Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Stephanie Tantum, a mother of two daughters and corporate marketing strategist. Outside of her day job, Tantum is an advocate for expanding the role of women in business, particularly in leadership roles.
Interested in contributing to a future installment of Anxiety Chronicles? Fill out this form.
Although I was diagnosed later in life, for as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with anxiety. As a kid, I wouldn’t allow my sisters to play in the front yard because they could be kidnapped. At 12 years old, I’d force my sisters to lean on me to sleep and not the car doors because I had vivid images of the doors flying open on the highway and dragging their bodies along the street. As a kid, my experiences were mostly written off as being dramatic and overly imaginative. My teachers labeled me early as an empath. And while that might be true, feeling all my feelings — and everyone else’s — isn’t mere empathy.
Have you ever seen that Madonna video, “Ray of Light”? Where the background appears to be a system of highways but the cars are going by so fast that they just look like streams of light all around? In my worst attacks, I feel like I’m stuck in that scene — and that I can hear, feel, and see all of it. I experience all the telltale symptoms: restless legs, a racing heart, migraines, excessive sweating.
But the most overwhelming physical symptom by far — and the one that causes me the most guilt — is sensory overload. My hearing evolves to superhuman levels. It’s like I can hear every single conversation and sound in a sheer cacophony in my brain. I feel everything. A single tap from my daughters feels like 1,000 spiders crawling on my skin. Everything tastes bitter. My vision blurs; not in the way poor vision blurs, but because my eyes can’t seem to focus on any one thing.
Nothing breaks my heart more than recoiling from my tiny humans’ hugs, or irrationally yelling when the bed shakes as they climb in to snuggle.
I can only describe it as being on the most rickety roller coaster you can imagine. The anxiety builds the same way the anticipation of climbing to the apex, and for a moment everything slows as I reach the top before everything picks up speed.
My anxiety is strangely “rational.” Once when I was in college, I wasn’t feeling well. When the coaster started, I figured my symptoms were from lack of sleep. Within 12 hours later, I had convinced myself I was dying from a Tylenol overdose, but couldn’t handle the embarrassment of going to the hospital for something so silly, so I sat on the floor of my dorm room with a handwritten list of every time and dose of medicine I had taken in 24 hours, with the door propped open so someone would find me when I inevitably went unconscious.
I had a chest cold.
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve crunched budget numbers in a given day. My partner still jokes about the 10-sheet Excel budget workbook I made him fill out to track every penny. And I still have nightmares about the time an episode of “Scandal” triggered an existential crisis about life after death and led to a 3 a.m. chain-smoking session.
I honestly don’t know what’s worse: days when my anxiety is at its worst, or the day after when I’m just absolutely spent and exhausted.
Do you remember the first Harry Potter book, where the trio of wizards has to go through myriad challenges and riddles? That’s what my worst days feel like. Except instead of lulling a three-headed dog to sleep or winning a game of wizard chess, my quest consists of list-making, guilt, agitation, paralyzing fear, despair and hopelessness, self-realization, distraction and exhaustion.
On these days, I speak a mile a minute. I snap at people I love. I apologize incessantly. And then I crash — utterly exhausted, mentally, emotionally and physically.
From a young age I learned that the quickest way to get out of an attack for me is to find something “real,” hold onto it and remind myself of its existence. This is a pen. This is a pen. I can feel this pen. It’s skinny. It’s got a good weight to it. I can feel this pen. I can see this pen. This is a pen.
Now that I know what’s going on, I remind myself that it’s my brain chemicals. I talk to myself. You’re having a disproportionate reaction. This is not you. These are your brain chemicals. And it helps that I have a friend who also experiences intense anxiety. I often message him. He helps me sort out what’s real and what’s not. And when I need it the most, he distracts me from my current obsession.
Sometimes it’s as simple as just being distracted.
And then sometimes I need to take medication.
For many of us, anxiety isn’t just a diagnosis we suffer with, it’s part of us. My empathy, my budgeting skills, my backup plans, these are all tied directly to my anxiety. The quirks that people love about me, and even some of my talents, come from my diagnoses. So while I wouldn’t wish my worst days on anybody, I’ve also come to accept my funky brain chemicals. Oh, and taking medication does not mean you’re weak or crazy. I waited way too long, and suffered far more than I needed to, because I had “opinions” about medication. Now I do everything I can to be open not just about my anxiety, but about my treatment. Hopefully, someday, getting help won’t be as stigmatized as the diagnosis itself.