Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Noelia Rivera-Calderón, an educator turned policy advocate at the National Women’s Law Center. She is the lead author of “We Are Not Invisible / No Somos Invisibles: Latina Girls, Mental Health, and Philadelphia Schools,” a report from the NWLC. Originally from Puerto Rico, she was raised in Philadelphia and now lives in Washington, D.C.
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As a child, I was sick to my stomach all the time. I have a lot of childhood memories spent in bathroom stalls, sometimes crying, trying to stifle moans of pain. As an adult, my physical therapist told me that some women carry tension and anxiety in the pelvic floor, and that I may have been doing so my whole life.
In high school, along with the regular digestive distress, I started to experience panic attacks. Upon walking into school, I could feel my chest tighten, constricting my breath and making me so nauseous that I would run to the bathroom to throw up. After this happened a few times, the school nurse stopped calling my parents to let them know. What I learned was that this was my “normal.” It took a long time to learn that I didn’t have to live that way.
At different times in my life, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dissociative episodes. But all of it is my old friend anxiety.
I feel anxiety in my whole body. The tips of my fingers pulse and go numb. My chest tightens and my throat constricts. I feel like I can’t breathe. I get lightheaded and dizzy. My pelvic floor muscles spasm, and my digestive system crashes, sending me to the bathroom immediately. Sometimes, my arms seem to involuntarily rattle, rhythmically striking the nearest surface over and over. At its worst, I dissociate, which means my mind temporarily leaves my body and I have no conception of what is happening around me. It’s hard to come back from that, and when I do, I have no memory of what had just happened. Dissociation is my mind deciding it’s safer not to be here for a little while.
What begins as a thought about something completely innocuous — an email I sent, a conversation I had, an upcoming event, a minor worry — builds and spirals until I truly, genuinely believe that I am not liked and unloved, incompetent, a burden to those around me and, at worst, better off dead. Anxiety tells me: “You can’t do this; it’s better not to.” “This” could be anything. Anxiety tells me: “You may not make it if you don’t do this exactly right.” It says: “You failed, you did something wrong, and that makes you a bad person.”
Anxiety treats everyday events as life-or-death situations.
Since I’ve been fortunate enough as an adult to better manage my anxiety through therapy, medication and coping skills, I have more compassion for it now than I used to. I know my anxiety is just trying to protect me, if overzealously so. Anxiety is the fight-or-flight reaction kicked into overdrive, trying to help me survive. It just doesn’t understand that it’s not being helpful.
At its worst, I can’t leave my home. I am frozen with indecision, feeling incapable of doing even the simplest tasks. My mind is either in the past (worrying about events past) or in the future (worrying about events to come), but not quite there in the present. A day at its worst is usually spent alternating between dissociating and trying to reground myself in reality. Sometimes I spend hours sitting in the shower hoping the feeling of the water will bring me back to myself. Sometimes I hold a set of prayer beads, hoping the repetitive, rote prayers will calm my shaking body. That’s all when I have the strength to try these coping skills. Other days, the most I can do is spend all my energy trying not to harm myself, which I have done in the past, voluntarily or in a dissociative state, to calm the spiraling, shame-filled thoughts. Thankfully, the very worst days are less frequent and severe than they were when I lacked access to quality mental health treatment, but I work hard every day, especially knowing that anxiety is a lifelong companion.
My relationship with anxiety really started to turn around with radical acceptance. These days, I find it much easier to acknowledge my anxiety than to fight it. I remind myself that while my anxiety is trying to help me, its form of “help” is not serving me right now. It’s a little like saying to my anxiety, “Thanks, but I’ve got this.” Mindfulness, meditation and other practices I learn in therapy help with this. I also try not to judge myself for being anxious, as I have spent so much of my life doing.
I am also unashamed to take medication, and constantly frustrated by how stigmatized that is. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me how important it is that they only put natural things in their bodies. The truth is I would not be functioning at the level I am without medication, period. It is not a shameful thing for me to meet my medical needs.
There is no shame in being anxious.
Everyone experiences anxiety, but not everyone has an anxiety disorder. It’s important not to minimize the pain of those with anxiety disorders — and stigmatize anxious people — through saying things like, you’re “having a panic attack,” or you’re “so OCD,” when that’s not what you mean.
I also want people to be more aware of the significant disparities in who gets help — and who is considered deserving of help — for mental health struggles. Based on my research, Latina high school girls, for example, are more likely than other high school demographic peers to feel persistently sad or hopeless, and to consider and attempt suicide, but far less likely to have access to mental health treatment or to be identified for disability accommodation in schools. I didn’t learn until I was an adult that I may have been able to get school-based accommodations based on my anxiety.
I want more people to know that the law protects people with anxiety disorders, and people struggling with many mental health concerns. Anxiety can be a disability, and disability protections cover the workplace, too. Along with any personal coping mechanisms, I believe in the power and necessity of asserting your rights.