Anxiety and panic attacks are supposed to be obvious. You’re supposed to be hyperventilating, crying, unable to function.
And sure, I’ve been there on some justifiable occasions—in the weeks following a bad car accident, after having my heart broken for the first time, in the car on the way to the emergency room when I was twelve with a severe case of bronchitis, while taking a look at the amount of blood coming out of me when donating to the Red Cross (and again a few years later, thinking I could handle it this time), a few minutes into getting my first tattoo, before the artist had even started on my third tattoo.
On these occasions, I’ve cried more tears than I care to admit (and for someone with a weird complex about showing emotions in front of people, that’s a major feat), lost all the color in my face, gotten tunnel vision, felt ice cold while sweat was dripping down my cheeks, been on the verge of passing out but caught myself just before losing consciousness.
But what they don’t tell you is that anxiety, more often than not, is subtle. It can creep up on you out of nowhere. You’re lying in bed, marathoning New Girl on Netflix, minding your own damn business, and then it happens. There’s a weird tightness in your chest, and you feel it start to creep up the right side of your neck. You can breathe just fine. You check your pulse, but your heart seems to be beating at its normal, steady rhythm. Your left ear is throbbing, warm to the touch, and red (as you’d later find out when pulling out your phone to FaceTime your mom because you don’t know what else to do). You take your knuckles and start massaging harder and harder along your chest and neck—as if you can somehow force the feeling out of there—but all it does is bruise the skin (which you’ll discover the next morning when getting ready for work). You’re having an anxiety attack; you just don’t know it yet.
And once you do figure it out (after multiple conversations with your doctor and blood tests to confirm that nothing is physically wrong with you—though, you’re still not convinced), you just can’t settle for something so…simple. Cancer, a thyroid issue, a yet-to-be-discovered disease that will surely be named after you. All of these make so much more sense. They have causes. They’re understood (at least to some extent; you can physically see a tumor, after all). They might even be curable.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a nice slap in the face. You just get the satisfaction of knowing that your brain could be messing with you at any given moment. Why should you get to be happy and enjoy your birthday vacation in Hawaii with your best friend (a trip that cost you next to nothing and let you escape a North Carolina blizzard) when you could be sitting on the bed of your Airbnb at nine p.m. trying to explain to your frustrated friend a feeling you won’t even begin to understand for a few more years? And all the while, the feeling just keeps building, as you know you’re ruining the night—not just for yourself, but for your best friend as well.
And I know none of this makes me a weirdo. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting close to 20 percent of the adult population. But it can still be extremely isolating—leaving me feeling like the weirdest person around during certain social situations. Even around my family, among my closest friends, or in a safe setting like church small group, it happens. I have a million things to say, so much I want to contribute to the conversation, but I freeze up instead. I find myself clasping my fingers around the bottom of my neck, with my palm pressed against my chest, silently observing the conversations happening around me. Or I’ll aggressively pick at the polish on my fingernails, collecting the chipped pieces on my thigh. All the while, I wait for the feeling to pass, but it only gets worse, as I know my silence is making others uncomfortable.
I tried talking about my feelings with my parents and a couple trusted friends. Gave yoga and meditation a chance. Contemplated going to see a therapist before realizing how much a visit to one actually costs. Went for runs along the beach whenever I had the chance. Prayed and prayed. Journaled my frustrations.
Eventually, I came to the decision to try medication. My doctor prescribed Zoloft (an antidepressant) to take every day, along with an antihistamine that has been approved to treat anxiety attacks.
For the first week, the medication made things even worse. I was nauseated and experiencing constant anxiety—to the point where I couldn’t even focus on my work or during a conversation. And when I did decide to take the antihistamine after work one night, not only did it not work, but it gave me an allergic reaction. Yes, an allergy to an allergy medication. Oh, the irony. The back of my throat started itching, and my heart let out a few irregular beats as I lay in bed, preparing for the worst. It didn’t last long, but it scared me enough to call my doctor, who then switched my prescription to Xanax, to take as needed.
It’s been about six months since I started taking these medications, and it hasn’t exactly been fun. I’m now taking double the dose of each, which does help—on most days. But I just keep waiting for all of this to stop. As if one day I’ll wake up and be cured of my uncontrollable worry.
I moved into a better living situation, found a job that was a way better fit for my skill set and interests, got more involved with my church, and even worked up the courage to reveal to a friend that I had feelings for him. I fixed everything I felt was out of control in my life, but the anxiety still persists.
There’s no end to this story—as it’s an ongoing struggle. So I’ll just leave it at that.