They called me a crybaby, a scaredy-cat, a wimp. I was told I was selfish, immature, spoiled. These words were drilled into my head until I was sixteen, at which point I assumed they were one hundred and ten percent true.
Even after being diagnosed with anxiety as a teenager, I still believed the laundry list of horrible things people said about me every time I had a panic attack. But knowing that I had anxiety only gave a clinical name to what had been plaguing me for as long as I could remember. Instead of finally having an answer or a solution to the problem, I felt like I had been handed a life-long sentence.
Growing up with anxiety made the trials and tribulations of my teenage years even more painful. I was horribly shy and awkward, and didn’t really know how to make friends until I got to high school. I never even dated anyone until I was seventeen, and my fears and self-conscious nature held me back from participating in as many school activities as I may have wanted.
I felt like I was the only teenager who wasn’t excited to get her license – instead, I was downright terrified. And college? Forget it. Even though I was a B average student, I panicked every time I took the SATs and bombed them all three times. Higher education seemed completely out of my reach, not just academically, but because I literally could not fathom the thought of being independent or living away from home. The overwhelming anxiety I felt about becoming an adult subsequently put an end to my dreams of pursuing a writing career.
Despite a parade of therapists and a cocktail of meds, the next dozen or so years of my life were still dominated by anxiety. Even though I had rare shining moments of happiness where I managed to do normal things like graduate, get my first job, meet my husband, get married, buy a house, and take vacations, anxiety was always bubbling just below the surface. I never knew when it would overflow.
And while I was going through the motions of a “normal” life, and was happy with certain aspects of it, I still wasn’t being true to myself. I stopped writing pretty much altogether, I hopped from one miserable job to another, and began to feel isolated from my friends and family. I found myself becoming increasingly depressed anytime I watched the news or logged onto social media, and swore up and down that I didn’t have time to make any positive changes because of responsibilities like having a spotless house and doing work out routines I hated.
In short, I was living a life that others expected of me. I had put away childish dreams of writing for love or money and was letting others decide how I spent my time. At the age of thirty-two, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, lonely, anxious, and depressed more than I’d ever been.
The worst part was that I didn’t know where to go for help. Therapy and medication had only been temporary band-aids to the problem, and I was embarrassed to tell my family or friends. My husband didn’t even realize how bad things were because he worked night shift and we barely saw each other, which only added to my loneliness. Then in November 2016, the results of the presidential election sent me reeling into an even deeper hole than I thought possible.
The turning point for me came unexpectedly in early 2017. Inspired by the first few Resistance demonstrations in light of the election of the US’s 45th president, I felt a fire flicker inside me that I hadn’t felt in ages. Yes, I was angry and sad about the state of my country and the state of my personal life.
But seeing thousands participate in peaceful protests across the nation inspired me to make some of my own changes. I wanted to volunteer, be a part of the motivated crowd, and shout from the rooftops — but not just about human rights or politics. I wanted the world to see me, hear me, and know everything I stood for and what made me tick.
The desire to break out of my shell was invigorating but terrifying. I knew I wanted to turn my life around, but how was I going to do that when I was afraid to get out of bed in the morning? A good start would have been returning to therapy, but I felt as if I had reached a plateau after years of doing it the traditional way. But then my sister told me about something called EMDR.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a fairly new type of therapy developed to help people who have experienced traumas like car accidents, assault, or military combat. But recently the treatment has also been beneficial to patients with generalized anxiety order. EMDR helps decrease the intensity of an anxiety-triggering memory or thought process and replaces it with a more positive one.
This is done by associating negative beliefs like “I don’t matter” into more productive ones such as “My thoughts and feelings are legitimate.” Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR is done in conjunction with physical stimulation such as small buzzers or musical tones. Intense buzzing or harsh notes are associated with negative belief symptoms, and weak buzzing or pleasant tones go along with healthier thoughts.
I was skeptical about the treatment at first, but after only a few short months, I actually began to feel better. Not only was I more optimistic, confident, and ambitious, but the most amazing thing was that my inner monologue was starting to change, something I’d been trying to accomplish since I was a teenager.
Eventually, I became confident enough to start trying new things like volunteering, swimming, and working a second job for extra cash. I also returned to my passion for writing and self-published two novels in one year. Writing became a priority in my life again, and I was spending every waking moment blogging, marketing, and submitting articles and fictional pieces for contests and open calls for submissions. After nearly a decade of not creating, the words tumbled out of my heart and onto the keyboard in a flood of emotion. The relief and fulfillment I got from dedicating even a small portion of my day to writing was absolutely the best change I’ve ever made.
As amazing as it was to be adding new goals and activities to improve my life, I also realized that I needed to put an end to certain negative or damaging aspects too. For starters, I stopped getting into arguments on social media with strangers and stopped watching the news in the mornings before work. Instead, I started my day by reading writing tutorials or browsing open calls for submissions.
I stopped participating in negative or hurtful chit chat and stopped believing every negative word or piece of judgment others said about me. Instead, I began asking myself what I wanted and what I thought. This led me to become bold enough to stand up for myself and stopped others from walking all over me. Once I was free from the trivial criticism of others, I figured out how to stop obsessing over trivial things like dust bunnies in my house or the size of my jeans.
But the biggest thing I stopped doing was hiding from my anxiety. Realizing that I’m going to have anxiety for the rest of my life was at one time crippling. I thought it meant that I would never be able to fulfill some of my biggest dreams like traveling to another country, getting published, or getting promoted. I even thought that it meant I could never be confident or assertive or successful.
The epiphany for me came the day I realized that I could turn my biggest fault into one of my best assets. Yes, I have anxiety. Yes, at times it can stop me in my tracks. But I wasn’t the only one dealing with this.
While researching the expansive online writing community that exists online, I was amazed to find just how many people out there were writing about living with all types of mental illness. There, I found my niche. By blogging honestly about living with anxiety and my experiences with EMDR, I made invaluable connections and found my rhythm. I even had my first article published by an online publication specializing in stories about people with mental health battles.
Once I started opening up online about my struggles with anxiety, I found that I was able to do it in real life too. Explaining what I was going through to people who don’t have anxiety was freeing. Though not everyone understood exactly where I was coming from, the overwhelming consensus was that they appreciated my honesty. The only thing more liberating than leveling with those without mental health struggles was identifying with someone who shares the same demons. Being able to have an open conversation with someone who also suffers from anxiety has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. There are no words to describe how incredible it feels to speak to near-strangers about our shared struggles and triumphs.
The last two years of self-discovery and self-acceptance have truly changed my life for the better. I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety at a level I never thought possible, and doing so has allowed me to grow more than I ever thought I could. The freedom that comes along with putting myself first and not caring about what other people think is truly incredible.
With that freedom, I’ve been able to turn my attention back to the pursuit of a writing career, and have even made strides at my current 9-5 job. I now also have enough clarity to enjoy other activities like swimming, kayaking, and traveling. I even swallowed my fear of flying and boarded a plane so I could cross the Atlantic Ocean and fulfill my dreams of visiting London, England.
So now when I meet someone with anxiety, I greet them like an old friend. I assure them they’re not alone and make sure I listen intently to whatever they have to say without judgment. Then I tell them about my own struggles and how far I’ve come. I don’t sugarcoat things; I still have lots to learn and a long way to go. I have setbacks and bad days where I cry over stupid things like running out of milk or getting lost while driving.
But then I tell them that there is another side to this mess. I tell them not to be afraid of themselves and to let their flaws shine through. I tell them not to be ashamed and not to hide because being open and honest with yourself allows you to be that same way with others. And once you clear all the clutter and distractions from your life, only then can you clearly see the path from where you’ve been and the path towards where you want to go.
Sometimes I still hear people use negative words towards me. But I know deep down they aren’t true. I know myself and what I’ve been through, how far I’ve come. I am strong, resilient, kind, creative, and driven. I am empathetic, bright, and funny. I’ve probably always been all of these things, but I lost them somewhere along the way.
But now I’ve come back to myself, and it feels really good to be home.
Image: Woman with Dove