Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Gretchen Lee Korman, a 49-year-old who lives in St. Paul, Minn., and works as a corporate meeting planner.
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Although I suffered from oppressive anxiety and depression as early as 13, I did not become acutely aware of their severity until a decade later. I thought my parents would indubitably be disappointed in me if I needed professional help; I come from a family of German heritage where feelings are meant to be contained and the old adage about “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps" rings true.
At 33, I was in my first year of law school. It was a top school, and the students were ferociously competitive. By this time, I had read dozens and dozens of self-help books to no avail. When I could no longer cope with my anxiety and suicidal ideation, I finally sought help from a psychologist. She immediately sent me to a psychiatrist as well, who put me on medication.
My psychologist suggested that I was coping with my anxiety through addictive behaviors such as drinking and bulimia. I balked at the suggestion and refused to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, but shortly thereafter, I wound up in treatment for substance abuse. I was diagnosed not only with anxiety but major depressive disorder as well.
My anxiety presents itself as a plethora of symptoms, including picking my skin for hours; TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) from grinding my teeth at night; tension and pain in my neck, back and shoulders; relentless fidgeting; panic attacks and using addictive behaviors to distract myself.
Panic attacks are the most terrifying part of anxiety for me. My heart rate becomes ridiculously fast, and my blood pressure is extremely high. I’ve been to the emergency room a few times because I was certain I was having a heart attack.
I am convinced that my death (or something worse) is imminent, and there is nothing I can do to find relief.
Most commonly, my anxiety manifests as feeling overwhelmed by everything on my to-do list and despair over all my shortcomings as I see them. I berate myself for being a lazy, unproductive loser and a failure. I eventually wind up feeling so distressed that I am essentially paralyzed by my own perceptions. Anxiety leaves me incapacitated and unable to perform important tasks such as paying my bills, getting work done and going to the grocery store. I become agoraphobic, to some degree, and will not leave my house for days. My response to these behaviors is one of extreme shame and feelings of worthlessness.
It becomes so all-consuming and inexorable that all I can do is take to my bed and cry while rocking back and forth. This only perpetuates the vicious cycle of anxiety. Some days, the best I can do is get one or two things done. I try to remind myself that I have been able to give up more self-destructive coping mechanisms such as cutting, spending hours in the bathroom picking, smoking and abusing hard drugs and alcohol.
It is now 26 years after my initial diagnoses, and I am still learning how to cope. After decades of therapy and more than 20 treatment centers, I wish I could say I was cured, but I am not. I have, however, found ways to cope. I practice yoga every day and have found this to be an extraordinary way to focus and still my mind.
When I first tried meditation, I could not sit still for 3 minutes before I felt compelled to jump up and run out of the room. Now I am able to meditate successfully for 90 minutes. I have found acupuncture to be incredibly healing as well.
If I am unable to do that, I call an understanding friend who will listen and is able to express empathy.
I want people to become more aware and educated about anxiety (and mental illness in general) and the difference between being “anxious” — the word is commonly used to mean “stressed out” — and suffering from clinically diagnosed anxiety. It is a mental illness whose consequences may be as severe as those of any physical illness. I have known several people who have committed suicide because of clinical anxiety and/or depression.
It is not something with a quick fix and it does not mean one needs to just “suck it up” and be mentally tougher. As the scholar Andrei Lankov so profoundly said, “To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” My hope is that the articles in this series will aid in shifting attitudes toward mental health in a society that fails to properly address the topic.