The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Susan Tracy, a 56 year-old vegan yogini, who works as a software engineer and lives in Vancouver, Wash.
Growing up, I was anxiety-free. Supremely confident, I was an outgoing honor student and athlete, and even a high school exchange student in Sweden. I really wasn’t afraid of much. By my early 20s, I was floundering in school, working several jobs at once. I moved to Connecticut to finish school and the East Coast was so very different from my native Oregon. I started to see the first signs in school. That’s when the struggle really began for me. I was an excellent student who was utterly convinced she was going to fail. I had episodes of panic attacks, they fed a growing sense of unease and fear. Classes and exams felt like torture. Driving to and from school, I would be white-knuckled with anxiety. The specter of academic failure haunted me literally through my last undergraduate final, which I took alone in a small room.
It’s difficult for me to talk about anxiety without mentioning that I am also a transgender woman. Much of my life, that has meant rejection, discrimination, and suffering. It compounded my anxiety by living a dysphoric life of male socialization and left me ungrounded and unconnected to self. I didn’t fit in anywhere. Since transitioning, I have made a lot of progress.
Anxiety shows up for me in two distinct patterns: acute and chronic. With acute anxiety, I experience tense muscles, sweaty hands, a flushed face, racing heart, shortness of breath and trembling. It feels as though something is very wrong with me physically. It can be very hard to even walk. It feels like there’s an urgent body emergency, and I’ll die if I don’t do something right now. My body shuts down and refuses to work. Long-term chronic anxiety shows up as nausea, lack of appetite, lack of energy, depression, and social withdrawal.
In that moment, I can’t think clearly at all. My world collapses around me, my focus falls away from the present. Fear of the near future overrules my faith in my ability to meet it . My mind demands all my attention, it demands action to remove myself from the situation. Imagined threats run rampant, trashing my psyche. My mind fails to process new information or new events. It just wants out. Now.
Early in my experience, I repeatedly asked my mind to make it stop, and it couldn’t. My inability to manage anxiety left me feeling despair and defeated. I was so good at seemingly everything else, but my ego couldn’t stand the weakness. Eventually, my mind presented suicide as an option. I took it, but thankfully it didn’t work. I survived my first attempt, but the second time was much worse, and I almost didn’t make it. It took me a long time to regain the lost trust in myself after that.
That’s how anxiety affects me mentally. Rational thought, my general sense of positivism about life and my capable confidence all feel like they belong to someone else when my mind is in deep in anxiety. I know these threats and unlikely events are not real, at some level, but my mind does not want to know. It’s not me, it’s me under the tyranny of my mind.
I’m not kind to myself on those days. I can’t drive or ride a bus. I struggle to be around people. My mind operates in a heightened state of fear, misinterpreting much, and is slow as molasses. I have next to zero short-term memory. I constantly have to check to see if I still have my phone or my work badge, because I cannot remember from one moment to the next what I did with them. It’s intensely frustrating to be so competent one moment, then so incapable the next. Anxiety, at its worst, short-circuits my ability to function effectively as a person. I see it all, watching, but I can’t disconnect from or stop my chattering mind. When the worst passes, I’m left with a toxic stress hangover, void of energy and drive to do anything else with my day.
Withdrawal is my go-to, short-term coping method. When anxiety is at its worst, I don’t leave the house. If I am already out and about, it’s the end of that day’s productive, happy self. The day just becomes a struggle to get back home. Yoga and meditation have helped me enormously to reduce the amount and severity of anxiety attacks. For me, addressing my gender dysphoria through transition has been a watershed event. Eating well, consistently getting enough sleep, and daily exercise have also been among my best long-term coping methods.
I wish people understood that anxiety is not weakness. I don’t drive, not because I am afraid of driving; it comes from a deep-rooted fear of and aversion to harming another person. It’s not because I am too weak to face my fears. I want them to know that shaking person standing in front of them is not weak, they are strong, because they are still here, living in a world of daily struggle.
I want people to know that sometimes, as much as I love people, it can be hard to manage being around them when the mind is deep into anxiety.
For anxiety sufferers, I want them to know the biggest reason my anxiety is lessened, even mostly under control, came from learning how to live as my authentic self and focus on what I really needed to thrive. Recovery felt hopeless for decades. Everyone else told me what I “needed to do” in order to get better, and most of it was wrong. I want them to hear it is possible at any point in their life for this situation to improve. I have gone from the depths of despair to even entertaining the idea that someday, maybe even soon, I might live anxiety-free.