Reflections about anxiety

This was a writing response for a seminary class on Illness, Health, and Healing. I want to share it here since I’ve wanted to share this with other people for a while now. If you want to talk about this, I would absolutely love to.

My illness story is about my chronic anxiety, something that I took a very long time to admit to myself. I was raised in a household with a father who was severely mentally ill and routinely hospitalized for long periods of time. My mother was absent a lot, either because she was visiting him, or taking care of him at home, or working a full-time job to take care of us all. I don’t remember a lot about my childhood, except that I was lonely and bullied and scared a lot, and that I came to understand mental illness to be a very specific, very dramatic thing- a thing that made people disappear.

So when I was afraid all the time, but still present in the world, I didn’t have a framework to admit that I wasn’t healthy. I was raised during the years of “everyone is on anti-depressants when they don’t need to be”, a message that sunk deeply into me. At the same time, the “mental illness = untreatable schizophrenia” framework was growing inside of me in response to my home life.

I remember seeing planes high in the sky and watching them for long minutes to make sure they weren’t missiles. I was terrified of the Yellowstone volcano erupting, or the sun exploding- all cataclysms far out of my control. I’m sure I was also afraid of more immediate things- my father’s health, how he’d react, my mother’s ability to take care of us- but I don’t remember a lot.

I continued to deal with fear and anxiety through college and into adulthood, gradually developing more and more coping strategies. I started working for a nonprofit that addresses climate change- a job I explicitly took because of how afraid I was, seeing it as a way to mitigate my fears.

Through all of this, I knew, on some level, that this fear was a lot to carry. But in a world that is so unsteady, the unrelenting fear felt like the rational and ethical response. I believed that seeing and internalizing that much uncertainty was a part of bearing prophetic witness, and required to be engaged with the world in an ethical way.

I needed another friend in seminary to tell me that “nobody was asking me to hold this much fear” before I could accept that it was unhealthy. His faith, and his belief that God wasn’t asking me to hold this to be a good minister or support in this world, allowed me to break through the messages I’d been telling myself.

I’ve been on an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant for four months now. I live in a different universe than I did last year. I can find peace and quiet, I laugh again, I see a world I want to remain in. I have a greatly increased ability to help make it better. I stopped saying that “it’s impossible to be human”, which had been a daily statement of mine. Sitting quietly became an enjoyable practice, not something that was a desperate attempt to retreat from fear. I stopped sighing deeply every hour. I can have a conversation with someone and actually have a conversation with them, instead of using 60% of my brain energy to manage fear. Which was, it turns out, what my ‘coping strategy’ had been- increasing the amount of my brain that was required to keep fear and anxiety in check, constantly and unsuccessfully attempting to quell fear, so that I could remain in the world.

I experienced a lot of guilt at first, about the anti-anxieties. After so long of seeing the deep fear and sadness as the ethical response to this world, it felt as if I had discovered a cheat code- as if I’d removed the difficulty from a video game. I had to change my metaphor- it’s not that I’m cheating at the game, it’s that I was playing the game on ‘difficult’, when there was a normal level that allowed me to do a lot better work.

I’m talking openly about this to lots of people. I wish someone had talked openly about it to me- had talked about how important anti-anxieties meds had been for them. I don’t know how I survived as long as I did, as I certainly wasn’t thriving. But I am, now- I am alive and engaged and I can see what’s terrible and commit myself to working on it. And I can also see joy in the world, and love, and community, and a lot that’s worth fighting for. I am tremendously grateful.

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