Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Ashley Arihi, a 24-year-old Samoan freelance writer from Washington state. She graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in women’s and gender studies.
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Whenever I was exceptionally nervous in junior high, my family would gently tell me that I had a stomach full of butterflies. Throughout high school those butterflies began to flutter a whole hell of a lot more amid increased social interaction and public presentation. My family no longer tells me I have butterflies. Instead, they bluntly tell me to get over it — whatever it is. During my sophomore year of college, the anxiety intensified tenfold. I missed extensive periods of classes, slept in until 3 p.m. daily, developed a shopping problem, started binge eating, and used dating as a form of emotional escapism. Now, as a single college graduate without a salaried job, my anxiety consumes me. It ebbs and flows by the hour; from the moment I wake up catching my breath to the moment I can no longer prop my eyes open from the exhaustion. It convinces me that I’m inconvenient due to my school loan debt and newfound medical debt. It convinces me that I’m incapable of being a healthy 20-something like my friends. It convinces me that I will always somehow be incomplete whether it be a byproduct of my singleness or childlessness.
My heart begins to race and I mentally black out. On occasion, I have to run to the closest bathroom to dry heave or vomit. In January, I started experiencing debilitating head pain (not like any run-of-the-mill headache) that landed me in urgent care and the ER in the same day. The pain was originally misdiagnosed as a side effect of an aggressive urinary tract infection. I went pain free in February. On the first day of March, the pain returned to spite me, and I returned to my primary care doctor to spite him — or at least that’s what it seemed like he was thinking. Eh, anxiety brain. He has since guessed that I may have suddenly developed episodic migraines and prescribed me an abortive migraine medication that has horrendous side effects according to the disclosed warning and plentiful online reviews. Part of the warning directly addresses patients who are overweight being at greater risk. In the past three months, I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds, but I’m still overweight. Because of this, I’m having persistent bouts of anxiety as a direct response to my health problems in addition to my regular anxiety.
The medical debt I’ve accrued is outrageous. I can no longer afford the out-of-pocket costs for testing and the specialists my doctor wants to send me to. Even if I could afford to see a neurologist, the urgent care doctor told me the wait time is estimated to be four months. I have never felt this defeated. I cry myself to sleep almost every night because the mental exhaustion from the physical pain and financial burden is slowly killing me, and I can tell it’s killing my family simultaneously. Anxiety is a severely twisted version of whack-a-mole. I temporarily fix one anxiety-inducing issue that arises and then something demonstrably worse pops up. Then my brain spontaneously combusts from the overwhelm.
I’m usually confined to my bedroom because I don’t want my family to see me crying. I’m super closed off in terms of displaying emotion. In my mind, I’m of the belief that I’m conveying how deeply lonely I am or how badly I need help, but when my anxiety is at its worst, so is my pride. Internally, it’s like a mental Instagram boomerang of the most hellacious roller-coaster drop of my life that I can’t stop reliving, and thus, retraumatizing myself over and over again. Paranoia tends to trickle through my stream of consciousness with more ease as well.
I rewatch old favorites that I found comforting in previous times of anxiety ridden despair. “The Office” is both widely loved and widely despised, but it’s my go-to feel good show considering it doesn’t trigger me further. Rewatching stuff is a low stakes distraction. If my attention span is somewhat intact, I can binge new videos from my favorite YouTube creators. If these efforts are spectacularly failing, I’ll attempt to sleep the anxiety away, or at least sleep it down a few notches. I’ve started limiting my caffeine intake (coffee exacerbates my anxiety) and I realized my least healthy coping mechanism was consuming alcohol to numb every form of pain I was feeling. I’ve actively pursued sobriety since Oct. 19, 2019 — four days after my 24th birthday. Being sober hasn’t magically improved everything, however, it’s certainly stopped making things worse.
I wish people knew it’s not as simple as getting a prescription for antidepressants. If I took antidepressants, I wouldn’t be able to take my migraine medication and vice versa. These are not clear-cut decisions mentally, emotionally, physically, or financially. Oh, and trust me, I am reacting proportionally according to how I personally experience anxiety. It doesn’t feel like I’m being overdramatic or exaggerating. Drawing that conclusion is reductive. Anxiety is an abundance of complexities, and if you’ve never experienced it yourself, try to be sympathetic to those who have.