Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Beatriz Oller, a case manager for the behavioral department of a community clinic in Miami, Fla., originally from Puerto Rico.
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I’ve always been anxious and known to others as a nervous wreck and a worrywart. My first memory of having a sense that something was off without knowing precisely what it is was at age 9. In the memory, I see my brooding child self as twisted as a pretzel, clutching my stomach. My concerned mother is next to me, trying hard to figure out what is distressing me and failing miserably at reassuring me that I have nothing to fret about.
My anxiety became more trigger-specific with time. At school, I worried excessively about finishing my work perfectly and on time. Every time I took a test, I would convince myself that I had flunked it and I wouldn’t be able to sleep for days until I got the graded test back. This, despite having straight As in all my classes. If I had a crush on a classmate, I would panic that he would reject me, so I would stop talking to him. In college, if a class project was due in in six weeks, I would start hyperventilating and having stomach cramps one week into the assignment, certain I was already falling behind and failing the course.
I worry about offending others, looking stupid, getting killed by a car while crossing the street, or smiling unaware that I have a morsel of food stuck between my teeth.
All my life, my anxiety turned people off from getting close to me. My few friends and lovers eventually left me, exhausted. Even men who found me attractive thought better than to pursue me soon after they met me, and who could blame them? I looked scared and scary — and I was both. A combination of nervous laughter, shifty eyes, nonstop chatter and a relentless quest for reassurance does not make one too attractive. For the most part, my neighbors, acquaintances, teachers and colleagues have liked me at my core, but have felt uneasy about my excitability and nervousness. I know that they have doubted my sanity.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in my 50s. Prior to that, I couldn’t hold down a job for more than a few months or a year at most, despite having two university degrees. My medication has enabled me to appear high-functioning most of the time, but the anxiety is still very much alive. What I’m better able to do now is mask and control its worst manifestations when I start to disintegrate inside. Before the medication, I could not.
I get stomach cramps and my heart races the second I start to worry. I lose my appetite, wring my hands, pant, frown and open my eyes in an expression of horror.
I get overwhelmed with fear and my mind thinks of the worst-possible scenarios.
My son calls me, and I immediately think he has been involved in a car accident. My boss calls me to his office, and I am sure he is going to reprimand me. I get a letter in the mail, I fear it is from a debt collector or someone suing me.
I wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. worrying about something — usually finances, since I’m struggling, but not always. It can be a preoccupation with family, mortality, the meaning of a dream I just had, or getting to work late.
I am overwhelmed, imagining and expecting the worst, hiding my shivering body behind blankets with 100 knots in my stomach. I can’t stop ruminating about something I did or failed to do days or weeks before, or about things that may or may not happen in the future. My racing thoughts go from “Did I hurt my coworker Alexandra’s feelings when I forgot to say hello to her yesterday?” to “Will I be able to pay the lease on my car for the next three years?” I’m even tormented about looking anxious and being judged as crazy. It’s as if I’m possessed by doubt and fear.
It helps when I tell myself that God is with me, that everything will be all right and that I will find a solution to whatever situation I fear will take over me. Taking deep breaths when I’m in bed sometimes helps me get back to sleep when my worry wakes me up unannounced in the middle of the night. I also seek out the advice of a mental health counselor or a co-worker when I start to obsess over some worry. At lunch, I walk for half an hour to relieve stress and call my friends to chat and vent.
I wish people would not look at anxious people as though we are crazy or as though we should be averted. It is more humane to guide and try to calm down and help a nervous person than to treat her with impatience and derision. At one place I worked, my supervisor made a mockery of my nervousness by asking me in front of the entire office if I “had taken my meds” and then laughing about it. That sheer cruelty is abhorrent. We all have shortcomings we have to live with, not just the anxious. I wish I were calm and even-tempered, but I’m not. Instead, I will suffer from anxiety forever, some days more, some days less.
Even with medication, it’s an ongoing struggle, but some days I think I’ve come a long way.