I am a worrier. My mother is a worrier. She was the first person to tell me about all the times she was anxious enough to be physically sick. I remember being 12 years old, waking up bright and early because of a sinking feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t go away until I sang “The Holly and the Ivy,” which we had just learned in music class, over and over in my head. I think I was spared a lot of my anxiety throughout my childhood and adolescence because my mother absorbed that burden for me. She took on the anxiety I should have been feeling, adding it to her own. I am eternally grateful for that.
If a situation has the potential to go wrong, I will think about all the ways it could possibly go wrong. In my head, if I worry about all possible outcomes when one of these outcomes happens, I’ve already been worried about it. This does not work. This really does not work because all it leaves me with is dry-mouth, a racing heartbeat, and a heavy feeling in my chest that leaves me fetal in my bed, cocooned in a blanket until my breathing regulates.
I had my first panic incident about four years ago while I was studying abroad. A sorority sister had come to Brighton after she finished her term abroad in Italy, and what I had intended to be a three-day visit turned into a two-week stay. My room was the size of a cell, my bed was a twin, I had exams in less than three weeks, and I was already pushing it by visiting my childhood best friend in Austria. Long story short, I was suffocating, I was nervous about my exams, and I had no time to myself. I was also low on funds. We arranged to go to Croatia for 5 days as a way of getting out of my cramped flat. The cheapest flights were from Stansted Airport, which is a massive trek from Brighton. Also, I was completely unaware that the Stansted Express existed, so the only option I knew of was to take the train from Brighton to Victoria and then endure 2.5-hour bus ride from central London. We arranged to go up to London the day before our flight to stay with another sorority sister as a way of breaking up some of that travel time, and because the girl who was staying with me had never been to London.
Now, my favourite thing about my term abroad was absolutely the people that I lived with. They made my experience incredible and I love that we are still intertwined in each others’ lives today. So it made sense that the girl who was staying with me also enjoyed partaking in our standard activity – drinking in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning. But the night before this sister and I were supposed to head up to London, I had only one request for my guest – please don’t stay up all night because I’m going to London early for your benefit and we are going to be doing a lot of walking before we meet our other sorority sister. I attempted to be responsible and go to bed around midnight but woke up at 2am unable to fall back to sleep. I lay there, thinking about how many hours I could sleep if I fell asleep right then. And I did that until about 7am when I just decided to get up and start my day.
My heart was racing. I was shaking. I was nauseated. I decided I needed to shower as a way to feel better so I wrapped myself in a towel and headed to our communal bathroom. I stood in the shower, letting the firehose-esque nozzle drill into my back as I shook under the stream, trying to figure out why there were iron-winged butterflies taking up residence in my stomach. I ran into my guest in the hallway – she hadn’t gone to bed. She greeted me with a good morning and I responded with rapid-fire, irrelevant babbling. My hands were still shaking as I blurted out, “IdidntsleepatalllastnightandIdontknowwhatswrongwithmemyheartbeatisrunningawayitslikethatNickiMinajsongboomboombassfucksomethingiswrongsomethingisnotokay.” She looked at me, puzzled, and I headed off to my room to get dressed.
Before I could get dressed, there was a knock at my door and my giant male flatmate walked in. Bless him, because I was there in a towel, and he was only 18 and dealing with his own shit. My guest had gone to get him, assuming that he would know how to cope with me. I had never felt this way before and he had never dealt with anything like this before, but as first panic attacks go, he is a great person to have around. Yeah, it was a bit blind leading the blind, but if I could have anyone around during an all-out anxiety attack, it would be him. He crouched down by my bed and let me incoherently word-vomit at him until he gently took my computer, opened iTunes and began playing tracks by Belle and Sebastian. He told me to lie down and take deep breaths, focusing on the music and trying to breathe in time with it. It worked, I calmed down enough to function, and went about my life. A year and a half later, I found myself visiting him in Brighton and as we stood in his back garden under the stars, he revealed to me that he had had his first panic attack over the summer and now finally understood what had been going on that day. Fast-forward to today, and his band has dropped a single called “Anxiety,” making it still very much a thing he has to confront. But this isn’t about his anxiety. It’s about mine.
My anxiety has gotten worse since falling in love with and then being separated from someone else with anxiety. I am very sensitive to the emotions of others, and even though at this point we aren’t together, his anxiety seems to feed mine. It lies in wait, growing in tandem with my anxious thoughts, whispering fears that grow like blossoms along the same vine as mine do. My anxiety steals my appetite and breath. It makes my heart flutter like a hummingbird and my mouth dryer than the Sahara. It leaves me with a heavy knot in my stomach and hands that shake like leaves in an autumn breeze. It leads me to Google types of hypoallergenic cats that I will spend the rest of my life with and to make myself a human burrito of duvet and anxiety. It makes me cancel plans. It convinces me that my friends don’t want to see me because they don’t like me. It leads me to procrastinate and then lay awake at night panicking about things not getting done.
And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting always being in fight-or-flight mode, poised for flight. It is exhausting lying in bed, watching the clock change and not being able to wind down or shut off my brain. And it is exhausting spending a day in bed, unable to move because my heart is racing so fast and I can’t control my breathing. I am tired of being this way, and I am tired of it being something that I cannot control. But it is something I have to deal with. It is something I have to handle. And it is something that will be with me for the rest of my life.