The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Grace Madlinger, a writer and editor. She lives in Richmond, Va., with her husband and two pugs.
In education, there’s something called “twice exceptional” — a term for gifted learners who also have some sort of challenge. These kids can often slip beneath the radar for a diagnosis because they get by in school and their outward performance doesn’t raise any red flags.
As far as my parents were concerned, I was probably the last kid they ever felt would be diagnosed with anxiety: I got straight As, got a scholarship to college and started a great career.
But in reality, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks on Sundays before the start of every school week, which eventually lead to attacks on Sundays before the work week. I was convinced that even the smallest mistake or step out of turn was the end of school or my career.
I didn’t have the language or diagnosis for a long time to describe how I felt, despite anxiety being all around me. I come from a family of women who seem to have anxiety in their blood.
The first Valium I saw came from my grandmother. But no one ever called it “anxiety.” Instead, I thought it was simply normal to live as if the worst thing was always right around the corner.
For me, anxiety is one condition with two forms: acute and chronic. I live with chronic anxiety day-to-day. I wake up, breathe, and feel this extra thing right between my ribs that I then carry with me throughout the day. Sometimes it’s a rock and sometimes it’s a paperweight. But it’s always there. I can feel it physically pushing against my chest.
When it’s acute, I almost lose control of my body entirely. I go into full fight-or-flight mode and my brain’s just along for the ride. I can’t see, I can’t breathe, and my skin is on fire. I break out in a sweat all over. I start getting tunnel vision. Once during a work call, I stopped breathing and fell off a chair. I played it off as clumsiness and a joke, but I was terrified.
Anxiety also affects my eating habits. I lost a lot of weight a few years ago and developed some unhealthy perspectives on food in the process. When my anxiety is bad, I either start skipping meals or binge. As a result, I start breaking out and/or bloating.
It starts small. I notice something that doesn’t feel quite right and it burrows into my brain. It could be something said to me in passing, feedback on a project, a change in number on the scale, or the fact that I can’t remember if I unplugged my straightener. It could just be a general sense of unease. But instead of the thought occurring, being addressed and then passing through, it gets stuck in a mental feedback loop. Nothing else matters but the straightener, because if I left it on, our entire house could burn down. And if our house burns down, we’re homeless (cue the falling off chairs). Suddenly, I’m convinced that what was a hypothetical scenario a few seconds ago is now the only possible scenario, and it could happen any minute.
I begin to start punishing myself for feeling anxious and telling myself things that I would never say to someone else I loved. That I don’t deserve to eat, that everything I do is pointless, that I’m a failure and a fraud, that my husband and coworkers hate me.
And then the tape plays, over and over. My anxiety brings out my worst fears and puts them on repeat.
It usually looks like my house. When my anxiety is at its peak, the first thing that goes is my physical environment. You can judge how anxious I am by how much unopened mail is on my coffee table. If the table’s covered, it’s been a bad week. Sometimes mail doesn’t even make it to the coffee table from the slot in the front door and just sits next to my shoes.
I’ll wake up, go downstairs to start some breakfast, and stare at my unopened mail. Or on a bad day, I’ll eat nothing and force myself to go straight to a workout class. Despite my body betraying me during anxiety attacks, it also feels like one of the things I have the most control over. On bad days, I don’t work out because I like it. I work out because I’m scared.
By the time I get to the office, I already know what the rest of the day is going to bring. I try to find somewhere quiet to sit by myself where I can breathe and focus on work. I’m sweating and yelling at myself for drinking coffee, because I know caffeine can trigger my anxiety.
Everything begins to mount up until I can come home and take it out on something. That typically means going back to the gym, or picking a fight with my husband and making him feel miserable too.
Control. I made it a long time without anyone raising concern over my anxiety because my life looked put together on the outside. I regulated what I ate, my routine was set in stone, I performed well at school and work, and nothing was out of place — until an anxiety attack happened. Then I tried to force it back by controlling more. I was a mess personally, but a success professionally. That worked until I met my husband and had to let someone else into my controlled environment. He was the one who finally raised the flag and suggested I get help, because he saw me fighting so hard to stay above water.
Now, I still fall back into controlling habits, but I try to find healthy ways to manage my anxiety. I work out (mindfully), spend time with my dogs, and get outside into nature.
I take medication and have a doctor who advocates for me. I eat a lot more cheese fries than I would’ve “allowed” myself to have before, and I get more enjoyment out of food.
Anxiety is silencing. I recently opened up to a coworker about what I was experiencing, and they said they never would have guessed. That’s a relief and a warning. We’re going through a larger mental health conversation in our country right now, with a lot of well-meaning people saying, “Reach out, get help.” Unless someone like my husband sat down with me and shared their concerns, I wasn’t going to get help. My anxiety wouldn’t let me do it on my own. I’ve spent most of my life living one way without realizing it could be different.
The first time I understood what I had been missing was like when Erica Hahn told Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” that she got glasses, and suddenly realized those green blobs on trees were leaves. Life has leaves. It’s beautiful, and I’m so glad I’m here. Anxiety just makes it hard to see it.