My story and what I learned
Trigger Warning: This article covers topics that may be difficult for some readers including but not limited to, anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Please use discretion when reading this. If you want to consume only the self help portion of this article, skip to the subheading: ‘When I got help.’
Am I the only person on earth that suffers from anxiety? Probably not. But some days it does feel like it.
It’s so easy to overthink and get stuck in my own head; it’s second nature to me. I step into it like people step into well-worn shoes. It’s as easy to me as breathing.
But it’s not healthy. It’s actually detrimental to my health, to my productivity, to my relationships and I have spent the last two years working on trying to be better. Trying to be a healthier person.
And what is the purpose of struggle if not to enlighten others on the treacherous paths we have already taken?
Today that’s what I am going to do. I am going to tell you my story, and I am going to tell you what I do to feel better. But know this, I still battle it daily. I am still learning how to deal.
How it began
I have had anxiety my entire life. Only looking back as an adult do I realize that some of my odd behavior as a child was linked to anxiety.
For example, one time my family took a trip to California to visit family. On our way to the hotel my family got lost and we ended up essentially in the middle of nowhere at the end of a highway. I was so upset that we were lost and I convinced myself that we were going to run out of gas before we ever made it to our hotel.
I was so worried about it that I actually made myself sick and I threw up on the floor in the backseat of our cheap rental car. The car stunk the rest of the trip despite our best efforts to clean it up. Now it’s a funny family memory, that was very unfunny at the time.
Looking back though, I realize that was an anxiety attack. My little nine-year-old brain didn’t know how to cope with the unknown.
When I was a freshman in high school my family took a trip to Hawaii, the big island. I was super into snorkeling that trip and where we were staying had gear we could use. I was snorkeling with my dad one afternoon and while we were a little ways from shore in the ocean he made a joke.
Something along the lines of, “Oh no I think I saw a shark.”
Obviously, there was no shark but all I could think about as I continued swimming was that any second I was going to be eaten by a shark and my life would be over. I found myself swimming back to shore as fast as my limbs could carry me.
I believed that a shark was on my tail, just a hairs length away from my flippers. It was an irrational, ridiculous fear and on some level I knew I was perfectly safe. But I didn’t stop until I was back on the white sand beach.
I wouldn’t be diagnosed with anxiety for another three years.
When I knew I needed help
Even though I had those one-off experiences, I thought they were just that: once-in-a-blue-moon behavior. It wasn’t until we moved to Texas that things got bad. The move itself was very traumatic for me. I left behind a great circle of friends, a big loving family and the place I had called home my entire life.
I left Alaska and it changed my life on a very fundamental level. The things I had begun loving like skiing weren’t things that I could do anymore. We moved with only two suitcases per person. So we packed our lives and 15 years worth of memories into luggage and flew to Lubbock, Texas.
It was a sudden, unplanned and unwelcome change in my life.
I was slow to adapt and I didnt leave the house practically ever. I was very deeply sad. And while I dealt with the situational depression, my long term anxiety got much worse. Though, I didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to me.
Nearly every day on my way to the bus stop I would walk the four houses down and throw up. Somedays, I would turn right around and go back home, tell my mom I was sick and go back to bed. Somedays, I would go to school anyway.
I didn’t understand why I got sick in the mornings. I now know that I was having anxiety attacks every morning on the way to school because I was afraid of what awaited me there.
No one was necessarily mean to me at school. I actually made friends rather quickly. But that’s the thing about anxiety, it doesn’t make sense. I didn’t know how to cope with the unknown or surprises. And school always felt like an unknown.
It got worse over time. Especially when we moved to Fargo 13 months later, and my parents saw me deteriorating. They thought it was due to the moving. Once we got established and had a home, once I got settled at school in Fargo, I would get better.
But I didn’t, I got worse. I continued to throw up regularly. I lost weight. I was eating less and less because I thought if I ate less I wouldn’t get sick, I hated leaving the house. I wasn’t sick due to a microbe. I was sick due to stress.
Finally came the summer of 2019. I had just started dating my current boyfriend and it was wreaking havoc on my mental health. I was terrified of him realizing just how broken I was and of him seeing me throw up.
The stress of it all was unbearable. The shame I was living in was eating me alive. I didn’t know how to cope but I desperately needed help. Everything changed with a doctor’s office visit.
When I got help
It was one of those stupid mental health questionaires that you filled out every time you went to the doctors office. It asks you questions like: “On a scale of one to five how often do you feel stressed?” And as usual I answered honestly.
I had been to the doctors office several times before this and filled things like these out all the time. I had never lied and said I was doing good, but when I was in Texas, we moved again before I ever really had a chance to get help.
Even then my parents thought I would get better over time, I was getting worse and my mom knew I needed help and at this point my doctor agreed. My mental health questionnaire clearly indicated I was unwell.
I remember something my doctor said to me specifically that made me realize it was essentially do or die. She said, “Abigail, if you lose any more weight you’re going to get very sick.”
For me that was a wake up call. It made me realize just how miserable I was and how tired I was of living the way I was living. Every decision I made was second guessed. Every one of them I worried about every possible thing that could go wrong.
I was living in fight-or-flight every second of the day. I went to bed exhausted.
I got a therapist.
I know there is a lot of bad press around therapists and how useless they are. But seeking professional help was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I live a new life now.
Therapy didn’t remove my anxiety from me. I still deal with it. But I went from having anxiety attacks every single day to having them hardly ever. There were several things that helped me get better.
First, my faith. Part of the reason I stopped myself from getting help was my faith. I felt a lot of shame for feeling the way that I did. I told myself that if I was a better Chrisitan and if I had more faith I would get better. That was a lie.
Now my faith is actually instrumental in my piece of mind. I have a God that has a plan for me, and it’s a good one. There are a lot of things that are out of my control, and that’s okay. Because they are in his control.
I don’t have to live in shame because I was created with love and in his image. God doesn’t want that for me. I wasn’t created to live in that.
But if you’re not a person of faith, and that’s all nonsense in your ear there were other things therapy taught me too. One of the most instrumental things I learned was how to monitor my thought process.
Not every errant thought needs to be dwelled on. I can acknowledge that I thought something and not continue to think about it.
Also not jumping to conclusions was another thing I had to retrain my brain to stop doing. I remember one thing in particular that was said to me by my therapist. She said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and of course my brain came up with a million things.
Then she said, “Now what’s the most likely thing that can happen?” That was a game changer! It made me completely rethink every negative thought that I was having. Yeah, it could happen, but that didn’t mean that it would.
Besides other thinking exercises, there were other coping skills I learned too. Breathing exercises, journaling and mediating were all things I tried to rein in my anxious thoughts.
I also learned how to describe and put words to my feelings. I learned my destructive spiral step-by-step so I could learn when I was falling into old patterns. But this is just my journey.
My symptoms may not be your symptoms, my story is likely not your story. But what I can tell you is I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been mentally, spiritually and physically.
I am at a healthy weight, anxiety attacks are a rarity and I truly believe I went through this experience so I can tell others how I found my way out. Because even if it doesn’t feel like it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
If the end of your story is despair then it’s not the end of your story. This is my healing journey and if any part of my story sounds like what you’re currently experiencing then I encourage you to seek out professional help.
Stay strong, keep fighting and don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to open up to people you care about.