Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Mahani Zubedy, who lives in Austin, Tex., and is the founder of StorySistas, a site for women 50 and older to connect through stories.
Interested in contributing to a future installment of Anxiety Chronicles? Fill out this form.
My mother was a teenager when she left her country to marry my father. Nine months later I was born. When I was three, my mother, pregnant with my sister, discovered my father had another woman. She held me and said: “I am not well, you are a big girl, you are a good girl, you take care of me.” I remember understanding and accepting.
Growing up my father was absent. When he was home, he was angry and abusive. My mother swung from singing and teaching me to climb trees, to sitting for days, cussing my father and the other woman.
Both parents carried shame and lashed out at the kids.
I lived in terror of my father’s temper and in fear of my mother’s state of well-being, which I believed was my responsibility.
My shoulders feel like they are higher than they should be. My neck feels stiff and knotted, my bones like porous coral. I want to take my head off, straighten things and put it back on. The back of my shoulders hurt.
My bottom teeth push on my top teeth; sometimes I am aware of teeth on teeth and cannot forget it.
My heart beats fast but feels calcified, small and stone-hard at the same time. It feels like there’s a hole in my stomach on the lower left, a searing wind blowing through. Sometimes it blows through my heart, stomach and all through my left side. Other times, the lower left of my stomach is a dead weight.
My head feels full, like I cannot have or receive another thought.
I hear my mother’s voice. Her voice is not words but feelings: shame, as though something is slapping me on my head and I cannot hold it up.
I cannot or I forget to breathe.
I feel shame, like I’ve made a colossal mistake, again and again. I am not good. Something is wrong with me. I am useless. I am unclean.
That I am not like others, like how people should be. That I bring shame to my family and community. That I am not worthy.
I know none of this is true, but I cannot seem to erase the audio-like loop of my mother’s voice.
It could be a very simple thing like a cup falling and breaking, or forgetting something at home, or someone laughing at an idea I proposed. But the shame and sense of my wrongness over a mistake I made, I feel it in my body for hours, sometimes days, months or even years.
Before I go to a gathering with people, I believe they are going to look down on me. So, I feel I must be careful how I look, what I bring, how I make my entrance. When I get there, I shut down. I am not present, instead I am vigilant.
Scenes of mistakes I have made play in my head when I’m trying to sleep. I shout out: Go away. I take deep, slow breaths and struggle to replace the montages with snippets of comedy or a scene from a movie that makes me feel good, over and over.
The next day, I don’t want to do anything. Nothing. I don’t want to be around anyone. I feel like everyone is looking at me and judging. I want to go away somewhere alone, away from people. I am extra cautious of my words and behavior because I feel everything I say or do has no worth.
By the end of the day, before I know it, without thinking, I’m at a liquor store buying a small bottle of tequila (these days I love myself enough not to buy more than that) and a pack of cigarettes.
Tell myself: Relax your shoulders, it’s all right, everything is going to be all right. Soften your shoulders. Drop your jaw. Drop your shoulders. Soften your heart. Soften your stomach. Soften your insides. Breathe in deeply and slowly, breathe out. I love you. You deserve to be loved and cherished. I love you with all my heart.
Hug my cat. Bring her next to my heart and hug her close.
Sit in front of a tree. In winter, sit inside in front of a tree.
Close my eyes. Imagine I am in a rain forest, high up in the canopy. The air is clean, and I can breathe deep and bathe my heart.
Imagine I am floating in a salty, warm sea. I am buoyant. The sun gentle on my face and my body, warming me, nourishing me.
Its more common than not. Most people have anxiety in some form, it is a question of to what degree. Have compassion and love for people.
For people who are suffering: It is all right, it will pass. Feel it and acknowledge it. Say to yourself how you feel. Look around you, say: The wall is blue, I feel anxious.
Share how you feel with someone you trust. You are not alone.
On good days, be brave and wonder what causes your anxiety. Talk about it, share your story, let it out into the universe.
Look at what might have caused your anxiety and tell it with the wisdom and strength you have today.
Anxiety is caused by things that happened in your past, so let that story out into the universe. Put down that burden so you no longer carry it or carry it less, and in your telling, love yourself and everyone around you. Lather the love thick and luscious like apricot jam and butter on toast, like mint soap bubbles in a warm bath.