Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from artist and curator Julie Baroh, who has a blog where she writes about the arts, growing up in Seattle and living with Addison’s disease.
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My relationship with anxiety is lifelong and complex, first emerging itself after a childhood fall from a window, in which I sustained head and spine trauma. Prior to the fall, I was a pretty sunny little kid, very independent and friendly. Within a week of the fall, my parents noted a dramatic personality change; I had become weepy, clingy, shy and withdrawn. We now know this as a symptom of traumatic brain injury (TBI).
I knew something was wrong with me at the time, but with the new challenges the fall had gifted me, including seizures and what would become lifelong chronic pain, I could not fully understand why I suddenly couldn’t sail through life like before.
As an adult, anxiety has been a constant, to varying degrees. I’ve noticed it’s cyclical; it gets worse in the dark months of winter and more depressive if my chronic pain flares up. I am the classic “anxious personality," worrying over everything. I try to keep it under wraps and to myself, but it tends to bleed out as me being highly critical of my own output, which can appear as self-deprecating humor.
About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare adrenal disease called Addison’s disease, brought on by an autoimmune attack. Because my adrenal glands can’t produce key hormones such as cortisol, I rely on taking steroids every day and monitoring symptoms. You hear about “adrenal fatigue” all the time — Addison’s disease is like a super version of that. Fatigue, inflammation, depression, anxiety: These are documented symptoms of low cortisol. They are also early signs of Addisonian crisis, which can lead to cardiac arrest, shock, coma and ultimately death. This is not a very sexy disease.
I have to be diligent about anxiety symptoms, which usually pop up as neck spasms and pain at first, but can graduate to temperature changes, heart flutters and tremors, because of the disease factor. My blood pressure drops and I get dizzy. I start to swell up. I get confused, which adds to the anxiety. I have friends and family who are trained to watch for symptoms and administer extra steroids to combat what is basically adrenal failure. I have a phone app to track symptoms and I do check-ins every few hours with myself.
Anxiety normally presents itself as overcritical thinking; I loop racing thoughts, review past actions, spoken words, intentions. It’s like having a super cranky episode of “Seinfeld” raging in my head. I find my mind creating story lines where my perception of myself is hopelessly faulty. If I’m really running off the rails, I’ll react to my thinking with overachieving behavior: taking on way too much work, too many tasks, making too many promises, all the while feeling terrified of the failure I’ll likely inherit as a result.
It’s a “less than” state of mind, a panicky hamster spinning away in the brain, trying to fix all the wrongs in the world, fueled by an overworked endocrine system. Eventually everything crashes down, and I take that personally, as proof of being the failure I’ve suspected I really am.
The thinking rages well into the night. I’m lucky if I can pull five or six hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Anxiety at its worse usually looks like a whirlwind that just suddenly dies in its tracks: I’m cranky and nothing seems right, my movements are ragged, my neck stiff, face tense. I’m muttering to myself, often repeating the same things again and again. I have a hard time leaving my house, and I sigh a lot.
I’ll feel like the tasks of the day are impossible, yet I’ll try to summon all my energy to do them, even if I know it will result in physical damage to myself, as my Addison’s disease symptoms start rearing their heads. This just adds to the soup. Knowing the crash is on the horizon, I’ll panic, push myself further, in case, you know, I drop dead. “Who will get the groceries, pay the bills, walk the dogs, write that article, wash the car, paint that painting, fulfill all life’s demands, if not me on this very afternoon? So many loose ends!”
On my worst days, an ambulance is called because I passed out, and I’ll spend a few days in the hospital because I sent myself into a crisis. So, at its worst, it could kill me, or at least leave me with a hefty hospital bill.
Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of things to quell the beast, be it drugs, talk therapy, meditation, drawing, anti-anxiety pills, journaling or other hobbies. I’ve found a few things consistently work for me: exercise and mindfulness. Before Addison’s, I’d go on long bike rides or speed skate, and that would kick those endorphins in and I’d feel a wonderful sense of calm. Now, just a nice long walk is enough.
Being mindful of my body symptoms and my faulty perception also helps me regulate the anxiety. Often I’ll find that the anxiety is simply fixed with a little extra steroid dosage, raising my cortisol levels. Usually, though, doing mindful check-ins with myself grounds me and I can recognize that the anxiety is just symptomatic and perceptive, rather than a reality. I try to practice just being present, just breathing, and accepting what is all around me.