July 20, 2018 4:21 AM
Listen. I want to tell you about the crippling arrest anxiety grips my heart and my mind with. It’s ironic, really, how I have spent 20 years watching, experiencing pain, and learning all about what my sister’s mental illness can do to a person, to a family, and beyond… And then wind up here, questioning my own well being.
One moment, the lamp is on. I’m watching a movie with my husband. My mind is distracted so I haven’t become prisoner, yet. The lights go out, though, and I lay there in the dark, flooded with a monsoon of self deprecating inner dialogue.
“You exhaust people, autumn.”
“Why do you have to make things so difficult?”
“It is your birthday next week, and your sister in law was just trying to celebrate that, and your behavior just removes that desire for anyone and everyone.”
“Why are you like this? You push people away.”
And then the comparisons. As I mentioned, I have a sister who is severely mentally ill. So severe, in fact, that she cannot support herself. Nor can she maintain friendships or build healthy romantic relationships. She is deeply estranged from her family due to years of emotional and mental warfare upon them. She has worked hundreds of different jobs because she’s tenacious, but finds fault and blame in others and doesn’t consistently play nice in the sandbox. Not to mention, she’s non-committal and sometimes questions authority with overt disrespect.
She demands to rehash old issues, never allowing them to be resolved. And vehemently calls others cruel names, swears, and lashes out. Admittedly, she says things designed to inflict pain. She also cries the most desperate cry I’ve ever heard uttered from a human. She insists no one supports her. The reality she claims to live in is what I imagine to be the absolute worst drug enhanced trip the human brain can experience…only there’s no coming up from the low. The deep, dark, heinously ugly low. It’s a scary, lonely, alternate dimension she resides in. And sometimes, I visit her there.
She doesn’t know this, of course. To her, she is alone. No one cares, no one notices, and no one is coming to rescue her. She cannot hear us screaming for her on the outside. The tears we cry are unseen, just as desperate for her return. She doesn’t know we worry and wonder and wait when we haven’t heard from her…for the worst. She thinks we do not care. No matter how many times we try to tell her and show her otherwise.
I care. I see the darkness. It lives in me too. When my heart rate rises and my stomach turns, I see it coming for me. When I sleep, I clench my teeth so hard that my jaw will be left with a dull ache for days, sometimes longer. I impulsively text words to a friend about an exhausted subject, and then curse myself for further exhausting it. I know this pattern. I’ve seen it for 20+ years. The familiar beating of the dead horse. I sometimes do it to a pulp, and I don’t know if it bothers anyone a fraction of how much it bothers me.
“Get it together, autumn. You have 3 kids to raise”.
“Well they’d be better off without me if this is who I am”.
“You are so ADD. You never finish anything. It’s embarrassing”.
“You’re so negative. It’s awful to be around. No wonder people have pulled away from you”.
What is a person expected to accomplish when this is their inner dialogue? It’s so self involved that it makes me physically sick, it makes me want to throw up.
As a child, I remember it was always so much worse if I “disappointed” my parents than if I had made them “mad”. Disappointment was like the ultimate let down. It was shameful. It was causing sadness and watching what being “let down” looks like on the faces of the people you respected most. I want to tell you, anxiety makes me feel that utter disappointment not only from others, but worst of ALL—in myself.
What you just read is an excerpt from an iphone note I erratically wrote on July 20, 2018 at 4:21 in the morning. I cannot think of a time in recent history where there has been more collective unease than in 2020, amidst a worldwide pandemic. While hundreds of thousands of people have died from a novel virus, I fear the fallout from mental health is claiming far more victims. The uncertainty, inconsistency, and angst that has settled on our world is loud…and somehow our society seems deafened to that particular brand of noise, and has for a long time.
Living with Anxiety
This is my story about living with anxiety. My goal here is to shed light on what it means to battle cognitive distortions, how they can affect us, and why shame has no place among them. I want to share how I’m learning to manage and transform mine effectively. I hope if you’re reading this and you struggle too, you’ll feel seen, validated, and encouraged.
Anxiety threatens to debilitate me. I am acutely aware of its attacks now, but there was a time it blindsided me. Generally, for me, it starts with an increase in heartrate. I can feel my heart pumping in my chest like I’ve just swerved in traffic to miss colliding into another vehicle. Sometimes I can even hear it. Next, my stomach develops an aching pit, rendering what I can only describe as a gaping crater inside my gut. It’s like my stomach is consuming itself, and it hurts.
My shoulders become slightly elevated and my neck feels rigid, like the tin man before Dorothy eases him with oil.
My muscles stiffen, and until I start breathing exercises, I hardly even realize which ones are tense and to what extent. Often, the angst narrows in on my upper body. My shoulders become slightly elevated and my neck feels rigid, like the tin man before Dorothy eases him with oil. When I breathe, it’s in shallow, rapid bursts. Sometimes, it feels like an anvil is on my chest, and I could choke, or worse just stop breathing all together. Occasionally, my hands tremble, too.
Mentally, it’s as though my thoughts have been haphazardly thrown into a blender and someone keeps pressing the pulse mode without my clearance, for undetermined lengths of time, over and over again. My cognition is across the board; do we have milk? Oh my gosh, how horrible is my parenting lately? Why haven’t I heard from that friend, is she okay? The most benign musings cross wires with the deepest fears my brain can conjure and everything feels scrambled. Consequently, small tasks can seem like tall orders I have no idea how I will fill. Time warps into a continuum and I’m trapped in a cognitive whirlpool.
When Anxiety Morphs Into A Panic Attack
Left unattended, these chemical reactions inside me manifest themselves into proverbial gremlins, wreaking havoc on everything in their path. Sometimes they intensify the whirlpool, and what began as anxiety morphs into a full blown panic attack. Have you ever felt such a deep unraveling inside that you find yourself grasping for something to hold you together, for fear of falling apart?
I have overcome four panic attacks total, and for me, they revealed themselves as out of body experiences. My hands have instinctively gone either to my head and gripped so tightly that I’ve found hair in them when I let go, or to my arms, where I hold on so firmly, that my nails have dug into my skin, sometimes leaving scars.
My sister has attacked me in this way before…grabbing me and digging her nails deeply into the backs of my arms, and then shaking me. I was maybe 11 when she did that for the first time. Naturally, I did not understand it then.
When a panic attack is over, your whole body hurts and whatever energy you had is completely depleted. And you wonder: how did I get here? This is not who I am. It’s scary. Furthermore, the guilt and shame that follows falling into this emotional rabbit hole is a beast in its own right. Forgiving myself and pulling up my bootstraps to soldier on is as challenging as the panic attack itself.
Blindsided By A Beast
Anxiety showed up in my life in a sneaky, unassuming way. I delivered my first baby when I was 19 and no one could have prepared me for how enamored I would be with her! At post delivery appointments, my doctor asked questions regarding post-partum depression. And I had none of the signs, not one symptom.
Lurking in the shadows, however, was the deep concern I would feel if I had to leave my baby. The guilt that plagued me if I perceived something I’d done as wrong, was substantial. If she would sleep all night, I’d rush into her room, desperately searching for signs of breathing. Self manifested worry tormented me. This was just what being a mom was like, right?
I went on to have two more children before I ever heard the term “postpartum anxiety”. When I did, a lightbulb went on, and my healing began.
Acknowledging the Ailment
Healing commences with recognizing and acknowledging the ailment. Then, it is important to create space to reframe the ailment in one’s mind so that it no longer presents itself as shameful. I have anxiety, but I am not perpetually anxious. My struggle with this mental illness does not define me. God created me, not with a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).
To live with anxiety effectively requires intentionality. I use a strict daily exercise routine and try to be conscious about what and how much I’m consuming. This means I take it easy on the caffeine, no longer drink alcohol, limit my refined sugar intake, and oh yeah, I quit social media. Continuously, I must be honest with myself and my loved ones about where I’m at in this journey. It is not linear. And I have to remind myself of that frequently.
Rewiring For What Works
I’ve gained wisdom and humility by listening to stories from insightful, enlightened, educated people that can teach me more about personal growth. Jay Shetty, Glennon Doyle, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dax Shepard, Nina Vasan, Marianne Williamson, and Tal Ben-Shahar are some amazing resources. Reading books that guide my goals and equip me with tools to reach them is a daily practice. For some to start with, Lindsay outlined a great list of powerful literature in her post here.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, has proven to be incredibly useful in prying the grip of anxiety loose and releasing myself into freedom. Meditation, and continuous awareness of breath helps me release those tense shoulders and re-evaluate “reality”. I highly recommend supplementing Vitamin B, Vitamin D3, and Triple Calm Magnesium. I’ve reached out to a highly recommended therapist, too.
Service, empathy for others, and stepping outside myself in general, help keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. Connecting with others who vibrate at a frequency I want to reach and maybe someday grow with them to exceed, helps me humble myself and gain perspective. After all, we become like the five people we spend the most time around. We must choose carefully, and draw boundaries where necessary.
We become like the five people we spend the most time around; so we must choose carefully.
I have to live with the fact that no matter how desperately I wish I could, I cannot rescue my sister from the mental illness that plagues her life. I have a responsibility first to the well being of myself, my husband and our three children. 23 years of exposure to her mental illness has brought toxicity and trauma to my life, but it has also deepened my empathy and broadened my education. For these things, I am grateful. My prayers for her deliverance and the efforts within my boundaries to promote her wellness will always continue.
Rise Above The Trenches
The truth is, we weren’t designed to struggle alone. Ecclesiastes 4:12 tells us “though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken”. We are meant to lean on each other. Pride will threaten to stand in the way of that, but if we can recognize it, humble ourselves, and dare to be respectfully vulnerable, we can rise above even our darkest trenches.
God works in mysterious ways and I have seen His Grace show up for my rescue over and over again. The devil is not mysterious. The devil attacks me at my weakest link. Exacerbating it. It wants me to believe I’m a lost cause, no one can save me. It knows that negative self talk and the fear of turning out just like my sister are huge, glaring sins. They are Goliath, waiting to devour me. And so the devil tries to spotlight them, Every. Chance. It. Gets.
Here’s what the devil doesn’t seem to pay any mind to, but what I certainly know: resistance is futile. God already won the war, let alone the battle that the devil tries to wage in my brain. I still have a choice. I can cower in fear and wallow in self pity, or I can pick up that stone, sling it with the accuracy of a faith filled Shepard, and watch my Goliath fall.
Transformation Takes Time
My early morning iphone note closed with the words in italics above. That was over two years ago. Transformation takes time. His grace is sufficient for me, and His power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). And to quote Holley Gerth on a podcast I listened to about the power of introverts (93% introverted over here, folks), “God is not into elimination, He’s into transformation”. I, among many other warriors, am brave enough to embrace this part of myself and allow God to transform it within me.
The wound is the place where the light enters you. The darkness of shame has no place in your wounds, friend. With humility, go out and let your light shine. The world needs it, after all.
Someday the perfect person will read this article and it will transform their life for the better. Thank you for your honesty in telling your story of rising above the darkness. You are an inspiration to me and it helps to know others have flaws they can admit without shame knowing full-well they have no power! You are a beacon of light, Autumn!