Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Sylvia Masuda, a writer, editor and designer for online and print publications across the country. She also periodically works in the performing and visual arts communities on the West Coast and in the Midwest. A Los Angeles native, she now lives in Chicago.
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I have been afraid for as long as I can remember: of loud sounds, bright lights, big voices, things that move too quickly (time, people) and things that are too colorful (the sky, Earth). I have memories of being 4 and squeezing myself underneath furniture, my eyes shut so tight I would have headaches, my muscles tense enough to ache. I’d hold my breath and contort under couches, desks and beds for hours.
This childhood anxiety made me a straight-A student, the ruthless perfectionist I make my living off of today as an editor. This childhood anxiety pushed me to the outer confines of the elementary school playground, pacing back and forth, alone; it forced my head down on the 90-minute bus trip I took home the other day. I’ve carried this anxiety through five hospitalizations, one stint in rehab, a bipolar I disorder diagnosis at 20, extensive treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a borderline personality disorder diagnosis at 32.
I’ve learned to let go of this jumble of medical opinion. When colleagues or strangers ask about my brain, the words “mental illness” are fine-enough shorthand. It’s vague, yet all-encompassing. My anxiety is all-encompassing.
Anxiety moves through me top-down. First, my mouth. I’m completely frozen; my breath is in short, shallow whispers, like a mouse breathes. Nausea sets in, and my tongue dries up. My saliva’s gone. I’ve woken up from daylong anxiety attacks with my jaw tender, the joints in my hands stiff from clenching them into tight fists. My voice becomes a tiny thing. My hellos and goodbyes to my co-workers are ignored, because my hellos and goodbyes aren’t audible. Which, of course, gives me more anxiety.
Then, my stomach. I don’t eat, and I only ingest to survive: a diet of coffee, Red Bull, and benzodiazepines (more on that later). By this time, if I need to use the bathroom, I’m too afraid to get up and walk across whatever public space to relieve myself. So I don’t. My body is a pro at numbing its most vital needs.
My feet and my gait catch up in spectacular, oftentimes comical fashion. I bump — hard — into signposts, people, walls. I trip over plain carpet, down stairwells; my shoes catch the curb or a pothole and I injure myself. My vision’s shot, my field of view shortens. No periphery.
It follows a rigorous script. For the first couple of weeks, I'm a little paranoid. Am I chewing too loudly? Do I smell? Does my smile look fake? And the negative self-talk, oh, what a carousel of put-downs. I suck. I don't belong. I'm bad at my job. I shouldn't be alive.
By one month’s time, if medication hasn’t quieted the thoughts, the paranoia worsens. They hate my loud typing. They can read the texts I’m sending to my husband. I’m walking too loudly. They’re laughing at me. I’m being watched. They, I, They, I. It’s frantic chatter of self-hatred, fueled by the caffeine I’m guzzling because I’m sleeping poorly, because I’m dreadfully exhausted. This runs through my head: “I want to disappear, I want to disappear, I want to die, I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself.”
If two months go by without anything curbing my upswing of anxiety, whether therapy or self-care or medications, intrusive thoughts set in. I see blackness everywhere. My head gets a stabbing sensation, I hear intricate symphonies in the white noise of the air conditioner. I crawl and moan in the dark of my apartment, my shoulders stiff like wood.
My anxiety — and most likely a co-occurring mood issue — lands me in the hospital. I’ve only been hospitalized five times, so I guess it’s only gotten that bad five times. Pretty good for my age.
The day before I check myself in, I’m suicidal and the intrusive thoughts are at their worst. I start looking up ways to kill myself. Thank goodness, each time I’ve had suicidal ideation, I’ve managed a moment of clarity where I was able to see outside myself, gaze at the bedraggled, scared woman curled up on her bathroom floor Googling for a tragic solution on her phone, and say to her: Let’s get you some help.
The few weeks before I admit myself, I start calling in sick to work. I don’t leave the house. The sun blares so bright and loud that I have to hide under the blankets until nightfall. When I do make it into work, I look like a stone sculpture covered in flesh, eyes wide and unblinking, stumbling over my words.
For the last 12 years, it's been booze, benzodiazepines and coffee. What else did I know to do? The doctors prescribed me Ativan, Xanax, Restoril, and then I found the savior that stuck: Klonopin. I took 6-12 milligrams of Klonopin almost daily for 10 years. I didn't realize how bad my addiction had gotten, that I even had an addiction, until this May, when the hospital I was in threw me into rehab and I went through withdrawal.
Today, after twice-weekly eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), after going on an Ativan taper, and then a Librium taper, my go-to coping mechanisms are, well, alcohol and coffee. My force-myself-to-take-a-step-back-and-really-think-about-my-decisions coping mechanisms are meditation, yoga, lots of water, healthy food, adequate sleep, breathing. I challenge my negative thoughts when I have the energy. I take walks when I can.
Dealing with my addiction is far more difficult than I’d like to admit. It is an addiction, after all. When I’m overwhelmed or if I have a flashback or if my husband and I fight, I do take a Klonopin. I’m struggling. But as they say in 12-step, “One day at a time.”
Through my hundreds of hours in therapy, I’ve learned that people are generally kind when they learn someone they know suffers from anxiety. Even when I take three months of medical leave to fix it, even when I can be so damn fragile, at the end of the day, I’m met only with concern, not anger.
Emotions are fleeting, and maybe for 20 seconds, the anxiety recedes and you find you can get out of bed to brush your teeth — even though maybe mid-brush, it’s back, angry and forceful and raw.
I wish those with anxiety who are silent and struggling would realize there are millions of people with an anxiety disorder, manifesting in all different ways, and that it does get better. You have to work on it, and work hard, and it oftentimes takes the better part of your years, but it gets better. “It gets better” is a lyric of a broken record because it’s true.