Fifteen years ago if you had asked me if I was an anxious person I probably would have said no. It’s not that I thought I was normal, I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what. I had just completed college and I was ambitious and unprepared. I was 24 and firmly on the other side of my Mother’s front door. The world felt enormous and I had this really bizarre mix of “I can do anything” and “I might be a bag of trash.”
The following 5 years saw me slowly unravel. I still didn’t really know what was wrong with me, I didn’t have any language for it but I knew something was wrong. The most persistent problem was never being able to relax; I couldn’t just sit at home and read a book, I couldn’t focus on a task for more than a few minutes before the feeling that I was supposed to be doing something else would rise up. I was uncomfortable and dodgy in all my relationships, hyper aware of the possibility of being judged or criticized, constantly worried about the present and the future, and cycling through periods of insomnia and oversleeping.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was experiencing the symptoms of complex post traumatic stress disorder of which my anxiety is one. Most people by now are familiar with PTSD which is typically related to a single, or short-term event of horror. Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is related to long-term exposure to very bad things. We typically associate CPTSD with prolonged exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) but even adults can go through long term abuse or suffering in their personal and public lives and come out of them changed in some fundamental way. While I had all the symptoms of CPTSD (nightmares, intrusive thoughts and feelings, flashbacks, mood problems, relationship problems, and regulatory issues with food and sleep) the most pernicious was anxiety.
A little over a decade into my recovery I am only now realizing I have been anxious my whole life, I just couldn’t see it because it had always been there. I can recall periods of insomnia as young as 7 years old, of feeling like neither myself nor the world was ok and I needed to do something about it. I was “shy” and “awkward” at school but actually I was just afraid and vigilantly watching all the time. As a teenager I masked with “being cool” and embraced being “Weird Girl” but even then I didn’t connect well with my peers, avoiding events and parties because of the extreme discomfort I felt. Going to heavy metal shows in my late teens and early twenties was torture. I would stand in the line outside getting more and more jacked up but having no understanding of what was happening inside my body. It felt like tinnitus but my entire body would be ringing with a high pitched wail. Waiting around between sets was awful. When the music was on I could disappear into it and release some of the pent up tension by slamming myself and other people around in the mosh pit. It felt good to do something with the energy I was feeling, but it would be right there waiting for me as soon as the last song ended. Eventually, in my mid to late twenties, I just stopped going to live music events. It was more or less the same at parties, outings with friends, even the simple act of going to someone’s house to hang out. And I NEVER invited anyone to mine.
Anxiety has always been a backdrop in my life and it’s just been in the last couple of years (exceptionally difficult years loaded with triggers and losses and uncertainty) that I have finally recognized the forest in the trees. I am anxious. I have always been anxious. This is mental illness, a persistent health problem, and it is a result of childhood adversity.
Just this year, with the help of my therapist, I learned how to actually feel my anxiety, not just be affected by it but observe it in my body. She suggested, rather than resist it and try to force it to go away, to be with it. Set a timer because let’s be realistic here, but allow yourself to just feel what it is to be anxious. Give it space to exist, and when the timer goes off, that’s it, time to rest and let go. So I did it. My anxiety was most disruptive at bedtime so I made it part of my bedtime routine to set my timer for 5 minutes and just feel the anxious feeling. With this practice I found the words to describe the feeling I’ve had in my body my entire life.
Most days my anxiety feels like it is about the size of a ping pong ball that is lodged in my upper body behind my heart and right lung and it’s prickly, like teasel in the autumn. Sometimes it takes up my whole chest and when my anxiety is becoming panic it feels like an engine is revving inside my rib
cage every time I try to settle down or drift off to sleep. Just as I hit the point of relaxing my heart starts to hammer and my whole body comes alive like a metric ton of adrenaline has just been dumped into my veins (a client actually told me this might be a panic attack because that’s how they feel when they need to take their lorazepam). When I am feeling a lot of tension in this area of my body it can mean that my anxiety has been revving in the background unnoticed by me. When I’m finding it hard to breathe, like there’s a weight hanging from my sternum and I can’t lift my chest enough to get a full relaxed breath of air, it often means I’ve been suppressing my anxiety all day, maybe for several days. I’ve also been able to trace where the triggers are coming from. What sets it off or makes it feel worse. This practice has also helped me learn some other things too, a flip side, if you will.
I’ve learned how to self soothe, and along the way I have had many teachers. I learned how to give myself a hug, or even just gentle pats on my chest or upper belly, just below my sternum, that help me feel more ok with myself. I like to keep my house in order, and I am careful with caffeine consumption. I eat food that feels good in my body and drink enough water. I take the pressure off myself to exercise. I know exercise is good for anxiety but anxiety also burns a ton of energy and leaves me prone to overwhelm and fatigue. Sometimes exercise is a very very very gentle walk in the woods with lots of sitting and looking and listening. Nature helps and so I have an indoor garden of potted plants and leave the windows open often so I can hear the birds. Though I no longer have any pets, their companionship has been a deep source of connection and comfort in the past (and I thank their furry little selves and look forward to seeing them across the rainbow bridge one day).
This practice has also helped me learn to recognize what peace feels like. That’s been a long time coming, ha. My chest is light, my lungs and heart feel unrestrained and my back feels mobile. I can move my shoulders and spine without resistance (ageing notwithstanding ;-) ). I laugh and smile freely and maybe most importantly, I don’t feel like I need to hide, dull, or otherwise diminish my joy, or any other feeling for that matter. I can share my thoughts and connect with others more easily, I can show up as myself without masking. I feel freedom in my body, my thoughts, and my feelings. My breath rolls in and out easily, like waves on the beach, sometimes smaller, sometimes bigger, always light and comfortable.
In the last two years I have been privileged enough to be able to afford and attend live shows again, too. Sometimes the anxiety is lightly humming in the background, but mostly I am invested in the show. I’m not so nervous between sets and waiting to be let in no longer feels like tinnitus of my entire being. I am more connected with the friends I go with and we are having a great time all of us together. I am more confident in my clothing choices and less concerned with whether or not I “fit in.” I can enjoy the music and rest between bands. And while I don’t exactly slam myself around in the mosh pit as much (I’m older and more fragile and very concerned about breaking my legs lol) I will absolutely toss you back in when the circle pit brings you ‘round my way. With love, with love, of course.
This is where I am now with my journey. Is there a take away from this for you? Perhaps. Maybe you are at the beginning of your recovery journey and recognize that feeling of “something is wrong with me,” in my story and see it is actually a medical problem (because mental health IS HEALTH, you get me?) that is incredibly common and incredibly difficult to cope with. Maybe you are somewhere in the middle and can find some hope that there is a way to get through it and find yourself. It is possible to get better and there are resources. It can take a very long time but that too can be worth it. It took 20 years for me to get out of my traumatizing environment and another 20 years for me to get into an environment (inside and outside myself) that I could thrive in. But it IS possible and every single step of the journey is worth it. Even the hard ones. It’s worth it and you can arrive in your own peaceful world with one better decision at a time.