Freedom vs. Slavery – How my anxiety makes me feel enslaved.

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This is part of my assignment for a class I had this semester where we discussed fundamental cultural assumptions on life vs. death, freedom vs. slavery, wisdom vs. folly, and good vs. evil. I decided to discuss how I felt most enslaved by my anxiety. It was my intention to try to explain what I have always felt was so hard to explain – the way that I feel panic, and how it controls me. I hope you find this helpful, interesting, or… I guess anything else!

Hands shaking, heart racing, vision blurring

Unseen to the unseeing, she can’t escape

Behind bars, caught and captured

there’s no way out

Heart racing, chest tightening

“Breathe”

How do you breathe when there’s no air to inhale?

Left to fight these mind demons alone, no hero in this story

The crowd turns away,

blind to the battle inside her, deaf to the cries

Hands shaking, mind racing

Unknown and invisible, a wraith rattling along the cage

Screaming in silence

It comes in waves, threatening to push her over the brink

Sinking, drowning, let it bury her

The crowd stands confused, there is nothing there

She’s gasping for air, but there’s nothing there

When thinking of the question: “When do you feel the most enslaved or free?” the first thought that comes to mind is within my anxiety. I tried to think back to the time that I had a panic attack in the middle of Disneyland, during a busy park day. I’m on vacation in the happiest place on earth, and yet I couldn’t find a way to escape the crowd that kept coming at me in droves. My mind raced to all the life-threatening situations that could possibly happen while stuck in a crowd, even things that weren’t possible like a breakout of a zombie virus. I knew deep down that I had been watching far too much of The Walking Dead, and still I felt as if my life was in danger.

I told myself to breathe, but it didn’t make a difference; there was no air in my lungs. I told myself to calm down, but there was no slowing my heart rate. I lost complete control of my body. And that’s how the panic hits you – it relinquishes your control to function. I was completely helpless and vulnerable to the demons controlling me, the ones that I am forever chained to, enslaved to. This is when I feel the most enslaved because I am constantly fighting this war in my head, even in situations where I should feel safe.

Her hair is curled, her eyelashes too

Her eyes are decorated in soft neutrals and a subtle wing

Her outfit, carefully selected

On the outside, this earthly prison is a painted doll

The her that is seen is happy, successful, outgoing


Stripping this painted doll of all these signifiers of

Happiness, success, desired personality

She is hurting and in pain

No drop of blood will you see fall from her flesh

No physical ailment or disease

Her demons are not worn on her sleeve for the world to see

So they must not really exist.

Her expressions are false advertising, a learned practice,

A permanent smile to appear friendly,

A focused gaze to appear listening,

Inside, her mind is in chaos,

trying to keep up with everything she is supposed to be.

The night before she questioned her sanity,

She wasn’t sure if what she was seeing was real.


The unseen behaviours are subtle, but the only way to cope.

She twists the ring on her finger, counting the turns.

She taps each finger on the pad of her thumb

Trying to feel connected to her own body,

in control of its responses.

Her toes flex and point in her shoes

Hiding under the desk, out of sight.

She focuses hard on the wall behind your face,

Hoping desperately that you won’t notice

she isn’t focused on you.

She knows to repeat the last thing you said

To appear to be actively listening,

though her mind is elsewhere.

She is painfully aware of the shake in her voice,

Her body tenses and she draws in a deep breath,

Trying to calm the demons in her mind.

The demons are not satisfied until every inch of her tingles,

Burns,

Hurts,

With anxiety.

Each cell activated in panic, ready to fight or fly.

The adrenaline of imminent danger builds up,

bubbles to the surface.


There is no danger,

no life or death situation.

There is no problem, no issue, no reason to be scared.

There is only you in front of her,

discussing the answers to a question the professor asked.

It is not threatening, there is no right answer.

There are just opinions.

But for her, there are feelings and she is feeling all of them.


The demons inside are controlling the unseen her,

She knows that she cannot fight them,

So she tries to keep her painted doll face on.

She tries as hard as she can.

It is the only thing she has left to control,

but she’s losing grip.

The first few weeks of class I tried to attend as often as I could, and still my mind went back to the fall semester when the class was so full and students crowded the door. I thought to that first class in September when people kept coming in, taking their place by the only escape route in the room. Even though the door remained clear in the beginning of this semester, I knew that it was only a matter of time for more people to join. The class was half over and still the door was clear, but all I could do is stare and anticipate my next panic attack. It was so exhausting that I gave up. I stopped attending classes and tried to focus my attention on going through the material on my own.

This prison also manifests in agoraphobia. I am so aware of everything that moves and breathes when I go outside. In the corner of my eye, I could see my neighbour, and I knew that I had to be more aware of my actions… rushing them to get out of view as quickly as possible. If I was too slow, I might be victim of judgment, I might be confronted about how I live or behave, I might be pulled into a conversation that I have no input in. This mind reading is constant; it never rests. In class, I am sure that I am not writing down enough notes – or maybe I’m writing down too many. If I am on either end of the spectrum, I clearly have no idea what the professor is saying. I must be dumb. I don’t belong here. This snowball of anxiety is always how the panic starts. When the body responses join and my heart rate increases or my breathing becomes more shallow, that’s when I know that this one is going to be the last – I’m surely finished. It’s a heart attack this time, not just the panic.

My mental health controls my life. It decides the days that are good, the days that are bad. It determines whether or not I go get groceries that day or I show up for the test that I have scheduled. It chooses the nights that I sleep and the nights that I am awake until morning, when I can hear others’ alarms going off to let them know it’s time for a new day, but mine hasn’t finished yet. I tried to control it with medication. I tried to control it with therapy. It is a resistant beast. Yet still, I refuse to fall. My focus is set to freedom from this prison, where I am in control again.

Balancing anxiety and school.

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I am currently working on my application for a bachelor’s program in social work. I applied last year, and due to a reference problem and average grades that couldn’t compete in the program I was declined. I had to tell myself that I had been finally diagnosed that year and I had significant difficulties adjusting – especially with medications. It was okay to try again. I am trying again this year with some boosted grades, fantastic references from some wonderful people and more volunteer experience. My application certainly looks a lot better.

So the question here is – why am I approaching this like I have already failed? I have put off my essay requirements of my application, even though I’ve already done the hard work of asking for references and volunteering with a club on campus that promotes mental health awareness (if you’re on campus, check out their events or consider volunteering! MHA UCalgary). I’ve done the part that requires me to hang up my anxiety for a little while, take a step and ask for what I want or interact with others about mental health, which at first was extremely emotional and difficult to do. And yet, I still discredit my work and knowledge and start the snowball of anxiety every time I sit down to finish the last piece of the application. I had given myself a deadline for the first week of February, and look at where we are now.

I’ve spoken before about letting go of the outcome. In practice, it is a great deal more difficult to accomplish, I understand. If you’re stuck on the outcome like I am right now, here are a few things to remember before you give up.

1. Take a break from it for a little while, but don’t avoid it. Make a cup of tea, watch ONE episode of something you enjoy on Netflix (Downton Abbey, anyone?), take a walk with a furry friend or cuddle them for a little while, write it down in a blog or a journal and get your feelings out in a healthy way, or check out some positive blogs/vlogs that encourage you to keep going. I really feel a lot better after I’ve read something from The Mighty as it encompasses people who are trying as hard as I am – and in a lot of cases, even harder. Other times I’ll watch some beauty gurus like Kathleen LightsJaclyn Hill, or Glam & Gore, who are all talented and beautiful ladies who are open about the importance of mental health, being good to yourself and reminding you how beautiful of a person you are.

2. Make yourself a list of what you have to accomplish, but also include what you have accomplished. Some days, getting out of bed is the best accomplishment that I can award myself, and being a gold star person, you bet your ass I’m going to be giving myself a gold star for that. Remember that any indication that you are trying is going to be a huge step over the days where you can’t try anything.

3. Talk to someone, even if it’s in an anonymous situation. R/Anxiety is a tool I even used last night and woke up to a response this morning of a total stranger reminding me that it is okay and that I need to breathe, remember that if I don’t get in and have to find a job – interviews are hard for everyone, and interviewers totally understand that. This isn’t the end of my life, just a bump in the road. Do you still feel like you have no one? You’re reading this blog right now, send me a message. I’ll be your person.

4. Take care of yourself. If you’re stressed, you’re likely going to forget to eat, drink, and shower. Or maybe you will overeat, drink more wine than you initially set out to, and still forget to shower. Set down whatever is stressing you and grab yourself a shower. I always feel like a whole new person when I get out of the shower, and I spend a lot of time thinking in the shower – but calmly. Being around water seems to really help me and I hope that you will find it helps you too.

This advice may seem similar to what I’ve posted about before, but it’s important to keep repeating it – especially for myself when I feel like I should just give up. At the end of the day, remember that if you give your best, that is all anyone can ask. But you have to be honest with yourself about what your best really is. I know that right now, this empty word document is not my best, and today is a new day, right now is a new moment, and I am strong enough to finish it. Now that my break is done, I hope that you will join me in mustering up some courage to finish this paper off, know that I did my best with it and let go any anxiety about what they will think or if they will accept me because I know that I have given it my all.

Healthy anxiety?

begentle

I remember sitting in my abnormal psychology class and my professor comes out with this phrase of ‘healthy anxiety’. I was instantly confused – how is an increase of heart rate, shallow breathing and higher blood pressure healthy for you? What he meant by this was a moderate amount of anxiety that pushes you to perform well at things. Would you have scored that goal if you weren’t a little nervous that your giant opponent coming after you was going to take that chance away from you? Would you have aced your last exam if you weren’t just anxious enough to make sure you studied as hard as you could?

Healthy anxiety pushes you to perform well. Where we go wrong is when it stops you from doing well. My anxiety changed from worrying about my grades on a test to being unable to even study. I felt cross-eyed and I couldn’t focus on any of the words I was reading in my textbook, even if the concepts were simple. I had to read the same sentences over and over again to even comprehend what the topic was about.

Since my experience is within an academic setting, I can only suggest methods of alleviating some anxiety that relate to resources available for students. Also input disclaimer that I am not a medical professional, so my advice is simply based on my experiences. But here’s what worked for me:

1. Ask for help.

What I first did was gathering the courage to speak to my family doctor. Here in Canada, I was able to make an appointment with her and get the referrals I needed to focus on mental health. I signed up with my school’s student accessibility services, had my family doctor fill out the required forms, and the SAS was able to make accommodations for me. They are there to help you, and are usually extremely creative to find out what works for you the best. My accommodations were things like having a program that reads my textbook for me, so I could focus on listening to the words instead of reading them. I also write my exams in a distraction-free environment, where I am able to take breaks if I get overwhelmed and they won’t count against my time. Things like these accommodations really took a load off.

2. Let music pull you forward, but not distract you.

The things that I did outside of school to help my anxiety really helped as well. I created a music playlist of songs that had no lyrics, were calming and had a steady, slow beat. Studies since the 1950s have looked into the detrimental effect that high tempo music has on studying and reading comprehension. Music has the ability to influence your emotions, and when you’re dealing with anxiety – you really don’t need anything else that is adding an obstacle. These studies have shown that soft, relaxing music has no obvious change to performance in studying and reading comprehension, but can help with mood. (If you want to look into this more and do not have access to a scholarly journal database, you can check out this article).

3. Take control of your environment.

Another thing about those who struggle with anxiety is that we are often stressed out by our environments. When I can’t control my environment, my desk is out of control or I am completely disorganized, I can’t focus and I get both irritated and even more anxious. The best thing that I can do in that situation is clear off my desk, sort out my books, articles, writing tools, etc. in a way that they are all easily accessible and light a candle or pull out my essential oil diffuser. Aromatherapy has done wonders for my anxiety. I began looking into it after wandering in to a store in a mall one day and haven’t looked back since. I do not ingest the oils, but I simply have pleasing blends diffused throughout my home so that when I get particularly anxious, I can take a deep breath and focus on the smell.

4. Build a support system.

Because I had kept my diagnosis quiet at the beginning out of fear of being stigmatized, I felt like I had no where to go except to my boyfriend. A friend directed me to Reddit to get involved in the r/Anxiety community. I read threads of other anxietybrain-type people and started to feel like I wasn’t alone. Soon enough, I made posts of my own and managed to get a lot of advice through their community. This support group helped me get through a lot of obstacles that I was going through in a way that offered outside/third-party advice. Sometimes I convinced myself that Jeff was telling me what I wanted to hear instead of what I needed to hear, and I would often bring the concern up in r/Anxiety and 9 times out of 10 got the same response. It was a way to deal with what I was going through with people who also were going through the same thing. Though I lean on Jeff a lot, r/Anxiety was always there when he was at work, when it was late at night, or when I just needed the opinion or advice of someone who is going through the same thing.

The biggest thing to remember is that you’re not alone. There are resources out there that you don’t even have to leave your bed to use. That knowledge in itself will help a great deal.

Every story has a beginning.

breadandwater.png

Maybe you can relate. I was always a high-strung, worry wart kind of child, but the first clue should have been the chest pain that started when I was 12. It would come out of nowhere – the sharp scalpel ripping through my lungs, making it harder and harder to inhale. I always felt like I was going to run out of air, like I was drowning on land.

I’ve had tests done. All the tests; tests on my lungs in small glass rooms, tests on my heart with cold goo, and all the X-rays I could dream of. My doctor kept ordering these tests to figure out what was wrong with me physically. Of course she asked if I felt stressed or anxious, but no – no I was normal. I didn’t have anxiety. I was a young teen and I just had normal young teen problems: my crush liked the prettiest girl in my class, I just wanted to be kissed and I was constantly running out of black eyeliner.

When I started dating Jeffery and the episodes would happen, it always seemed to help when he rubbed my back or gently wrapped his arms around me. I had gone through 5 years already of these chest pains and finally something made going through them a lot easier. Even still, no one clued in. I had gone to emergency several times, short of breath and feeling like this time was it, I’d be finished. Each time I had a new suggestion of where the pain was coming from. The muscles in my chest were spasming and I should just take ibuprofen. I slouch too much and I’m overextending my muscles. It’s a symptom related to my Asthma. They always made Jeff sit in the waiting room, a precaution in case he was abusing me. That was the worst of it, though. Hospitals and I are not the best of friends and my person was separated from me.

I started doing poorly in university. I began my academic journey strong, a student of Psychology, with high hopes of becoming a child psychologist. That soon changed to an elementary school teacher. But then my grades began to slip. I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest most of the time. Sometimes he would make my chest hurt and make it hard to breathe, but most of the time he just made it difficult to get up. My grades fell dramatically, mostly because I wasn’t attending classes. Finally I just gave up and quit.

I really don’t remember much of that year. I do remember my friends graduating. Photos were shared across Facebook of proud young students holding their shiny new degrees, excited for the promise of what was in store for them in the next few months. Many of them were entering the professional world, moving out and starting to figure out who they were as adults. Many were taking their end of university trip around the world. I was stuck in bed. Social media was like another elephant that sat on my chest and weighed me down, reminding me how much I had failed.

Jeff and I fought a lot. He accused me of being distant and lazy – which to a great extent I was. I was jealous, I felt like he was going to leave me at any second. I was stuck in a loop of worst-case scenario all the time. I started to try to make more of an effort, but it was hard. It was like trying to run underwater. We decided to get a dog together and we adopted a rescue mini Aussie that we named Loki.

Loki began to make a difference in my life. He was extremely aware of my emotional state and often came over to me with kisses or asked to play when he knew I was upset. I went everywhere with him and enjoyed every second I was with him. He followed me around like a lost puppy and we seemed to be inseparable.

I started to feel a little better. I signed up for classes again and was determined to finish my degree. I had changed my degree so many times, each time going to easier and easier programs. I was now in a communication and culture arts degree with no direction, but it was something and I would work to get back into psychology. I met up with an academic advisor with high hopes and bright determination. I knew that the requirements to get into psychology were higher now, but I was determined that after this semester, I’d be able to get back into it because I was going to go back to my A-student, gold-star ways.

The academic advisor told me that I’d have to get an A in every class in order to even think about getting into psychology. I started to panic. That was a lot of pressure. I was still hopeful and I lifted my chin and took on the challenge. But then I got my first test mark back in Brain and Behaviour. It was a B. The advisor told me I had to get an A in every class and all I could look at was that mark – it was a B. That wasn’t good enough. I thought I was panicking before, but nothing could have prepared me for the spiral of panic I was about to go down.

I started freaking out at every mistake. My anxiety began to develop in ways that I hadn’t recognized to be anxiety. I lashed out easily, irritated and angry. My brain didn’t have enough space for anything but the constant snowball I was in – If I don’t get an A on this test, I will fail this class. If I fail this class, I will fail this semester. If I fail this semester, I won’t get into psychology. If I don’t get into psychology, I won’t amount to anything. If I don’t amount to anything, I’ll die alone in a hole with rats because no one will love me.

I decided to see a counsellor at the wellness centre. It wasn’t working. I was panicking right now, but he was focusing on my life history. He focused on my family issues: living with a sick mother, who later became bound to a wheelchair for the foreseeable future. My issues with my father and all the fights we had. This wasn’t helping the now, though. I was panicking right now and my grades were failing and I was snowballing all the time. I left my psych midterm half blank because I was so caught up in the snowball. I gave up and went to my family doctor. Maybe she could help me.

Immediately, she put me on an antidepressant, got me registered with my student accessibility services for anxiety, and referred me to a psychiatrist. Officially, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, social anxiety and OCD. And it was scary. I grew up with mental illness in my family and knew how quickly they were ostracized. “She did well despite her issues“. “— isn’t doing well today, Erin. Be extra kind”. It was a disease to tiptoe around and make excuses for. And all I thought about was that I was going to become my diagnosis, and I would stop being me.

Jeff really stepped up to the plate. He became my rock and learned how to help me calm down from my cycle of panic. It was a work in progress, but it was helping. Loki also picked up on my struggling and he began to help me as well. We started to teach him to also help me come down from a panic attack, and it was like he already knew what to do. He would come over to me, give me kisses, nudge me, and eventually come up for a hug. Often he would try to get me to lay down and he’d lay on my chest, which offered a release from the anxiety loop I was stuck in.

Although this beginning has been long, it was a real testament to how easy it is to shove aside mental health as the root of the issue. Now 24, I spent nearly 12 years trying to figure out the cause of my pain and the reason why I wasn’t keeping up with my peers. Though my journey isn’t finished yet – as it has been over a year since I was diagnosed and I’ve been on a whirlwind of trying out new medications, therapy and figuring out what works, I can at least put a name to it. I hope anyone out there in internetland who managed to stay with me through this long-winded tale and is struggling as well can feel a little better knowing that they aren’t alone. I hope to use this blog to offer my opinions, resources and be real about my anxiety, even if no one else reads it. I tried to write things down in a journal, but I feel more at home with my laptop where I can write as quickly as my brain is going – which let me tell you, it goes a mile a minute.