Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.

This week, we hear from Faith Myles, a registered nurse who specializes in oncology and hospice care. She is a wife and mother of two who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.

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My history with anxiety

My history with anxiety as a disorder is long and complicated — tangled with my childhood, life experiences and other diagnoses. Anxiety stands out to me as the first mental health issue I faced. It was the very first member of a family of disorders that has taken up residence in my mind and body.

I experienced my first panic attack when I was 9. In that same year, I developed signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, though this wasn’t diagnosed until much later in life. In my teenage years, I developed major depression, which also went undiagnosed for years. Then, in my 20s, I suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, which sharply worsened my preexisting conditions and wreaked havoc on the landscape of my mental health. Nearly 10 years later, when I had my first child, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, both of which have remained with me throughout my following pregnancy and the birth of my second child. I mention my other mental health issues here because anxiety is a cornerstone for all of them, crucial to their very foundation:

It is the root from which everything else has grown.

How anxiety presents itself physically

The first time I felt anxiety in its exaggerated form was at a baseball game, high up in the bleachers, surrounded by my family. As we climbed toward the top, I looked down and noticed my hands were shaking. I couldn’t breathe, my vision blurred — I remember being told I was hyperventilating. This was before my anxiety became enmeshed in who I am as a person, before it combined forces with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to create a masterpiece of devastation, leaving me forever cleaning up after its destruction.

When I experience anxiety now, my hands still shake. I’ve recently started taking an antidepressant that helps quiet my thoughts and calm my physical reactions, but I can still feel my hands tremble when anxiety whispers in my mind; my heart still pounds behind my calm exterior. I often can’t sleep, and I’m plagued by tension headaches, body aches and stomach pain.

How anxiety presents itself mentally

As an adult, my anxiety often manifests itself in the form of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. My mind feels loud, as if all of my suppressed fears are pounding on the walls and floorboards where I keep them, breaking the windows that give me an illusion of safety. When I experience this, I compulsively try to redirect my thoughts. I’ve smoothed my hair for hours, flipping it back and forth between my fingertips, over and over and over. I’ve tried to clean every toy in my children’s playroom with disinfectant wipes, one by one, until the skin on my hands has turned raw. I’ve spent hours reading all the ingredients in every moisturizer I can find, then researching each ingredient in order to choose the safest one possible. I become sidetracked from living my life in a productive way, including experiencing quality human interactions, and instead I focus on tedious details as a way to distract myself from the anxiety.

What a day when my anxiety is at its worst looks like

In March of this year, I suffered what has been referred to as a nervous breakdown. This term is no longer used by mental health professionals, so my provider told me that what I experienced was actually a very long panic attack. I was triggered somehow by fears and childhood memories, and suddenly I felt my mind slip out of my control. I broke the kitchen cabinet doors off the hinges and threw them in my house. I tore up old family photos and left them on the floor. I lashed out at my loved ones, ripping into the past like a tornado, shattering formerly stable relationships and setting the remains on fire in my wake.

Three days later, I found myself still unable to calm down, eat or sleep. Emergency mental health care is painfully difficult to access, especially as a health care professional who was unwilling to accept inpatient care due to the stigmas surrounding it within my own profession. Eventually, I found myself in the emergency room, desperate for someone to help me.

I went to the hospital as a last resort.

I had high blood pressure, my heart was racing, I was sweating through my shirt; I was hungry, shaking and crying. I did eventually get the help I needed, and I am so grateful for that.

My go-to coping mechanism

Lately I find myself coping through silence. I spend my days with my very young and boisterous children and my husband, and I spend my work hours talking with people who are suffering in their own ways.

The rare moments when I am totally alone are like food to my starving soul.

Late at night, when I’m done working and everyone is asleep, I soak in the stillness, feeling my pulse slow. Mindfulness is incredibly effective when practiced regularly, as is thankfulness. Sometimes I sit by my sleeping babies and listen to them breathe. I fill up my mind with the immense gratitude I have for their lives, and for the safety they experience in my home. Mindfulness and gratitude are capable of letting in joy, and they all work together to sing over anxiety until it hushes in reverence, laying down its weapon of fear at the feet of such beautiful thoughts.

What I wish people knew about anxiety

Anxiety is often misinterpreted as weakness. It is seen as a lack of control, and those of us who suffer from the more frightening, and sometimes violent, versions of it are considered lacking in the ability to overcome. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to go forward, to not give up in the face of fear.

Those of us who suffer anxiety, and any other mental health issues that may tag along with it, are not weaker than others; we are so much stronger than we may realize. We wake up every day and leave our homes while our bodies betray us and our minds scream at us to go back. We create our own families, clutching our children to our chests that burn with terror; we run headlong into the postpartum battlefield like the bravest soldiers on earth. So many of us hold down jobs and participate in social functions and choose to live our lives like heroes; we do it despite our fears, despite our debilitating anxiety, or depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. We do it every day.

Living with anxiety does not make us weak. It makes us powerful.

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