“You could have grown cold, but you grew courageous instead. You could have given up, but you kept on going. You could have seen obstacles, but you called them adventures. You could have called them weeds, but instead you called them wildflower. You could have died a caterpillar, but you fought on to be a butterfly. You could have denied yourself goodness, but instead you chose to show yourself some self-love. You could have defined yourself by the dark days, but instead through them you realized your light.” (S.C. Lourie)
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) three years ago at age 27. When I look back to the leadup and I relive how I got to my burnout I can recognize my self-destructive habits. I believe I had forms of high anxiety from a young age. I used to self-harm as a teenager and developed a subconscious pattern of self-loathing. You can deny your emotions but they will always show up, a bit like pushing a beach ball underwater; science doesn’t allow it: that which is suppressed will rise up angrier than before. I never dealt with my issues in school and as an adult I just got distracted—job, partner, socializing regularly and being busy always helped as I never had to pay much attention to my own thoughts. It felt easier when there was something else to focus my energy on, so I did just that.
Western schools focus heavily on giving us a certain type of education, often failing to teach us how to love ourselves. I believe that’s why so many people are walking around in depression and can’t get out. Many people are unaware of their internal dialogue, how they process emotions and the self-talk they use on a daily basis. You spend more time with yourself than you will spend with any other person on this planet, so isn’t the relationship you have with yourself something you should nurture and perfect? When you meet someone new, the first questions asked are usually: “What job do you have?,” “Are you married/with a partner?,” “Do you have a house?”—a checklist of items that some people believe define who you are. I am not my job, I am not my partner and I am not my house. I am me. Happiness is what I believe it to be, not these picture-perfect circumstances for which a lot of Westerners are striving.
My life was becoming a constant chore. Nothing was exciting to me anymore. It meant I was never living in the moment, just waiting for happiness to happen. I believed it was a destination, that it was situational; happiness would find me when I finished university, then it was when I got a new job, then it was when I got more money, and then it was when I got a partner. All those situations would come and go and I would still have this deep feeling of anxiety and fear of not being enough. I wasn’t enjoying anything, merely trying to tick things off an endless list. Due to low self-esteem I felt I needed to complete things in order to feel valued. I had no idea what I was waiting for, no sense of direction as to what made me feel complete or sparked joy.
My anxiety had formed into something out of my control and in order to deal with the uncertainties of life I tried everything within my power to control what I could in order to stop bad things from happening. I wanted to control my plans and whilst everyone else would think that I was organized and see me as just an outgoing, friendly, busy person it was hell because I could never just go with the flow and relax or be spontaneous. I had to be in control of everything and it all had to be “perfect.” A lot of people with anxiety issues try to control what is happening around them because they feel so out of control inside. I recognize that by being busy and never having time for me, I never had enough time to process and reflect. Other people probably knew me better than I knew myself.
I was a constant “yes person”; no matter what, I’d be there. It made me feel worthy and gave me validation. I was a reliable person to everyone and would really struggle to let anyone down. Anything thrown at me at work I would take on. “No problem at all” was on repeat. This made me feel drained as I was doing everything to please other people and to keep them happy or, more importantly, to not disappoint them. I was so terrified of upsetting people close to me, if there was a confrontation with a friend or someone at work I would stew on it for hours and hours, wondering if I was in the right or wrong. I would constantly second-guess myself and doubt myself to the point where disagreeing with anyone just wasn’t worth the headache. It was easier to say yes, easier to keep quiet, easier to shut myself off. I had no strength for conflict or to disagree. In this process I completely lost myself: my voice, my joy, my essence.
The strain of everything combined had taken its toll and I had my first panic attack. At times I feel I can’t explain what anxiety means to me. I can’t find the words to convey how traumatizing it is. I was in a meeting room with eight colleagues and I was asked a simple question about a project I was working on. I started speaking and somewhere in between my words and my thoughts I lost everything I had ever known. I froze, and blacked out. I couldn’t think, let alone talk. It felt as though someone was picking at parts of my brain with a pair of tweezers and my entire head was shaking. I completely lost control, like a button got pressed and I just shut down. The debilitating sensations were nothing I had ever experienced and not being in control physically was one of the scariest moments of my life. It only lasted maybe ten seconds but that day it felt like I walked into a meeting room and never came out again.
I was having anxiety attacks regularly at work and things began to spiral as I felt dizzy, tight-chested, nauseous, fatigued, with constant brain fog, and was living with so much fear that every single person became a threat. Simple things like dinner with a friend, I would avoid in case it happened again. I didn’t want people in my house or to meet anyone new. I was overthinking everything and this once-confident, sociable person would struggle to keep a mere conversation going without it ending in embarrassment. I had fear of people’s judgements and anyone finding out that I was “mental,” so I completely shut myself off. I would come home from work, clothes drenched in sweat, and go straight to bed at seven feeling drained from the day. I had become so numb in that process I could no longer cry. I didn’t laugh, eating was a chore, I couldn’t listen to music. I had no escape from this constant hell I was living in and everyday started to feel like I was living outside of my body, looking down at myself looking down.
I went to doctors looking for answers, as I believed something was wrong with me and needed to find out what. I refused to accept my diagnosis for a long time. It scared me so much to accept I had anxiety, I vividly remember praying to God that I had something physically wrong with me that would be the answer to all of my symptoms. I actually wanted to find a lump or a thyroid problem or anything that would mean I could take a tablet and it would all be gone. I couldn’t face it being a mental-health problem, so in my mind it had to be something physical. After many blood tests, urine tests, an eye test, ultrasounds, acupuncture, antibiotics and finally an MRI scan, I felt forced to take some time off work. I stayed with my parents, absolutely broken, catastrophizing it all and telling myself I was going to lose everything: my relationship—my flat, my job, my friends—and I would be bedridden for the rest of my life.
Some people will call you out and challenge you when you most need them. My mum said two words that I needed to hear at that time:
So what if it’s anxiety? When I faced it, I took it’s power away and I overcame it. Through the pain, through the turmoil and through the isolation, I found the happiness that I had been searching for. It’s by far the hardest thing I ever had to get through but my breakdown was my breakthrough. My anxiety is the best thing that happened to me because it taught me so much, and gave me strength. My anxiety was telling me something wasn’t right and that there needed to be changes. This helped me reshape my identity.
- I’ve learnt to find my happiness through joy. I realized adults can sometimes make things overly complicated, maybe to make themselves feel clever, maybe to feed their egos or maybe it’s just ignorance, but really life is simple and that simplicity is what I constantly have to remind myself of. Find what brings you joy. I love a slow walk through the park, a hot chocolate on a cold day or a soothing artist with a new album. Ask yourself what brings you joy. Who brings you joy? Then ask yourself how much time you dedicate to joy.
- I’ve learnt not to “should” myself to death. I try not to listen to closed-minded statements: e.g., “You should watch the news, earn X amount of money and own a house by the time you’re thirty.” The truth is that what may be right for you isn’t right for everyone else. Your values are not identical to anyone else’s and that doesn’t make you better or worse, right or wrong. We grow up with an unrealistic ideal, that things should be perfect, relationships should be perfect and our lives should be perfect. Perfection is a myth that looks different to everyone. I have learnt to drop the “should” and accept what the reality is.
- I’ve learnt that it’s okay to say no; in fact, it’s a skill that you need in order to survive. Learn to say no to people and to have boundaries with friends, partners and family. Protect yourself and your energy. If something doesn’t serve you and your emotional well-being, change it. Don’t give yourself a hard time for “quitting” something that makes you unhappy. Commitment, dedication and hard work don’t mean pushing yourself to the point of a mental breakdown. Commit to checking in with yourself and asking yourself what brings you joy, what nurtures you, what grows you and, if it doesn’t do any of those, ask yourself what’s pulling you towards it? Yes, you will have to sacrifice and compromise at times for the things you really want but just be conscious of them and know that saying no is alright.
- I’ve learnt that self-love/self-care is an art form requiring consistency. Self-care comes in many forms; it’s not always just a bubble bath, lavender, candles and an early night (although that is my favorite remedy.) Before you lift off on a plane you are given safety tips on how to survive if you crash. Rule number one: put your air mask on before helping others. How can you help someone else don their mask if you can’t breathe yourself? I know this is a natural instinct for people with families, but it proves difficult to love others when you don’t love yourself. It becomes difficult to be patient with others when you have no patience for yourself. It’s a struggle to give compassion to others when you have zero compassion for yourself. Remember, people can only meet you as deeply as they have met themselves. I have to nurture my own soul first before I try to make others happy. I need time alone before I give time to others.
- I’ve learnt to cultivate gratitude. There is so much uncertainty in this world and you have to be okay with that. I don’t have all the answers and bad things do happen to good people. It’s understandable that we try to avoid pain and suffering, that we try to plan ahead in order to gain maximum comfort. Who wants to suffer and have bad things happen to them? However, when you accept that pain and suffering are inevitable parts of life, you become empowered. It teaches you to appreciate the things in your life that are good right now: the small, simple stuff that we’re told are irrelevant. Rather than striving for an unrealistic idea of perfection, gratitude forces you to be thankful for the love and beauty you currently have in your life right now. Everything starts and ends with gratitude.
- I’ve learnt that, when tired, learn to rest, not give up. When I learned how to rest I realized I have infinite strength. For a long time I thought my anxiety made me so weak and now I see it’s built of nothing but strength. Through facing my pain, facing my thoughts and facing my fears, I found bottomless courage. I had to learn to trust myself again and in that trust I found out I can handle life. It’s fine to ask for help and to turn to someone in a crisis, but I don’t need other people’s reassurance and constant approval. I am living my life in my way, no apologies. We all have to make difficult decisions from time to time and maybe I needed to understand nobody has to agree with mine and now I am telling you that nobody has to agree with yours.
There is more for me to learn. This is just a part of my story. I still have good and bad days. Sometimes it’s cloudy and I’m reunited with my long-lost friend anxiety. Other times the sun shines so brightly I couldn’t feel further away from it. This is my journey and your journey and lessons will be your own—some might be similar and some will differ. I can’t be certain of all things and I know the what-ifs are often what keep anxiety cycles going round and round, but one thing of which I can be completely, totally and utterly certain is that, no matter how you feel right now, it will be okay in the end.