Anxiety feels absolute when you’re stuck in the thick of it. It’s a windowless room, it’s a line you’re stuck waiting in, it’s an event you can’t get out of. It traps you and tricks you and tells you it’s forever. In the midst of an anxiety attack—whether it happens at a party or when you’re out with a friend—you sit frozen, hoping you don’t seem like you’re freaking out as much as you are. You fake your way through conversations and jokes and normalcy, and you try to remind yourself that these feelings will pass and that they don’t define you. (Even if at the time you don’t believe it.)
My anxiety has always gotten worse when I’ve chosen to listen to that voice that says, “Forever.” When I’m too tired or too hungry or too stressed, my ability to rationalize and think logically all but disappears, so instead of reminding myself that I can go home or order some tea and take a few breaths, my internal monologue goes from zero to 100, and I convince myself—in a matter of seconds—that I should probably avoid making plans for the foreseeable future or avoid having fun or avoid doing anything tied to anything that has ever made me feel anxious.
Which of course is how anxiety works. You don’t think rationally or logically, so even when somebody like a therapist promises it’s something you can eventually overcome by taking a few breaths or rooting yourself in reality, it still jumps when you begin to feel better and says, “Surprise!” It’s the worst.
And that was the headspace I was in for most of last fall and winter. After a summer spent making too many plans and holding myself to unrealistic productivity-related and personal expectations (see: perfectionism), the anxiety I’d kept at bay for the better part of a year started creeping back up, and eventually moved in once I’d begun operating in a permanent state of exhaustion. In short: I was burnt out. And worse, I’d set a pattern under which I’d started permanently operating: work first, friends second, self last. My time was everybody else’s. Any time I did take for myself was defined by the fear that I wasn’t doing enough or that I’d get left behind. So I just kept working and scheduling and being out, telling myself busyness would distract everyone from my ever-increasing Imposter Syndrome. (Which was spurred on by my anxiety, duh.)
Even after I re-shuffled my priorities with the help of my therapist, I still had a long way to go. Despite her telling me I could re-train my brain via mindfulness (mentally naming the things you see around you while feeling anxious), meditation (deep breathing), or naming childhood street names like Jessica Jones does (extremely helpful), I couldn’t shake it. I’d learned to function—or not function—as an anxious person. And this time, like the anxious periods of previous years, I didn’t believe I could unlearn my feelings or make my brain work the way I wanted, even though I always had before.
My anxiety has never been permanent—it’s cyclical. But instead of embracing its temporary residence, I told myself every good thing would be trumped by something bad. I believed my therapist’s expertise applied to everybody but me. And I was convinced there was a mysterious shoe somewhere waiting to drop. Instead of training my brain to see anxiety as something I could overcome, I’d trained it to undermine any and all good news with a disclaimer warning that it was too good to be true.
My anxiety upset my stomach, so I spent dinner outings nervous to eat. I spent evenings counting down until movies were finished, and waded into nearly all plans just wanting to get them over with. Which is how I felt one Thursday night in early February when my friend and I went to a drop-in astronomy event at the University of Toronto.
Vowing to make the most of 2016 (2016: The Year of Activities) we showed up at the school for a guided tour—under a big, inflatable dome—of our solar system, and sat as a very cute PhD student taught us about the stars and planets. We spent most of the lecture nodding in agreement about his general handsomeness. I went up to the roof to look out the telescopes afterward, and then planned to buy makeup and snacks at the drug store before I headed home for the night.
On our way down from the roof, my friend grabbed a cookie. And by the time she got to the elevator she said quite casually, “I think there were nuts in that.”
She’d been told by her doctor that she was intolerant (not allergic), so she wasn’t bothered. I asked if she was OK, and she said she needed a Pepsi to offset the numbness in her mouth. It worked before, it would work again, and since my allergy experience was limited to feeling stuffed up during the spring, I didn’t doubt her. We quested for a beverage, but we couldn’t find one, and agreed just to pick up a drink at the drugstore about five minutes away.
But we didn’t have five minutes. In the sprinkling of time it took us to walk from the school to my car (about three minutes), my friend was sick. As in: She said she was going to throw up, and me, worried it was the stomach flu, had her sit outside while I went to get her a drink from a nearby hotdog cart. But it wasn’t the flu. By the time I came back 30 seconds later, she was on the ground, telling me something was wrong and that she couldn’t breathe. So me, knowing nothing about her allergies, allergies in general, or anything remotely emergency-oriented, called 911. I had no anxiety, just the need to act.
“Does she have an EpiPen?” the operator asked me.
“Um…” I answered, trying (in vain) to sound knowledgeable, while rifling manically through her bag for the injection that would stop my friend’s anaphylaxis. Thankfully, she did. And, despite her struggling to breathe as her blood pressure dropped drastically—since that’s what happens during anaphylaxis—my determined pal grabbed the pen, prepped it, and handed it to me.
“You’re going to need to stab her as hard as you can and hold it for 10 seconds,” the operator instructed. So I overrode my instinct not to stab my friend in the thigh, and I did.
The ambulance showed up immediately after, took over, got her to the hospital, and within an hour I was briefing her on the cookie’s vengeance (turns out it contained pecans, which she’d never eaten before), since she didn’t remember most of it.
And for good reason: After being visited by the doctor, my friend was told that hers was the second-worst case of anaphylactic shock the hospital had seen. She’d almost died. It was eye-opening, and the time I’d felt anxious earlier that evening felt years away. There’d been no time to over-think or worry or entertain anxiety’s damaging narrative. There was only time to act and to do and to look my friend in the face and say, “You are going to be fine” (and really believe it).
It was inspiring to know that I had a pal who’d fought for her life and won. But after the initial feeling of “We did it!” wore off, I found myself teetering on the precipice of “What if?” And especially: “What if this makes my anxiety even worse?”
“But she didn’t,” my mum said to me when I was expressing my nervousness about rejoining the world. I didn’t argue because it was true: My friend almost died, but she didn’t die. And she didn’t dwell or lament or hide away. Instead, she hung out with me and the other people who love her, got back to work that weekend, and rose like a phoenix. It was amazing, and even when I told her about this piece, she wanted to make sure I was OK. In fact, that had been her go-to question in the weeks that followed: “Are you OK? Because that was traumatic for you.”
And yes, it was. I’d be a monster if I felt nothing. But, with my mum’s words in my head, I had to remember that I wasn’t the one who went through what my friend did—I didn’t endure the wrath of the pecan, I just did what I had to do to help her conquer it.
I finally began listening to what my therapist had told me about re-shaping my brain and looked at my mind as something that doesn’t have to be at the mercy of anxiety—that I had left periods of anxiety before, and I would do it again, and that I could change the narrative I found it so easy to slip into. Instead of, “This almost happened,” I’d remind myself that it didn’t—and that it turned out fine. And then, I reminded myself how anxious and sick I’d felt before the ill-fated snack and how those feelings dissipated when something bigger and dire came to pass. I used that night as a form of perspective. If an event on that scale could happen and my friend (who physically endured it) could kick it squarely in the butt, then I could conquer the everyday anxiety that would’ve stopped me in my tracks earlier. For the first time, anxiety didn’t seem like an absolute—it felt like something that might show up, but nothing so scary that I couldn’t fight it off. It wasn’t the main character anymore; it was an antagonist I knew I’d have to square off against sometimes. And the more I challenged those existing thought patterns, the stronger (and more I was able to fight anxiety off) I became.
My friend and I have talked about what could’ve happened, but we don’t dwell on it. Because the land of anxiety is ripe with “what ifs,” just waiting to grow and take over your brain. And of course, it still shows up sometimes just to peacock what’s left of its power. A few weeks ago, meeting friends for dinner, I sat down and started feeling the all-too-familiar pangs of a panic attack, and nearly convinced myself to leave and go home. But instead, I told my friends I was feeling off, I remembered that I’ve felt this way before, and if I needed to hang out in the bathroom for a while, I could and would and nobody would care.
Anxiety wields its sword and whispers sweet nothings that are disguised as cold, hard truths. It tells us it’s never going away, that we’ll always have it in our pocket, and that every choice we make will be tainted with its mark. But it’s a liar: We are all capable of doing scary and difficult and life-changing things. We are all as strong as we’ve been in our most challenging moments, and we can all acquire the tools it will take to send anxiety back to the abyss from which it came. For me, it was the help of a therapist and friends and family. For you, it may be something else. But even now, when I’m tired and hungry and I can’t believe I have so much work to do, I remind myself of that night in February where I got to show anxiety exactly who was boss, and my friend showed me just how strong people can be.
Anxiety will never be that strong, even if it lies and tell you the opposite. ♦