Late-August and early September settled over my life and into my bones like a lingering storm cloud or a bad chest cold. I struggled against the days…railed against waking moments. Finding my way back to center required the vast majority of my energy and left little room for anything else. By September 10, I was depleted. Finally, mercifully, I awoke one morning to feel rays of sunshine casting light upon my spirit. The storm relented…the clouds dissipated…I made it.
In hindsight, all that happened was a massive flare-up in my anxiety disorder. A chemical imbalance created chaos in my brain, which in-turn left me feverishly not-okay. Existing in my skin, with my thoughts, was to live a kind of tormented hell-on-Earth.
It’s unsettling to suddenly be not-okay when everyone in my life, myself included, has become accustomed to my unwavering okay-ness.
I find the best way to describe a panic/anxiety disorder to people unfamiliar with the illness (lucky bastards), is with the following:
An anxiety disorder is not stress. An anxiety disorder does not mean feeling ‘stressed out,’ or being ‘worried.’ Your 70-hour work week or looming deadline or three screaming babies, though certainly stressful, is not the same. In fact, the moron who dubbed my mental illness “Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder” did a major disservice to those of us unfortunate enough to have it. No one walks around saying, ‘Oh yeah…I’ve had a touch of HIV before…I know how you feel.‘ Because we all know HIV is a specific bodily illness and to claim it as your own, if it is not your own, is ludicrous.
When my anxiety disorder is out of my control, chemicals and hormones and receptors and neurotransmitters go haywire…for lack of proper medical jargon. My entire nervous system lights up like a fireworks display on the 4th of July (think heightened, lasting, ‘fight or flight’ mode), and my parasympathetic system fails to slow any of this down. So I remain in that state…the state our bodies were designed to create should we encounter imminent danger.
Imagine walking around feeling as though someone just put a gun to your head. Even though you know there is no gun to your head. Even though everyone is telling you there is no gun to your head. Even though you’re able to inwardly intellectualize the situation…to remind yourself you have an anxiety disorder (for which you are taking medication)…to know this is the manifestation of an anxiety disorder. Regardless of all the telling and the knowing, the chemistry does not change…your body is forced to walk around in an almost-unbearable state of agitation and restlessness and fear.
Such is life during an anxiety disorder flare-up.
A list of daily practices I
do must do to keep close…to hold on…to remain somewhere near the center of it all when I feel as though I might lose it:
- Make my bed
- Tell the truth
- Be alone
- Be not alone
It was untimely, this particular flare-up, to say the least.
My partner and I have known each other for over nine years. I grew up in front of him and we developed a close friendship early on; I’ve always felt an easiness in his presence. He witnessed, quite intimately, my slow disintegration. He knew the ins and outs of my last relationship and watched as I all but disappeared in the year or so following the end of that relationship.
Since last September, however, he’s held a front-row seat to my rising…my becoming. With avid enthusiasm and support, he’s observed transformation and growth. His attraction toward me is rooted in what I have become, which is both lovely and unnerving.
In the past two years, I: got sober, quit smoking, lost 60 pounds, repaired and strengthened important relationships, stopped participating in social media, hiked 200+miles, read 100+ books, improved my relationship with money, opened myself to the work of an untold number of teachers, made friends with my current job, began a yoga practice…etc. All of this has resulted in high-praise and, probably, higher expectations from the people I love.
Those of you on a similar path know what I’m talking about when I say I’m “doing the work,” which is not the same as dieting or quitting drinking or sticking to a budget.
I like to wax-poetic when it comes to my journey. To simply say ‘I got my shit together’ betrays the breadth of it all.
A well-maintained vegetable garden is beautiful to look at, but we don’t plant vegetables for the beauty. We work the earth and harvest the vegetables for sustaining nourishment. The pretty garden is just a bonus.
Which is how I feel about my life. Sobriety, weight loss, contentment…my accomplishments are certainly points of pride, but they’re also just the pretty garden…the result of my dedication to wake up and stay woke during this human experience. (Although I would argue sobriety was definitely my entryway to everything else.)
All of this brings me back to the untimeliness of my recent existential anxiety crisis.
Yes, my partner and I have known each other intimately for a long time.
And here’s where I struggled extra-hard during my already-crappy struggle: BUT, we’ve only been dating for three or four months.
Will this scare him away? Will he be understanding? Will he still care about me? Will he lose interest if I seem weak in resolve? How much do I share? How much do I fake? Fuck this ketogenic diet…I am barely sane…and I also believe I’m dying…I’m going to eat Pringles and drink fountain Coke because this is hard and I want Pringles and fountain Coke. But what if he thinks I’m giving up? Will he be less attracted to me?
And so it went. I became anxious about the impact of my anxiety disorder on my new-ish romantic relationship, which only served to make everything worse.
Thankfully, I remembered what I needed to remember. I stripped my life down to the mandatory daily practices I developed during my early days of sobriety, when success was measured in the not doing as opposed to layers of outward ambition and ‘pretty’ progress.
I told the truth, even when it didn’t come out the way I might have hoped.
One day, my partner (with only the best of intentions) said one of the least helpful things you could possibly say to someone you recently started dating who is worried you might lose interest if she struggles who is also in the throws of an anxiety disorder:
“I had the divorce, and the business, and then my mom was dying…I had a lot going on. But, you just have to put your head down and keep going. Never, ever give up.”
(Insert eye-rolling emoji).
Before I had time to formulate something more patient and intellectual, I spat back, “You DO get that this is a medical disorder, right? Like, I can’t MAKE myself feel better. I’m doing everything I can.” And then I walked away.
Here’s the thing: we made it. I made it.
I didn’t drink alcohol or take habit-forming prescription drugs to dim the intensity of the struggle.
I didn’t hide my truth, which at one point meant saying the thing I was terrified to say out loud: “I know why I drank. For the first time since I quit, I am really tempted by what I know alcohol would do for me, immediately. I’m not going to drink, but I almost want to.” It rubbed up against my nature, but I decided my wellness trumped my desire to make everyone around me comfortable.
I took tender, tender care of myself. I ate what I wanted to eat. I slept when I was too tired or weary to remain awake. I saw my general practitioner. I adjusted medications. I used essential oils and Epsom salt baths and classical music for healing. I spent a lot of time on my couch and a lot of time doing sun salutations in my living room.
I held on. I hunkered down and waited for the storm to pass, which it did. Because it always does.
Throughout the whole ordeal, I garnered a whole new bundle of faith and knowledge.
I learned, for instance, that while I am highly imaginative, descriptive, and expressive in my emotions – often swaying from moment to moment like branches in the wind, my boyfriend is matter-of-fact and unshakeable in his beliefs. He believes in hard-work and perseverance and kindness and humility. Those are the things that see him through…and I think he enjoys listening to my complexities and perspectives. I’m learning to find comfort in his quiet confidence and steady-nature. I’m learning to love our differences.
I’m learning to trust his attraction toward me for exactly what it is – the culmination of everything he’s ever known about me…including my before, not just my after.
I learned that my worst day in sobriety is still more fulfilling and joyful than my best day drunk or lost.
I learned the importance of taking care of myself first…as in, before I attempt to take care of anything else. Yes, my people love this new Brittany. But they will only continue to enjoy the new Brittany if sometimes I say no…if sometimes I turn my phone off and take a bath and go to bed early…if sometimes I have to lay on my couch eating Pringles and drinking fountain Coke and binge-watching The Walking Dead. I can take care of my people if I give myself the space to take care of myself…to return to a place of bare-minimums…the place I saved my life.
I titled this piece ‘the things we keep’ because it was a revelation to me…this keeping of some shitty things. Even in sobriety. Even when we’re doing the work. Even when we’re new and unrecognizable and everything seems pretty.
We still keep things like anxiety disorders and relationship insecurities and emotional slumps and hard times and occasional bitchiness and anger and wavering faith.
The work is never, will never, be complete.
But I think that’s probably exactly the point of it all.