Last month marked the one year anniversary of this blog and although I sat down several times to write about it, I just couldn’t make it happen. A lot of really amazing things have happened since I first started this blog and I’ve made truly remarkable progress in so many areas of my life but there’s one area that I just can’t seem to get a handle on. For the past year and a half, my anxiety has increased to heights I never even imagined were possible, at least not possible for me. Writing this blog post was truly a journey for me and I want you to understand where I’m coming from. It took me three days to get the words out but it’s taken me much longer to actually process all of these words in my head and in my heart. I’m telling you all of this not because I’m seeking sympathy or pity. I’m telling you all of this because mental health is something people don’t talk about and I want you to know that if you’re feeling less than stellar about life right now, it’s not just you. This is some truly hard stuff to handle and you deserve to feel your best every day. If that means to have to see a counselor or do yoga or take a medication to feel it, then so be it. You deserve it.
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for so long that I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel it. Even as a little kid, I thought it was “normal”. I thought that everyone must feel this way and that everyone just dealt with it. When I was 8 or 9 years old my older sister literally changed my life with one short conversation. She came to me one evening and said that she hadn’t been feeling very good lately and wanted to know if I ever felt overwhelmed or like I just wanted to hide from the world because it was too hard to handle. I was afraid to say yes but I think she already knew the answer because she told me that if I ever did feel that way I needed to tell someone because it wasn’t normal and I didn’t have to keep feeling that way.
That night was the first time I realized that the knots I usually felt in my stomach or the pounding I felt in my chest might not be all that common. It was the first time I realized that other kids probably didn’t worry that the bad grade they got on their 4th grade math test would haunt them for the rest of their life and affect their ability to get into a good college. It was the first time I realized that my friends didn’t share my fear of being called on in class or having to read aloud from the book. No wonder they weren’t afraid to try new games in gym class or dance like an idiot at slumber parties. No wonder they didn’t ever mention how hard everything was. No wonder they didn’t wish their childhood away like I had a million times before because I wanted to move on to the next step of life, the step that I thought must be easier. No wonder they didn’t feel like they were going to vomit every day when they got off the school bus and had to face a playground full of other kids. No wonder they all seemed happy.
They didn’t have this thing that my sister had called depression and anxiety.
Having a name for it and didn’t really make it any easier though and I should have spoken up to my sister but admitting that something was wrong was part of the problem for me. Instead I continued to deal with it in the ways that I thought were best. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I tried my best to reduce the stress that caused some of the anxiety that I was feeling. I pushed myself to succeed and did whatever it took to earn straight A’s in school so that my parents had one less kid’s grades to worry about. I did extra chores at home and picked up my siblings’ slack when they didn’t do their fair share to try to balance the load for my parents. I was the mediator in the family, the one always trying to keep the peace. I attempted to make everything work. What I didn’t realize at the time though was that it worked for everyone but me. All of the extra pressure that I was putting on myself was creating even more anxiety.
That’s when I happened upon writing. A teacher had asked each of us to start a journal and as I sat there in class writing day after day, I realized that it felt good. It was my favorite part of the day because getting it down on paper somehow provided an outlet. Every word I wrote was like a little bit of relief and I kept it up. I started a journal at home and would write every night about things that had happened that day and how they made me feel. I filled journals upon journals with my thoughts and feelings. Next I wrote plays and short stories and articles for made-up magazines. I started a newsletter for our street one summer called the Grant Street Journal and would write about things that had happened every week even though no one but my family read it. Writing stimulated my mind in ways that it had never been stimulated before and I liked it. As the years went by, my journaling eventually turned to poetry and I began to fill even more books with my emotions.
My favorite thing to do one summer was walk to the park, sit under the willow tree by the pond, and just write. When I got my driver’s license I discovered that sitting in my car on the side of a back road or near that same willow tree during a rain storm was even better. The sound of the rain hitting the roof was numbing and the sight of the rain swirling down the windows made it easy to block out all of the distractions that usually got in the way of my writing. It was like I was in a bubble. A writing bubble. Over the years I’ve found that there’s no better soundtrack for writing than the Jimi Hendrix: Blues album. I bet I played that album a thousand times over in my car the summer I first discovered it and some of my best writing came with its help. Give me 2 hours, a notebook, a pen, the Jimi Blues album, and a rainstorm and I will attempt to conquer anything.
I have spent a great deal of my life looking for ways to deal with the anxiety and depression that I feel and (thankfully) for the most part, writing has provided that for me. It was my first healthy coping mechanism and will probably continue to be my most effective. Life isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really hard at times and I appreciate that because it keeps me focused on what’s important. I’ve had a few wake-up calls over the years and I’ve found that writing has always brought me back to wherever I needed to be. So when I experienced my first major relapse and was eventually diagnosed with MS, I didn’t bat an eye at first. I thought it was another blow that I could handle. I trudged on, doing whatever the doctors told me to do, making modifications to my life wherever needed. I made it work. As the years have gone by though I’ve discovered that making it work isn’t enough sometimes. This blow is too hard and I can’t manage it with perseverance and blogging. The uncertainty of my disease’s progression, the variations of symptoms that I experience on a seemingly random basis, and the thought that I may never get to experience some of the things that I want to experience have truly pushed me over the edge.
I can’t manage this. I can’t make it work. Not by myself, anyway.
A little over a year ago I turned to counseling and have seen lots of positive benefits. One of the most debilitating symptoms of my anxiety is panic attacks but instead of succumbing to them I am now equipped with the skills I need to not only identify my risk factors but to actually overcome them when they sneak up on me. If you’re a Sopranos fan you know how serious panic attacks can be. Anxiety takes a physical toll on the body but it can also affect your cognitive abilities such as short-term memory loss, an inability to focus or concentrate, and may even result in obsessive compulsive behaviors. The bottom line is that anxiety is no joke. It’s real and it can be very dangerous if it gets out of hand. Mine has gotten out of hand and while I seek out the help I need to overcome it, I thought it would be a good time to share my story.
I don’t always have the discipline or the concentration that I need to sit down and write a meaningful blog post anymore. My thoughts are scattered and I can’t focus on one of them long enough to figure out how I even feel about it. When I do finally think it through I feel shame or guilt for having feelings at all and that makes it extra difficult to communicate those feelings. I don’t understand it and I don’t expect you to either but this is part of my story and I hope that sharing it helps you in more ways than it helps me.
So if I’m missing in action for a few weeks or months, know that it’s not because things worth writing about aren’t happening. For the first time in my life, it’s just too difficult for me to write about anything. I hope this passes soon and that my passion comes back to me but until then, maybe just listen to some Jimi Blues in a rainstorm in your car. You won’t regret it. Track 2 definitely takes the cake.
Thanks for reading, friends.