(Written in 2019)
I heard my phone vibrate as it sat, nestled in my cup holder beside my coffee mug. I pulled into my driveway, shifted the car into park and then picked up my phone to find a tiny red number one beside the Gmail icon. I clicked on the envelope icon and up popped a picture of a girl standing on what looked to be some sort of stage. She was laughing in the photo, joy evident across the expanse of her face. This girl. Who was this girl with her head held high, poised behind this podium?
I battled anxiety for years before I even knew what anxiety was. It started with odd feelings while standing in line at the cash register or breathlessness while waiting amongst a string of cars at a stop light. The years flowed on and this strange feeling began to seep into other areas of my life. What started out as discomfort while driving on the interstate and nervousness when in large crowds morphed into an animal of which I had no conscious control. This animal consumed my life for an entire decade.
I found it difficult to stand during Mass, and found it especially grueling to stand in line waiting for communion. I would dig my fingernail into the fleshy skin between my thumb and index finger while my hands were folded, because feeling that pain while awaiting the Eucharist was better than the all-consuming feeling that I was going to fall to the ground in front of the entire cathedral. I was unable to drive on the interstate because my heart would begin racing so fast that my hands would shake to the point that I could no longer hold onto the wheel. I would even find myself in the restroom of the grocery store with my head between my legs hyperventilating, and I politely decline invitations to join friends for dinner because I didn’t think I could make it through the evening without having a panic attack.
But on a sunny day 3 years ago, those panic attacks in the bathroom seemed like walks in the park compared to the feeling that overtook me at the YMCA while on the elliptical trying to catch a workout. I was plugging away on my machine, and I had gotten to that point in my workout where I really felt like I was going strong and the beat of the music was propelling me forward. While riding, I took in the gorgeous view of the river and watched as people walked along the bike path on this beautiful day. I then saw an elderly man cross the parking lot below.
I wondered about him. How old was he? Had he always worked out? Was it illness that drove him to work out? Ill. Ill like my mom. Ill like my mom was before she died. Ill like my dad who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. My dad would never get to be that elderly man waltzing across the lot with ease because the disease would overtake his body, changing it into something he could no longer control. What if I was ill too? What if I would never be able to be like that elderly man effortlessly crossing the lot? What if I didn’t even see that day and instead die an early death like my mom? What if I die here, now, on this silly piece of cardio equipment.
I could no longer breath, I grew dizzy. I grew so dizzy I feared I would fall, hit my head, lose consciousness, and not be able to pick my two young girls up from the childcare area at the Y. My anxiety had never impacted my children. Now it did. In this moment, I questioned my ability to care for them.
I gingerly stepped off the elliptical, and clutching each piece of equipment hand over hand, I found my way to the cool metal of the door handle. I honestly do not remember much of what happened next other than that I did make it to my girls, we must have traversed that same parking lot that the elderly man had crossed only moments earlier, and we were in our car. And this is the point where my recollection becomes clear again. I called for help. I have a very distinct memory of the nurse’s voice on the phone when I told her I needed to make an appointment with my general practitioner to discuss my extreme anxiety problem. This was the very first time I admitted, out loud, that there was a very real problem and anxiety was its name.
Now here I am, back in that same car, looking at the picture of this woman. I recognize this woman. This confident woman behind the podium, standing beside a man with a smile spread across her face…is me. After hundreds of hours talking with therapists and doctors, even more time logged in the yoga studio, and finally sharing my struggles with my family and friends, I can truly say the tide has finally turned. This girl just spoke in front of a group of nearly 500 people. The girl who couldn’t walk through the aisles of the grocery store because of the crowds. The girl who dug her fingernails into her hands while awaiting communion. The girl who turned down friends’ invitations and had become an agoraphobic hermit. This girl did this. This girl.
[I encourage you to return to this space tomorrow, when I will share how I am navigating through my personal anxiety as the world seems to grow more anxious by the moment.]