Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Maggie Thistle, a writer, artist and mother. She lives in Toronto with her partner, daughter and gingery cat.
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I was an anxious child. I cried a lot, was consistently plagued by undefined fears and routinely complaining of varying stomach ailments. My mother used to call me a worry wart and even gave me a tiny green pony as my worry stone. I took it everywhere, gliding my fingers across its smooth plastic body the more stressed I became. It helped for a while but without acknowledging the severity of my anxiety, my crash was inevitable. The lack of understanding in regard to mental health among youth is still a major disappointment but it was worse then, often framed as merely hormonal raging and disgruntled teenage drama. My anxiety went untreated. I was made to feel crazy. I was made to feel that my anxiety was a choice and that I could fix if I just tried harder. It took a bout of recovery and then a total face-plant relapse for me to actually realize that my experiences were far beyond normal worries and that much of the side effects that sent me reeling were the debilitating effects of anxiety.
It begins in my throat and chest. My throat tightens and dries like I have swallowed a handful of cotton balls. My chest feels sloshy and heavy and sore as if it is bruised. My lungs feel like they are attached to concrete cinder blocks that I have to pull around with me everywhere I go. My heart races and misses beats. I start to breathe funny; little bursts of gasps instead of fluid, intuitive breadths. I even forget to breathe entirely sometimes, coughing hard when it catches up. When the anxiety increases, so do the symptoms; nausea, hot flashes and cold chills, tingling numbness in my forehead and headaches. I have even fainted from some of the worst attacks, twice in public.
It is not easy to explain how my anxiety manifests mentally, much to the dismay of the writer in me. Nothing seems to come close to describe its consumption. Worry does not explain it. Panic barely scratches the surface. It is messy as hell. It feels like undulating waves of anger and sadness and fear mixed together, swirling drunkenly around me and blooming into a hybrid, concentrated force of emotion, one that ruptures and fractures along the way. It usually turns into a form of self hate and blame which then usually turns into a form a self-harm. It tends to trigger my eating disorder, or perhaps it’s the other way around, as they work in tandem in their destruction. My anxiety feels like I am trapped in a tank with no way out while the water rises up around my neck. All I can do is try to breathe in the tiny space that is still free.
I think of my anxiety as a train that I am constantly riding. As much as I may want to get off of this train, it is mostly a tolerable ride, sometimes even feeling secure with its repetitive chugging and constant motion. There are days, however, when the train starts to speed. It makes turns beyond my steers and rushes further and faster at an increasingly, unshackling fury, rattling my bones as it bumps along the tracks. The worst days of my anxiety feel and look like derailments. I become an accordion heap of crushed metal and splintered shards. These are the hardest days. These are the days that feel like death. These are the days I retreat from the world in my head and become a shell of myself. Functional at a basic level, I shut down emotionally and distance my thoughts and feelings from real life, mostly to the disservice of my family. I become a ghost in the house. I rarely cry but I often think about smashing my face against a wall.
Sometimes remembering to breathe is enough to ease the stampeding dread before it fully hits me. When my throat starts to thicken I know that the first thing I have to do to combat the attack is to stay still and focused long enough to mindfully track my breaths. I inhale deeply, hold it and exhale just as deep, expanding and contacting my stomach and chest with exaggeration. If this doesn't quell the flames inside me, I move on to counting. Counting is a duplicitous creature in my life as my eating disorder fetishes and obsesses over numbers and counting, however, for as much as it can be detrimental to me, I have also learned to manipulate its power into positive uses. When the anxiety begins to worsen I find benign, everyday things around me to count, tiles on a floor, lines in the sidewalk, the rhythmic, focused practice of counting helps to distract and soothe. When it gets really bad, I drown myself in Pepto and sit with my head between my hands until it passes.
I would like people to know that my anxiety does not define me but it’s also something I am not ashamed of. It is real, it is not a choice and there is no way to just “not worry” and shut it off. I cannot tell you what’s wrong when you ask sometimes because it is not nearly that simple or definitive. It’s not something I may want to feel or something that I can control but there is much more to me than just my anxiety but the hurt of it is real and until its experienced first hand, it cannot be fully understood.