Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Andria Moore, a 25-year-old freelance journalist from Alabama.
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Going back to school is one of the most exciting times of the year for lots of kids. Sure, I was no exception when it came to the excitement surrounding a new classroom and a new teacher. Plus, I was always a sucker for any Lisa Frank notebook and accompanying pencil pouch.
But, those feelings of excitement were mostly clouded by intense bouts of anxiety that I didn’t fully understand. As a child, all I knew was that I felt bad. The week before school started every year in elementary, my stomach would hurt, I wouldn’t sleep and my mind was always racing with a million worst-case scenarios.
As an adult, I now know that what I fear most is failure. I didn’t know it then, but the thought that I might not make friends, or that my teacher wouldn’t like me, or that I would suddenly become incredibly dumb and fail every subject absolutely terrified me. It was irrational to say the least, because none of these outcomes had ever played out before, but that’s the funny thing about anxiety: In your mind you can fully process the irrationality of your own feelings, but still cannot shake those feelings. I missed the first day of school every year from second to fifth grade because my anxiety would cause me to become physically ill. I’d run a fever, feel nauseous and often vomit.
It usually starts with a situation: I’m at a movie with friends, or waiting for a plane to take off, or standing in line at an amusement park.
My heart starts to beat a little faster … and then faster and faster as my brain begins to process what’s happening. Every cell inside me tingles as my body begins to experience the all-consuming feeling of sheer panic. My face feels hot, and then cold and then hot again. Suddenly, I’ve forgotten how to breathe. This is usually when the flashes begin: spots of green and white that slowly consume my sight. If you called my name now, I wouldn’t hear you. The voices around me have faded into the background. The only sound I can hear is the dull thumping of my heart beating in my chest. Sometimes the green and white blotches fade to black as I pass out. Other times, the green and white spots remain for a few moments until I can pull myself out and back to reality.
I truly believe I’m dying, because if I can’t breathe how can I live? During an anxiety induced panic attack, all rationality has gone out the window. My eyes peel around, looking for an escape. Should I get up and walk? Should I sit and fight it? Maybe it will go away. Over and over in my mind is a battle raging where the allies are trying to tell me to pull it together, to stop embarrassing myself, while the enemy side is telling me to prepare for death or at the least, humiliation.
Having a full-blown panic attack is the worst possible outcome for me. In college, I used to babysit an 11-year-old girl, and once I drove her to Moe’s to get tacos. Suddenly, in the checkout line, I started feeling my hands shake and my heart racing. I told her to sit at the booth while I rushed to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face, but it was only getting worse. I started panicking that if I passed out the girl would be alone in the restaurant, and called my mom to ask what to do … right before passing out. I woke up on the floor of the restaurant bathroom and had to call the girl’s mom, because I was too scared to drive her home.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact go-to coping mechanism because every situation is different. But, I will say the older I get, the more I understand how to deal with my own internal struggle. Most of the time, the easiest coping mechanism is to walk away for a minute before my vision becomes blurred. Walk anywhere. If that isn’t an option, I also try to immediately start focusing on the people around me — what they are doing, what they are saying, what I can add to a conversation.
One of the biggest misconceptions, in my opinion, about anxiety (and mental illness in general) is people seem to forget that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t wake up choosing to stress over whether the oven was turned off before I left, or if the last email I sent at work sounded too casual. Anxious people understand our thoughts are often irrational, so telling us “You’re being crazy” or to “calm down” is in no way helpful.
There is also no age requirement when it comes to anxiety. Eleven-year-olds can have anxiety. Five-year-olds can have anxiety. As a child, not understanding what’s wrong with you and feeling like you’re crazy is almost more terrifying than the anxiety itself.