What it feels like sometimes when you have a Generalized Anxiety Disorder

I wrote this post about a year ago to try to describe what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder on the days that it’s really bad. People throw around the term “anxiety” all the time – “I’m so anxious!” “I’m really stressed out!”. But having a generalized anxiety disorder is something different. There isn’t even necessarily something in your life that’s particularly worth stressing out about at the time, but your brain will create something. Sometimes the rational part of your brain can manage those things, and sometimes it can’t. This post was from one of those times that it couldn’t. I’ve been nervous to post this, because I worry that it makes me sound like a crazy person, or like I’m going to break down any minute and just completely lose my shit. I worry that it makes me sound like an incapable loose cannon that’s waiting to crumble. I worry that someone will read this and they will decide not to date me, or not to give me a job. But I’ve been sitting on it for a while now, so here it is. Because if it makes even one person out there have a better understanding of their friend with anxiety, or feel less alone, then all of my worries can be damned. 

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You go for months or even years where things seem fine. You’ve grown as a person, made new friends, built your career, and you’re described by colleagues as one of the smartest, most accomplished people they know. You’re pretty and fun and busy, and a lot of people tell you that they admire how strong you are.

You feel varied levels of stress, but you go for a run, or you go to yoga, or you visit with a friend, and these things help, and everything is under control. The stress gets worse, and you run more, and you train outside of running, and you eat lots of kale, and you feel accomplished for being healthy, and everyone else tells you how impressed they are with how healthy you are too. Your shoulders tighten and your breathing comes with more effort, so you run more. You run a race, you run every day, you run a half marathon, you run a marathon. You run until your legs are jelly and your chest hurts. You train more, and the stress subsides. Then it doesn’t subside, and one morning you find yourself on the brink of tears because you couldn’t complete your metcon fast enough, and this means that you’re a failure.

You take on more activities, go to more lectures, have coffee meetings, accomplish more, but the feeling of failing doesn’t go away. No matter what you do, it is not enough, and it will never be enough. You stand in the cold and close your eyes and imagine floating in the sea, and this helps for a minute.

You ignore the tightening feeling in your shoulders and your chest for weeks and weeks, until one day you’re lying paralyzed on your bed trying your best just to breath, but meditation isn’t working, and you already took a lorazepan this morning. You have a million things to do, but instead you stay in bed all day watching Netflix, because this is the only distraction that will quiet your mind, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really help.

You stop calling friends, because you are sure that they cannot stand to hear you talk about your anxiety, and they could probably never stand you to begin with. You don’t understand how anyone could love you or has ever loved you, and you feel so alone that you’re sure strangers can see your loneliness dripping out of you though your tired, glassy eyes. Your body feels overwhelmed; you vibrate with the same intensity of someone newly fallen in love, but instead of the feeling that you will burst forth with love and joy, you are sure that your body will shatter because there is simply too much nervous energy for one human to contain. You go for walks. And when it gets really bad, you buy a pack of cigarettes, because at least when you’re smoking you are taking time to breath.

You forget all of your previous accomplishments and praise; you forget every precious moment with anyone who has ever loved you, because you are sure that they are fleeting. You are sure that no one could ever fall in love with you again, because how could anyone love someone who feels this way.

You remember a time not so long ago when the anxiety had subsided, where you knew in your heart that all of these anxious thoughts were so untrue, and life seemed carefree and full of hope. You imagine what your life would be without this poisonous haze enveloping everything you do. You imagine the person you could be if there weren’t days and weeks filled with so much anxiety and hopelessness that you want to crawl into a hole in the earth and sleep there until you die.  You can see this other you, but you don’t know how to reach her through this fog. And all you can do is carry on, push through, and remember to keep breathing until it lifts one day, and you remember yourself again.

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Bravery takes time

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about the lessons that I’ve learned from my negative relationship experiences. It took me a while to share this post on social media, partly because I was worried about coming across as damaged and bitter in some way, and partly because I was worried about how the people who I was friends with at the time of said relationships would judge me for sharing the information that I shared publicly. Then with a push from my friend, and fellow writer, Naben Ruthnum, I stopped worrying.

I tried to write a really honest account of some of my most painful mishaps and pitfalls, and how they helped me to learn and grow as a human. I was not prepared for the response that it elicited.  It didn’t GO VIRAL or anything, but it did receive over 500 more page views than any other thing that I had ever written, and I also received so many kind messages, or distressed messages, or thoughtful messages from different friends and acquaintances thanking me for writing it and telling me how much some of the things that I wrote had resonated with them.

One of the other things that people said to me was that I was brave for having written and shared this, which is such a nice thing to hear. Who doesn’t want to hear that they are brave and courageous? While I agree that it was a little bit brave – just like sharing anything personal and creative is brave – what I want to say about this is that all of the bravery in the world would not have mattered, if I hadn’t also done an incredible amount of work on myself over the past few years. This has involved therapy, yoga, meditation, forcing myself to do things that challenge me even if they are terrifying, and taking a really serious look at the behaviours and habits that have manifested unhealthy relationships in my life. And I’m still putting in more work all the time.

I grew up in an extremely unhealthy environment (which I’ll leave for a whole other series of blog posts, and likely one day a book), and it took so many years to even admit to myself how deeply this had impacted my ability to have real healthy intimate relationships with other humans. But more importantly, it has taken me even longer to recognize my own value in relationships with other humans. All of these steps and lessons learned from my marriage, and other relationships that followed, were actually steps along the path to believing that I was worth it. I sought out emotionally draining relationships with people who weren’t present or available, because I just did no believe that I deserved anything better. I threw myself into one-sided relationships in which my feelings were regularly undermined, because deep down I believed that if I could win the affections of someone who was largely uncaring, that this meant that I was finally enough. I didn’t have “daddy issues”, but I did (do…) have “family issues”. And these issues meant that the more I had to work to win over and woo someone who was emotionally distant, the more inherent value I had. I simply did not believe that an already whole, healthy, kind, creative, smart, attractive, ambitious person who I was really impressed by and swoony over would ever be able to show even a tiny glimmer of interest in me. So in order to find love, I would have to go through the back door; I’d have to wade through drama and damaging behaviour; I’d have to put in my time as non-girlfriend therapist. Only then, when I had paid my dues in some wreck of a relationship, would I finally have earned my keep. Because if I proved myself to that person at their worst, then I would have earned the value to be with them when they became their best. Only what if that person never became their best? Or what if they never would have been the best for you in the first place? Of what if they DID become their best, only I’d taught them for so long that I was not worth the time and respect to treat well, so that the closer they were to their best, the more likely they were to leave me behind?

Anyways… I guess what I am trying to say is thank-you, but also that bravery takes time to build. There were a million sappy sad sac blog posts before this one, and a million journal entries exploring my feelings, and a million lonely moments where I wished that there was someone out there who could tell me what was wrong with me. And so as a writer, I can’t not share. And if the response to my original blog post made one thing clear, it’s that we need more sharing like this happening all the time. Because it is too easy to feel so alone. And there’s no reason why we can’t feel and work through that aloneness together.

Mental health and community

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Photo by Academy of Lions

Thank god for community.

If you’ve read through a few of my blog posts, you probably know that I am a person who lives with a generalized anxiety disorder. And that every now and then, this is also coupled with depression.

Under usual circumstances, I am very careful about balancing my life so that I can mitigate the negative effects of these mental health issues. But over the winter, I was unemployed, and broke, I let my gym membership lapse, I got a month long severe sinus cold – which further interfered with seeing friends and physical activity – and I fell into a depression.

For me, and I’m sure for many people, my anxiety and depression manifest themselves as a complete withdrawal from the things that matter the most to me, and incredible amounts of insecurity and self doubt. From a logical standpoint, I know that the things that I am thinking about myself are irrational and untrue, but this doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.

When I’m in the depths of depression, every venture outside of my house feels like a farce. Every interaction with anyone who matters (whether friend or colleague) feels like I am putting on a one woman show of “someone who is ok”. And when I do let it slip that I am not coping all that well, I get so incredibly nervous that I am coming across as needy/incompetent/a mess, that I completely fumble my thoughts and words, so that I am met with confused head tilts, which only makes matters worse.

I wouldn’t consider myself spiritual, and I don’t believe in THE SECRET, but I have had enough experiences where “the universe” gives me exactly what I need, that I do believe in serendipity, and also the general goodness of the humans around me.

I was sitting at home yesterday thinking to myself, I NEED TO GET A REGULAR WORKOUT SCHEDULE AGAIN, OR MY MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES ARE GOING TO BURY ME. Then later that afternoon, I got an email letting me know that Academy of Lions would now be offering Community Classes; I immediately signed up for three this week. Just knowing that I would be having a solid workout in a gym that I really love, and that I would be able to access classes regularly even in my incredibly broke state, took such a burden off my shoulders. I went to class that afternoon, and a few minutes in, I could already feel the fog lifting. For me, really serious exercise is not an option – it is literally what keeps me alive.

Once I get working again on a regular rotation, I will be very happy to pay my monthly gym fee to go and work out. But while I am going through this transition, I am so incredibly thankful that community classes are a thing that exist, and that my community offers them.

So if you’re a gym owner, or yoga studio manager, or whatever, I know that it might seem counterintuitive to offer regular free classes when you could simply be registering paying clients, but the loyalty and positive word of mouth that you will garner from giving back will be well worth your while. And in the process, you might actually save someone’s life.

the 100 day project – 40-43 – no sleep ’til ever

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I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping over the years. Starting at the age of about 15, I’ve had on again off again severe insomnia, coupled with just a general inability to sleep all that well. I recently, finally, after years and years of talking to different doctors, was sent to a sleep clinic to see what’s up, and to try to find out if there was anything that could be fixed. At the sleep clinic, they hook you up to a bagiliion little sensors, and monitor every little thing to try to find out what’s wrong. In the morning, when the tech came in, all she said was “so restless.” “Yes,” I thought, “my sleep WAS so restless. It’s ALWAYS so restless. That’s why I’m here.” And this statement gave me comfort, because I thought if they could plainly see how restlessly I was sleeping, that there must be some thing that we could work on together. I thought wrong.

Today I went for my results, and they came back normal. Breathing – normal; heart rate – normal; brain waves – normal. Normal. Normal. But there is one thing that is still not normal. My sleep. I probably average 6 hours of very broken sleep a night. For about the past 18 years.

So when I got back these results that nothing is wrong, I just started to cry. It probably doesn’t help that I am actually really sick right now, so I just didn’t really have the capacity to keep all of my emotions about this diagnosis inside myself today.

I walked through my sleep habits with the sleep specialist, skimming my life for any other clues as to the reasons why I often have such fitful sleep. I get enough physical activity, I have a somewhat regular sleep routine, I don’t drink coffee after 3, I don’t drink alcohol that frequently on weeknights; blah blah blah blah. I’ve been through these lists so many times before. So the only thing that we came up with is that it’s probably related to my anxiety, which is not really what I was hoping to hear. I mean, I knew that it was HEAVILY affected by anxiety, but to discover that this is likely the only cause feels so incredibly defeating. Because I am working so hard to get that aspect of my life under control, but my sleep is currently just not getting any better. And the two feed each other in this marvellous dance of non-sleep.

ANYWAYS. So I’m seeing my GP about sleeping meds, and cutting back MORE on computer time pre-bed, and cutting out most alcohol, and maybe getting some blackout curtains, and continuing to work on anxiety, and we’ll see how it goes.

The specialist reassured me that at least I don’t have really severe sleep apnea, and yes, that is something that I am very grateful for, but at the same time, this diagnosis of ‘normal’ has not brought me any closer to finding sleep.

The end.

the 100 day project – day 32

Things are going really well. Today I had a really really incredible meeting with a woman who I have looked up to as an expert in my field for quite some time. She was so encouraging, and gave me some amazing pointers, and offered me some really incredible connections. I have had a lot of promising informational interviews in the past, but this one was different. Because this one is associated with some action.

At the same time as I had this wonderful lovely day, I also happen to be ending it with a nonsense panic attack of self doubt. Not related to this earlier meeting, but a few other things. They’re getting fewer and farther between, but hot damn are they just the worst thing ever. Mindfullnessing this anxiety away for tonight, and starting again anew tomorrow.

The end.

the 100 day project – day 7 – weird confidence

This is going to seem silly. Maybe very silly. But I severely lack confidence.

While professionally, I have very good sense of my capabilities, and boundaries, and what I deserve, both personally and romantically I know very well that I do not. I don’t know why. I’m working on it. But at the moment, I shy away from any person who I see shining too brightly. On a friend level, all that this means is that it takes me a very long time to develop deep friendships, but on a romantic level, it means that I am forever missing out. I am forever too bashful. How do I find the balance between shyness and aloofness? How do I manage to show interest without humiliation> I suppose that all humans suffer this, but maybe some are just more sensitive than others.

High Anxiety

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Two weeks ago I had the worst panic attack of my life. THE WORST. IN LIFE.

I woke up early, because unlike my usual lazy Sunday, today I was pulling a volunteer shift for Doors Open Toronto. I was a teeny tiny bit hungover, but this would not normally be a problem. It should not have been a problem.

Today though, the combination of tiny hangover, the lack of sleep and mild social anxiety, and the added minor stress of dealing with the public were apparently too much for my little heart to take.

Over the course of the day, the gap in my chest deepened. It filled with adrenaline and insecurity and doubt.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced an anxiety attack before, or if you’ve ever been an anxious person. I am currently a mildly anxious person, who used to be an exceedingly anxious person. When I was in my early 20s, I went through a few years there where I was borderline agoraphobic, and it would take me about an hour of getting dressed and re-dressed before leaving the house just because I was so sure that if I wasn’t wearing the perfect thing that everyone I ran into on the street, and all of my friends would judge me and hate me forever. I would cry in public because I was terrified of life. It’s ridiculous, yes. But everything about anxiety is ridiculous. It is not a rational beast.  At one point, I checked myself into therapy, because I knew that living life as I had been would just not do. It was too exhausting. I later took up smoking (and quit), and then yoga, and running and writing help. It’s mostly under control, but whenever the anxiety rears its head, I become momentarily terrified that it’s back for good. And this time was horrifying.

I went home after my Doors Open shift, and slinked into my couch. I put on Netflix and ate snacks and texted friends, and still the panic attack lingered. I lay there, wide-eyed, hoping with each passing hour of mindless programming that the panic would subside. But instead it grew. At 3 am, despite my open chest, I forced myself to bed and lay there in the dark taking deep breaths and reminding myself that “this too shall pass”. I downloaded a “chakra tuner”. Eventually I fell asleep at least being comforted that in the morning, this feeling would be gone.

I woke up Monday morning, and to my horror, the pit in my chest remained. It did not subside while I stood under the stream of hot water in the shower, or while I ate breakfast on my back deck, or on my bike ride to work. It stayed while I sat in meetings, and answered emails, and biked home, and made dinner. The panic set up shop in my heart, and pumped through my veins, and pulsed through my muscles and into every ounce of my being.

Eventually. EVENTUALLY. Sometime Tuesday afternoon, it was gone. And thank THE LORD (disclaimer – I like to talk like a grandma sometime, but I am not for reals religious) it has not returned.

ANYWAYS. The reason that I am writing this post today is not actually to talk about horrible raging anxiety. This post today was inspired by having the loveliest, nicest day, and by encouraging words from a kind friend.

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On Tuesday, I broke a couple of personal bests on my crew run, and received so many supportive kind words of encouragement from some truly inspiring women on my running crew. Then today was the first day of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, and was also a day where I got a lot done, had a coffee shop date with a friend, rode my bike, sublet my apartment, and one of my best best BEST friends in the world and his incredible wife went into labour (I should mention that she is also now one of my closest friends; these people are basically my family).

And on top of all of these lovely things, a friend who I have not seen in so very long sent me some really lovely messages:

“I’ve been following your move and I have to say: go you lady pants. You’re an inspiration.”; and “But in all seriousness – you look fantastic. And I’m jealous of your drive and ability to jump into running and the social scene and know I’m cheering for you.”

As someone who often judges myself, and feels like a failure, and worries too much, this reminder sometimes that how I see myself is not how others see me is such an incredible comfort to my heart, and I wish that there was a way to express how much it means to me.

So the message I am trying to give here is not about how horrible anxiety is,  but rather that even on your worst days, it’s important to remember that it really will get better. But even more importantly, never ever ever be afraid to tell someone how wonderful you think they are, and never underestimate the power of a kind word. It might be just what a tired heart needs. <3