As I sat across the table and looked at the blank stare on my friend’s face, I knew once again I had lost someone. It was sad. She didn’t understand, and how could she? It was like explaining the color red to someone who had been blind their whole life. I had just told her I was diagnosed with three anxiety disorders, which meant I was technically mentally ill and in my circle of family and friends, a black sheep. The previous month, I finally got insurance and went to a psychiatrist for what I hoped would be the end to a life long problem. I was different and I knew it from a young age. Why? I cried easier - and not just cried, but cried ’til my body was wracked with tremors and exhausted. I fainted under stress. Insomnia and I had become good friends since elementary school. I couldn’t drive because a car accident had me too terrified to get behind the wheel again as a teenager. On all my report cards was written the word ‘sensitive’. I suppose it was the kindest way for my teachers to say to my parents, “Your kid is messed up.”
Various memories ran through my head as I saw a look of confusion and fear on my friend’s face. It wasn’t fear for me, but the kind of fear that gets people to burn books they think might be ‘harmful’. I thought how angry I would become with myself for being what I thought was weak in the past. I hated the weakness I couldn’t get rid of. I couldn’t get a thicker skin, which was the grand advice I received from my parents, who were old fashioned at best. If it wasn’t broken or bleeding, it wasn’t a problem. So, as my thicker skin failed to grow and my anxiety and sickness grew worse and worse, my self loathing grew. I began to cut myself. I kept it hidden on my legs, which were always covered since I was insecure about my body. I did it almost daily; it made feel better. It represented the scars that were building up on the inside. One day before school, I stood in front of the mirror with my stomach in knots and a migraine for no particular reason, brushing my hair, and something clicked in my head and I began to beat myself over the head with the hair brush. I only got a few whacks in before I dropped it and began crying uncontrollably. I knew there was something wrong with me, but no one wanted to hear it. During a routine appointment with my MD, I told him I felt shaky and anxious, he wrote me a prescription for a low dose antidepressant. It barely took the edge off. I came to the sad conclusion that nothing and no one could help.
Another thought that was my constant companion was, “Who’s going to want me?” I had avoided dating in high school. I didn’t want the rejection. I met my first boyfriend at work at age 19. He was 26 and rough around the edges at best – a former gang member who told me he was going to be a cop, so he could turn his life around. I was too naive at 19 to realize that those two were a ridiculous combination and he was obviously lying. We were friends first and I thought I saw someone like me – not perfect, but trying the best to make of a bad situation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The more time we spent together the more he discovered what my triggers were. He would play upon them. He also had me paying for his cellphone and his car, so he could work. He always said he needed me to be on his side. When we were alone, he would push me to my brink and he loved to see me break down in tears. He cheated on me, of course, and when I found out, it was of course my fault. Who wanted to be around someone where you had constantly put out fires? Who wanted to be with someone when you had to walk on eggshells just to get along with them? I thought this is what I just had to accept – I was damaged goods after all. That’s what he told me. “You’re damaged goods, but I still love ya.”
The end came when he moved in with his ex-girlfriend on ‘friend’ basis. Despite everything, I wasn’t stupid and I didn’t want to share someone. As little as I thought of myself, I couldn’t let that go. I cut him off from me entirely, which he didn’t care as much about as his money train suddenly ending. Even more of his true colors came out. He threatened to kill me and my family. He would drive by my house and come to my work just because he could. Everyone told me to get a restraining order. I thought it was a game and giving him the attention like that would make it worse. Like a storm, it got worse before it got better. I was flooded with text messages and emails loaded with threats. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. I was being pushed to my breaking point.
And then there were those around me that thought it was my fault. I chose this man, after all. I couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to kill me; I was going to die on my own terms. Late one night, I took a bunch of pills and laid of the bathroom floor waiting for them to take effect. I sweated and got dizzy and wished I was dead, but didn’t. My body began to throw up what felt like everything I had ever eaten in my lifetime. I woke up on the bathroom floor weak, dehydrated, with by heart pounding in my ears. Since no one knew what had happened in that bathroom that night but me, I kept it a secret. I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t want to be in pain anymore.
Eventually, the harassment stopped and he found other things to occupy his time and I moved on. I never tried another relationship. Dating for fun, always checking out before they could be exposed to my condition. I went to school, worked and tried to live my life. It was a half life and I knew it, but I couldn’t be like everyone else and hope for those things everyone got to dream of. I accepted it and thought a life alone might be perfect for me. No one could hurt me and I couldn’t disappoint anyone else. When it came to my friends and family, I interacted face to face with them as little as possible. I used social media sites to keep up with everyone.
I did this for years until I received a message from a strange man. He seemed nice and he just wanted to ‘friend’ me. It was a new way of dating, I never had to present myself or try. We talked in a friendly manner for awhile getting to know the basics of each other. Eventually it evolved to text message where he invited me out for a ‘non-date’ at a local restaurant. I was hesitant. I didn’t leave the house much anymore unless I had to. Still, I was at heart a curious woman, so I accepted. We met and had dinner. We got along great. It was like a friend and I felt what I hadn’t felt before with anyone in my life safe. Still, he hadn’t seen the attacks, the panic, the fainting spells and I liked him and cared about him and wanted to keep him from that part of me. We laid on his couch one day and this man said, “You’re perfect,” as he rubbed my back. Most women would kill to hear something like that, but it scared me to my core. He was going to find out and never want to see me again. He was going to know I was damaged goods. It was going to be heartbreaking this time, but I continued on with the relationship and we began officially dating.
My first anxiety attack in front of him was during our first argument. It was a powerful one. I said terrible things. He stayed with me in the bedroom until I was crying and my body was physically breaking down. He put me to bed and made sure I ate something to keep up my strength. He asked me, “Why are you like this?” I remember weeping a little and saying, “I don’t know”. Surprisingly enough to me, we didn’t break up. We even moved in together a few months later. The first breakdown wasn’t the last. Even though he was angered at times, he always made sure I was taken care of. I hated that this was affecting someone that I loved so much. I considered leaving, but deep down I knew this was my soulmate. At the beginning of the next year, we were engaged and planned a small elopement in front of our parents in three short months. I knew I should’ve been happy. I felt the possibility of happiness, the real kind that I was convinced that I didn’t deserve.
For the first time in my life, I had insurance. I took a chance at went to see a psychiatrist. My breakdowns were getting worse and hurting my marriage. I sat down in this man’s office and I was nervous. The worst thing that could happen today was not to be told that I was crazy, but rather that there was nothing wrong with me as I had been told my whole life and he couldn’t help me. I sat down in front of this stranger and poured out the parts of myself I had kept hidden, the thoughts known only to me about my self worth. I was shaking; I tried to control it, but the tremors rolled through my body like waves. This man was slowly learning all my secrets, including my suicide attempt that even my husband didn’t know about. I related how I felt everyday, the constant waiting for the ball to drop or the floor to fall out below me. I talked about the panic attacks and my fear of them. The control they had gained over my body. When I was done, I was tearing up and he said that he could feel fear and anxiety radiating off of me like rays of light. It was clear from when I walked in that I was in pain and I needed help.
I took the greatest sigh I had ever taken in my life. He told me I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My mouth fell open. It was like being haunted by a ghost and finally learning it had a name. That meant no matter what anyone said, it was real. It was as much a part of reality as it was for me. He wrote me a prescription for two medications and said he’d see me in the month and to concentrate on any changes I felt. I was skeptical at best. I had tried medication before. What if it didn’t work? I took the medicine as prescribed for two weeks. Then one Sunday while doing laundry at the local laundromat (a chore I despise), I realized it wasn’t that bad. It was annoying, but I wasn’t having a migraine and it was something that had to be done. It was then that it occurred to me something wonderful had happened. My thought process had changed. I didn’t feel weak. The hole that everyone seemed to see through my whole life was closing. The medicine was working!
Before long, my husband said it was like living with a different person. I smiled more, I laughed more. Fear wasn’t the first thing I considered. I said ‘I love you’ more. The most important things was I was beginning to allow myself to be happy. I told the psychiatrist this when I went for my one month check up. He told me it was like meeting a new young woman, but I wasn’t done yet. There was no quick fix for me. There is no cure for anxiety disorders. He can only help me cope with them. He advised me to seek out a counselor. There were things that needed to come out. I had been holding painful memories inside for a quarter of a century and no medication could help me heal, but simply get me on the right track. So, I began to see a counselor. I felt the freedom to talk about everything, from my suicide attempt to what I discovered was an abusive relationship with my first boyfriend. It was liberating. I could talk without worrying that my struggles would hurt someone who cared about me. It gave me the strength to open up to my husband about part of my past that I kept hidden.
What I have learned from a lifetime of struggling with my inner self is that my anxiety and my disorders are a part of me. Like my brown hair, dry sense of humor, brutal honesty – they are a part of me that must be accepted. I stopped fighting and told myself it’s okay to not be perfect and to show weakness. My weakness has made me strong. Everything I have achieved I have had to fight twice as hard to get and I am now a strong person. A few days before my one year wedding anniversary, I got the word “hope’ tattooed on my back in teal – the awareness ribbon for Anxiety Disorder and specifically Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. ‘Mentally ill’ or ‘crazy’ or whatever you may want to call Tiffany, I am more than the sum of my parts. I don’t regret anything because I wouldn’t be me without it.
Featured image by ashley rose on Flickr