I have generalized anxiety disorder.
It's something I've struggled with for a long time, but it's reared its ugly head at key moments in my adult life -- in the year before my divorce, throughout the hell of infertility treatments, and it exploded spectacularly at the end of our adoption phase of trying to become parents.
I resisted going on medication for my anxiety when it rose up during infertility. I associated that with failure, with feeling miserable in a bad marriage, with not being able to cope, and I felt like I COULD CONTROL THIS.
Which, ironically, was the anxiety talking.
I can look back through my life and see all the ways that anxiety has shaped who I am -- the need for predictability and control, the "creature of habit" things I do that make me feel better especially when everything around me seems so wildly out of control, making bad decisions because I think that I can control the uncontrollable, not being able to turn my thoughts "off" and constantly going over scenarios in my brain, my absolute terror that the worst is always going to happen (Bryce is late coming home from work and hasn't called, he must be lying bleeding and crushed under his upended car and his cell phone was destroyed and so they have no way of contacting me and I'll find out later when the police come to my door and tell me that my husband is dead and my life is destroyed, and when he does call or show up I am relieved but also so mad that he put me through his horrible death that never happened)... Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed by things that my best option seems to be lying face down on the floor, or lying on the couch under a blanket unable to read because my mind is racing and I really should leave the house and go do something but I can't bring myself to move; I say yes to social commitments and then feel absolute dread when the day arrives and sometimes I go and sometimes I cancel because I've actually made myself feel physically ill over it, something that's doubled when it's a large group event (I HATE large group events), with the exception of some teacher-social-committee events and my book club (although I've cancelled on book club, too).
You know, stuff like that. It's exhausting.
A friend asked me if I'd considered going on antidepressant/antianxiety medication in fairly early stages of infertility, and said there was no shame in that, but I DID feel like there was shame in it for me, and so I said no. I can handle this. But then April 2017 happened and I couldn't pretend that I could control it any longer, so I went on the medication and it really did make a huge difference. I don't like being on medication, but I think I have to make peace with it because it makes everything so much more bearable.
Then I came across this book in a bookstore, and it was just so physically beautiful and it spoke to me:
I mean, look at it -- it's clothbound, the paper inside is lovely, it's tactile, it's a beautiful smaller-sized hardcover... so I bought it.
I love this book, so much. It is not about CONQUERING anxiety, but LIVING through it. Because, the author says, anxiety is part of what makes you, you -- and while there is a LOT of negative, there's also positive things. The book is part Sarah Wilson's own journey through anxiety, part examination of the research surrounding anxiety, part toolbox of coping skills and helpful practices to soothe the beast, and really a manifesto on embracing anxiety and coexisting with it after you've transformed it into a thing of beauty.
Quotes I found particularly interesting:
"Many of us with anxiety don't look like we've got a problem because outwardly we function ludicrously well. Or so the merry story goes. Our anxiety sees us make industrious lists and plans, run purposefully from one thing to the next, and move fast up stairs and across traffic intersections. We are a picture of efficiency and energy, always on the move, always doing...But beneath the veneer we're being pushed by fear and doubt and a voice that tells us we're a bad husband, an insufficient sister, we're wasting time, we're not producing enough, that we turn everything into a clusterfuck." (Wilson, pg 30)
I can so relate to that. I have spent an insane amount of time getting my classroom ready for this year, and while I enjoy getting things ready and laminating and command-stripping posters up and organizing books and paperwork, is it really necessary for me to be a weird zoo display of a teacher in her classroom at 6:30 while families are coming to set up lockers and little sisters/brothers are like, "look Mom, it's a TEACHER!" as I hand letter a replacement reading tip for a poster that had one I disagreed with and painstakingly fit it over when normal people are having dinner with their families? It makes me feel more in control. It makes me feel like I am ready, when really the dream in the middle of last night where I forgot to bring my first-day-instructions packet up to my room in time for extended homeroom and so instead I ended up doing some weird phonics thing with 8th graders when my principal and superintendent walked in to see what I'm up to and I am gripped with the certainty that I WILL BE FIRED until I wake up and vow to add "bring first day packet up to room" to my to-do list... Ummmm, that says my subconscious is not fooled by my "busy-ness."
"Anxious behavior is rewarded in our culture. Being highstrung, wound up, frenetic and soooo busy has a cachet. I ask someone, 'How are you?' and even if they're kicking back in a caravan park in the outback with a beer watching the sunset, their default response is, 'Gosh, so busy, out of control, crazy times.' And they wear it as a badge of honor. This means that many of us deny we have a problem and keep going and going. Indeed, the more anxious we are, the more we have to convince ourselves we don't have a problem. This is ironic, or paradoxical. And it seems awfully cruel..." (Wilson, pg 27)
Ugh how I hate the Cult of Busy. I was horrified when someone said, "oh man, I felt like I had pressure to start going in because you posted about working in your classroom so early..." and I was thinking OH NO I'M ONE OF THOSE! Really, the post was about how I'd made the horrible mistake of wearing a white shirt to move furniture in my grubby classroom, but then I'd ruined it with watermelon at home after all, but I guess it sent the message I AM WORKING IN MY CLASSROOM, LOOK AT ME WORKING! I actually don't want to be busy. I would rather brag about a day spent reading and doing "nothing" than how many hours I worked, but unfortunately I have a really hard time doing nothing. Except during the middle weeks of the summer.
"Depression is stigmatized, anxiety is sanctified as propping up modern life, which ironically sees depression treated as a legitimate illness, and the anxious left in a cesspool of self-doubt and self-flagellation for not being better at coping with life. And so we buy each other Keep Calm and Carry On mugs as though that's something you can just do. But it gets worse, you see. We then try to cope by revving up the angst, don't we? We use coffee and fast-speak and sugar and staying back at work longer. We grind harder. Try harder. Think harder. We should be able to work our way through this. We think this is what will fire us up out of our funk and get us back on our game. It's a self-perpetuating pain -- we use anxiety to fight our anxiety." (Wilson, p 28)
Good god, yes. This pretty much describes how I felt throughout infertility and adoption, that I could just work through it somehow and make it turn out how I wanted it to. I do the same with school. Also, one of Sarah Wilson's things is that she quit sugar, and she's very anti-sugar as a substance that puts your body at an imbalance. I try to be aware of my added sugars and choose foods based on lower sugar content that have no chemicals to make up for it (Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios, low-sugar hint-of-fruit yogurts or plain yogurt with fruit mixed in, etc.) but then I also love ice cream. And margaritas.
She talks about the autoimmune connection with anxiety and depression -- that 80-90% of those with anxiety/depression ALSO have an autoimmune disease, and inflammation impacts the brain, too (back to the sugar thing). She was diagnosed with Hashimoto's, and said this:
"But Hashimoto's also serves a very important function. It stops us when we can't do it ourselves. It's like our bodies step in and say to us, 'Well, if you won't stop, I will. And I'll collapse right here, in the middle of everything and prevent you from going any further down this path until you get a grip on yourself.'" (Wilson pgs 84-85)
OH HOLY JEEZUM. I don't have Hashimoto's, but this totally speaks to April 2017, when my body shut down our relentless pursuit for parenthood with a raging case of Scleritis, which is an autoimmune disease of the eye (and resulted in my having to visit the Eye Center of the hospital once yearly forever to make sure it doesn't come back). My body forced us (me) to stop. I also have Celiac, which is autoimmune, although that doesn't really stop me except when I get glutened and am out for the count for days. However, apparently autoimmune diseases gravitate towards each other and once you have one, your likelihood of developing another is fairly high. So I've read.
Another thing I loved about this book was that she offered practical strategies for managing anxiety, such as specific breathing exercises, how walking helps her and how exactly she walks as an anti-anxiety activity, various meditation exercises, writing down your worries, and something as simple as asking yourself "what's the problem" to get down deep to the root cause of physical symptoms of anxiety and see if there is something you can actively do to solve the problem,
She believes in medication, but not in over-medication, and she believes in trying non-pharmaceutical ways to manage anxiety along with appropriate medication. Which I appreciate, because I am wary when people claim that meditation, or breathing exercises will cure all your ills. But I do think it helps.
I used some of the breathing exercises (part this book, part deep belly Pilates breathing) when on a trip to Niagara-On-The-Lake with Bryce's dad and his wife -- the second bridge over Grand Island is terrifying, and the last time I crossed it I literally cried for about 20 minutes. I breathed like a monster through the whole bridge (because there was traffic to boot and we were stuck on it like molasses), and while everyone wondered if I'd lost my damn mind because it sounded so weird, I felt AWESOME. I made it through, I didn't feel any lingering anxiety after we'd passed it, and my heart rate didn't go up hardly at all. Win, win, win. Now I have to try it over train crossings, because I will drive longer to avoid those as I can always see myself in my car crushed like a tin can and pushed down the tracks a mile because of a malfunctioning gate, every single time I go over one. This state of mind is SO FUN.
I do like the idea of harnessing the energy for good though, and celebrating the parts that are positive -- I do get things done, I do make lists and accomplish things on them (most of the time), I am a hard worker, and I do like routines and plans, which is super helpful as a teacher.
Sometimes when kids tell me about their anxiety, I tell them -- I'm in your tribe, friend. I don't know how you feel, not exactly, but I also struggle with these things and need medical help to manage it. Which makes me vulnerable (and I don't do it in large group situations, only when talking 1:1 with a student who feels alone in their struggles), but I think it is appreciated and helps kids feel less alone. And when I talk about self-soothing strategies for when you're really stressed, I can share the ones that definitely work for me. Which is lovely. And that is what this book did for me -- it was enlightening to see little things that have always been a part of me all add up to a big "OH, that's all part of my anxiety!" (And a little annoying to share them with Bryce and have him say, "oh, I've known that's part of your anxiety." Hmph. But also, how lucky that he SEES me.) Things as tiny as always having to sit in the same seat at the dinner table, and when it's okay to have French beef stew (Bryce wanted to have it in July once, and I was like NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT, that is not a summer food. Not allowed.), and needing certain rituals to make me feel better in times of high anxiety. I really liked that there was a section when Sarah Wilson said (I'm paraphrasing), "maybe leave this page out open for your loved ones to see, it will help them understand things they may find annoying that are part of your strategies to get through the day or cope with life." Ha.
So, if you also live with anxiety, or you want to understand someone you love who does, check out Sarah Wilson's book, first, we make the beast beautiful.