thought. While it didn’t eliminate my fearful responses entirely, it did allow me to cope with them and take a much needed deep breath.
4. Let’s talk about medication - I have no problem with intervention from Western medicine in instances where Anxiety and Depression are interfering with your ability to live your life. For designated periods of time, I think it can be crucial to getting over a hump and balancing your brain chemistry. I’ve personally done it several times for short stints to help me get a hold on things and I am so grateful for the relief it provided so that I could summon the energy and fortitude to implement tools and strategies to form healthy coping skills. But let me be clear, it was my last option after trying with tremendous effort for many months to find relief through the first three options alone.
5. And now let’s talk about meditation - Meditation is perhaps the single most effective thing I’ve ever done to be able to form new neural pathways. It revealed me to myself in astounding clarity. Besides begin the catalyst to my spiritual awakening, it allowed me to witness everything as neutral and revealed my ability to choose my reactions to my environment.
6. Yoga - First and foremost, this was transformative for me when I started practicing regularly because it was the first time in years that I had a community. I’d been so lonely for so long that just being around people every day was a gift I can hardly describe. Add to that the benefit of moving the chaotic energy in my body - revolutionary. On top of that, for someone struggling with anxiety, the feeling of being able to take a conscious, choice-based deep breath - I mean - sublime.
7. A friend on four legs - I would tell anyone that Apollo saved my life. During a time where I felt scared, insecure, unsafe and alone, he gave me a gift that is perhaps, deceptively profound - companionship. Dogs, in particular, give love unconditionally and that is no small thing to any person, let alone someone who’s struggling. There’s plenty of research to support how good dogs are for us. The remarkable bond I share with Apollo got me through the darkest time in my life, which is really all the research I need.
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe in such a thing as being healed. I believe healing is an endless cycle of becoming. Am I no longer an anxious person? I certainly still have anxious moments, believe me. Where the shift lies is in the fact that it no longer controls my life. If you don’t answer the phone, I’ll be just fine. When I feel myself going there, I can intercept the ball on my own. I still keep Apollo close by, but that’s never going to change. Am I absolved of my tendencies? Not forever, I’m sure. Am I alive? Very, very much yes.
In the midst of my seasons of greatest anguish, I’ve always been comforted by this passage from a poem by Emily Dickinson. I’d love to share it with you.
The Waves grew sleepy — Breath — did not —
The Winds — like Children — lulled —
Then Sunrise kissed my Chrysalis —
And I stood up — and lived —
Relief. Healing. Freedom. Living - is possible.
Don’t give up hope.