May is mental health awareness month. Fifteen years ago I was struggling alone, so I want to share my story to normalize talking about mental health openly and seeking help for it.
When I moved to in NY in the late 90s, going to therapy was normal. At least half of my friends had a recurring appointment, as did I. I had the same therapist for 10+ years. According to the DSM whatever version they're on now -- the manual categorizing mental health issues -- I had generalized anxiety disorder. When I initially sought treatment, that was true.
But after a break-up, the resulting move, plus family issues and financial stress, my anxiety became untenable through regular therapy. I used to describe the feeling as being electric. Wanting to crawl out of my skin. Such discomfort that literally nothing made me feel better. While I was in it, I couldn't verbalize the terror of it. I can now.
It’s like the overwhelm was a skinny snake, slowly devouring me from my toes up, squeezing me as it ate more and enveloped my whole body. The higher it went, the more I panicked. The more I panicked and tried to escape, the tighter it clamped down on me, making breathing hard, and causing dizziness, faintness, and an impossibly fast heart rate. That is my anxiety at its worse; a never-ending, ravenous snake that caused me to believe with absolute certainty that I'll never escape entirely.
My regular therapist referred me to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT) who gave me exercises and homework to help re-train my brain. And he put me on a daily dose of Xanax because I was barely holding it together. I never wanted to go on meds — I always thought I could handle things myself. But, after a month of what I considered undeserved torture, I finally accepted that this was something I couldn't deal with alone. That, plus sage advice from my mom, as always:
"If you had diabetes, you’d take medicine. Well this is an illness, too, so take medication of you need it to get better."
So I did.
But it took awhile to kick in. And it still only helped a little. I was sure my anxiety was visible to others if I didn't hide it well enough, so I spent my time thinking about how to appear normal. Somehow I kept doing my work and paying my bills without anyone being the wiser. Though pretending was exhausting, and it made me more frenetic and anxious. I counted down the minutes until 3 PM when I could take my second dose of Xanax to calm by brain. Then that made me feel weak, like an addict. It was a circle of distress.
While it doesn't sound like a long time, the six months with anxiety at its pinnacle was like Groundhog Day. It felt like it lasted forever and no matter what I did, I didn't get out of it. Until I did. The meds + exercises helped me lessen the anxiety. Instead of feeling anxious 24/7, it was 23/7, 22/7, 20/7. It was really that gradual. I learned that mental health is truly a marathon, not a sprint.
Then I got to the point where it was 20/6 or 15/7. Some days, months later, I felt so good I could go a day without the heightened feeling I lived with for more than a half a year.
After 6 or so months, I "graduated" from CBT went back to regular therapy. Then ...
After a year, weaned off Xanax and was prescribed a less addictive anti-anxiety drug.
Then I got married.
We bought a house.
I got pregnant.
I had a baby.
We moved again.
My husband started his own business.
I started my own business.
None of those milestones would have been possible -- or even thoughts about them -- before. They would have seemed hopeless. I know I was.
Now, I have “tools in my tool belt" to get me through the occasional panic attack or bout with anxiety. Plus, the knowledge that one bump in the road doesn't mean the anxiety is "back" is everything. And sometimes, even when I feel 100%, I think back, stop to acknowledge the work I've done to get here, and appreciate the calmness in my body and brain.
I'm sharing my story to encourage others to seek help. And to say you're not alone.
If you need help:
- Check out some of the links above to the tools I have used and recommend if you need help managing day-to-day anxiety
- Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program which provides counseling for free
- Or if you're in Philly, here are some free and low-cost resources from the Philly Citizen
- Outside of Philly/virtually, this is a great article from Forbes about some mental health apps, other suggestions of ways to improve your health (exercise and diet) and suggestions of when to seek help