Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Maria Kari, a Pakistani-Canadian transplant to the U.S. who works as a freelance writer and immigration lawyer.
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Looking at my childhood photos, I can see the early start of an anxious soul: a tightly clenched fist, a small, solemn face, a little me holding on too tightly (almost desperately) to my mother’s hemline. But I am unable to pinpoint my first panic attack or the first time I realized that my mind sometimes spirals, making me feel that things around me aren’t okay or aren’t in my control.
My early 20s were fast-paced. I moved around a lot and was very high-functioning and high-performing. My then-unnamed anxiety was a constant yet dim background noise but I was a full-on machine. For instance, at 21, I was capable of having a debilitating panic attack one day and then being right back at daily life the next.
Of course, this way of living isn’t at all sustainable and, at 26, I found myself in a job and marriage I hated. During this time, I was living alone in a city where I’d made some friends, but no one really knew me well enough to notice that I was slipping. Luckily, I was seeing a general practitioner at this time to get my weekly allergy shots. Because he interacted with me regularly enough, he was the first one to ask me why I was rapidly losing weight and increasingly appeared harried and mentally preoccupied.
He suggested turning our five-minute interactions into proper 30-minute appointments where I was forced to talk. He was also the first one to tell me I had what appeared to be a generalized anxiety disorder coupled with an acute depressive episode.
Despite this godsend of a doctor’s intervention, the damage wasn’t entirely undoable. Having burned the proverbial candle at both ends for far too long led to a complete breakdown, which I now see as more of a breakthrough. I quit corporate law, filed for divorce and moved back in with my parents at 27.
I can only really describe this time as difficult yet liberating. It was the difference between being forced to live and deciding to live.
Today, I’m still just as anxious as I was at 16 or 24, but now I don’t feel as tightly coiled. I am less bound by personal, societal, cultural and family expectations. I’ve finally committed to therapy and after years of medication, just last month I was able to taper off of my daily anti-anxiety medication. (I’ll still be keeping a prescription handy for the inevitable bad days.)
Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “On Being Ill,” “... let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” This quote best describes the dearth of words I am confronted with when trying to describe what anxiety feels like physically or mentally.
Physically, it usually manifests at the end of my day when my lower back will hurt terribly, my shoulders will feel stiff and stitched together painfully or my skin will start to freak out on me. Like a persistent, shady and unwelcome guest, anxiety tends to just drift and settle in unannounced, making even the smallest task like washing my hair or commuting into the office seem insurmountable.
I’m more accepting of the bad anxiety days. I’ll frequently just let myself be and maybe even treat myself to McDonald’s, coupled with a good cry.
Mentally, my anxiety manifests in two ways.
First, I’ll feel like a numb, blank slate. I now know this is my brain’s attempt at self-preservation and protection. Basically, my brain starts shutting out too much stimuli and sensation and only lets me do the things that I want to or can handle, like reading a book, binge-watching “Parks and Rec” or “The Office” or going out into nature.
The second way is a more stressful “Lion King”-esque wildebeest mental stampede where I’ll have all sorts of thoughts and to-do lists hurtling at me full speed. This mental manifestation of my anxiety will ultimately have me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and I can only really get through it with anti-anxiety medication.
On really, really bad anxiety days, I don’t even attempt natural, spiritual or mental healing alternatives. Instead, I’ll rely exclusively on the wonderful world of medicine. Even though I very recently tapered off of my daily anxiety meds, my doctor and I decided I’d keep some handy for the really, really bad days.
Bad anxiety days also mean I have no choice but to alert my husband that I’m going to need major space so that I can snap back into myself — going at it alone is just how I’m wired. It definitely took a lot of time and explaining to get my husband to understand that this isn’t a rejection of him or our relationship. Three years into living together, I think he’s great with it now.
On really bad days, I try to schedule therapy that same day or as soon as possible. I’m also not beyond just completely calling it quits on that day and settling into a deep slumber, because I love sleep and think a good rest can fix a lot of things. Stuff just sounds and seems so much better when you’ve slept properly. Lately, I do find myself worrying about how this last bit is going to have to change whenever we decide to take on the full-time job of parenting.
I cope by being super gentle with myself and treating myself like I would treat a dearly loved friend or family member. I’ll allow myself to really indulge in the food that makes me feel better in that moment. I’ll talk it out with my husband, sister and/or therapist. I’ll write out the rush of thoughts on the app Evernote, where I keep a document called “Anxiety.” I’ll walk outdoors. I’ll pray. Or, I’ll focus my attention and worries on taking care of something or someone that isn’t me. This can be my clients, who are mostly refugees, or my plants, which I have a lot of.
It’s because of my flexible career and my ability to access quality health care and therapy that makes it easy for me to indulge in self-care as needed. As a pro bono lawyer, I work closely with women who simply do not have the time or means to indulge their anxieties. I am frequently bothered by this disparity and hope to be able to contribute towards changing this uneven dynamic.
Once, while ranting to my therapist about how sick I am of feeling so much all of the time, my therapist likened the anxious soul to Swiss cheese. Like a slab of Swiss cheese, those who suffer from anxiety have too many holes that let in too many things. But these holes also means that we have more eyes to see with.
Because anxious people have had to learn the hard way the importance of being in tune with oneself, we tend to have a deeper appreciation for life’s smaller, seemingly trivial moments. Because we know our anxiety can kick in and so quickly reduce us to a blubbering mess, we are more likely to approach the world with delight and a deeper appreciation. Because we know that the symptoms of anxiety can manifest as actual, physical pain and distress, we are not blind or indifferent to the hardships and pain in the lives of others. And, because we know anxiety will be our lifelong companion, we know we just have to try and force joy in this journey that is life.
In other words, you’re going to want to know and have an anxious soul in your life.