Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Emmie Chiyindiko, a a 26-year-old Ph.D. student, award-winning science communicator, and lecturer. When she is not incessantly hovering over her chemical reactions in the lab, she loves catching the sunset, listening to music and reflective writing. Say hello on Twitter or Instagram on @scientistemmie.
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My parents largely influenced my responses to challenges, mistakes and failures. I’m convinced they’re the most dramatic parents on earth; there’s just no gauge to their catastrophizing. Losing a school pencil should not make a child feel like their life is over, even in a working-class family deep in Southern Africa. My father had special kinds of pep talks, which I dubbed “fear-talks”. Having struggled in his early life, he feared his children would find themselves in the throes of poverty, so he made it his mission to motivate by scaring us. The result was an anxious little girl trying to please her parents and make sure she never makes mistakes.
My 20s are undoubtedly my years of becoming. After finishing my first degree in Zimbabwe, I moved to South Africa for my master’s, now PhD. The journey has been amazing and I’m immensely proud of my accomplishments.
I expected leaving a country gripped with economic woes for greener pastures would be smooth. I didn’t expect to fear for my life when xenophobic attacks erupted. I didn’t think I would anxiously try to assimilate, navigate racial macroaggressions while diminishing my Zimbawean-ess in fear of retribution.
In my late teens, I found myself pregnant and in a far from ideal relationship highlighted with mental and emotional abuse. During one of our many pointless arguments, that I had learned ended faster if I just keep quiet, my bottled emotions became so strong that I started feeling pain in my arms. I would describe the pain as fire and little needles coursing through my veins.
I eventually pried myself out of that relationship, tooth and nail. Thank God. The arm pain didn’t stop. When I feel anxious, upset and refuse to acknowledge my feelings, I still feel fire and needles running through my veins. It occurs less often now but when it does, I know it is a sign from my body to remove myself from a situation, nudging me to pay attention to my mind, body and soul.
I thought long and hard about this and the best way to answer is this excerpt from my old journal.
“I walk around the world with my nerves exposed. I am scared; I am scared all the time. Terrified. When I felt like my fear would overcome me, I numbed myself, my soul left my body and watched me...my dead eyes, feeling nothing, hearing nothing and saying nothing.
Eventually I realized that by avoiding pain, I was also avoiding joy. I took a leap of faith and I let myself experience the catastrophe of life in its fullness. The good and the bad. Now, I am still scared and never fully okay... but when I am happy, I feel ecstatic and the world sparkles. When I love, I feel tiny explosions in my chest. When I see injustices, I am devastated.
I am alive. It is thrilling, it is hard but we can do hard things.“
A couple of years ago, I went through an intense period of depression and anxiety. I had moved away from my family, my support system was shaky having suffered a major relationship setback; I was struggling to cope with my research while trying to adjust to a completely new environment. It was the pits and the ghetto. I would open my eyes in the morning and immediately feel dread. I had read the statement “I can’t get out of bed” incredulously on the Internet, I had no idea it was literal.
Everyday tasks like cooking, showering and showing up at the lab felt mammoth. Everything was so hard and overwhelming. I was barely making work deadlines and I was so afraid I would lose opportunities and that in turn resulted in more crippling anxiety and fear.
If you are at a university or organization that offers free therapy and counseling, take advantage of it. It turned it all around for me.
I was sitting across my therapist, retelling tales of trauma. She watched me battle swelling tears, desperate to keep composure. I would not cry, after all this was an intellectual conversation between two professionals. I would remain calm and be an A-plus patient.
I guess she got tired of it and said, “Emmie, just let yourself be.” Let yourself be.
Every morning, I take a moment to myself. I appreciate solitude in an age that seeks to banish every second of it. Some moments to set the intention for my day before I grab my phone and start processing other people’s thoughts. I love my mind so much, I love letting it hum peacefully as much as possible.
I plan my work and make sure I only do all that I can, not more but sometimes less. I do yoga at sunset. I listen to music and twerk in the mirror. I keep my home tidy and in order. I ignore late-night emails from my supervisor.
I am the self-care, self-indulgent queen. I revel in joys of delighting myself but I also sit in my “negative” thoughts feelings now. Never dwelling but letting them pass through me like energy.
Millions of people in Zimbabwe face hardship, hunger and chaos in the middle of a collapsing economy, worsening droughts and a vicious pandemic. Mental health would possibly be the last item on anyone’s list of big challenges. The Zimbabwe Republic Police reported a 42 percent increase in suicide rates with 129 suicide cases recorded between the months of January and March 2020 in Zimbabwe, compared to 91 reported in the same period last year. Despite the prevalence of anxiety and depression, there is still not enough awareness. In fact, it is such a non-issue that indigenous languages never bothered to create a word for it.
By speaking out myself, I hope to contribute to normalizing mental health conditions.