Following what was a very happy and pleasant childhood, I spent much of my young adulthood being afraid. The fear had no real focus. I was simply afraid of the multiple unknowns in my future. That fear was compounded by my fear of feeling scared again when the anxiety would finally pass. What I never anticipated during those years is that I would one day be grateful for this experience because it forced me to develop a way to cope and get on with life.
The first time I was struck by crippling anxiety and depression I was 19 and had just begun university. There were no obvious triggers for these feelings and I’d never experienced them before. Nothing bad was happening in my life other than the change of leaving home and starting university. After all, I was no stranger to this kind of change. Three years prior at the age of 16, I had gone on a 3-month exchange by myself to live with a family in Germany. Apart from some normal homesickness, that experience had been wonderful.
The anxiety hit me about 3 weeks into September, and it was so bad that I could barely sleep because my body would just wake itself up every time I drifted off. I lost my appetite because my stomach hurt all the time. When I went home at Thanksgiving, I fell apart. My mother who was a nurse recognized my clinical signs not only because of her work experience, but because she too had dealt with these feelings as a young woman. She took me to the hospital where they basically told me to see my family doctor because I wasn’t suicidal. Eventually under the care of a lovely doctor at the university, I started taking some medications that helped to loosen fear’s grip on me. I remember asking her, “What will I do if something truly awful happens in my life? If I can’t handle even these small changes, then how will I ever cope with an unexpected tragedy or even just life when it actually gets hard?” I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that I had to learn to focus on the day at hand and to reign in my racing mind that would not stop.
I think the worst thing I remember from that time was not being able to just be. As hard as it was to start each day because the anxiety was the worst in the morning, if I wasn’t busy my thoughts would just overwhelm me. There was no true escape. I remember thinking that depressed people just stayed in bed all day and slept, but for me depression made it almost impossible to sleep and being alone just gave my mind time to spiral. I made it through my classes by swallowing quarters and halves of lorazepam tablets that I carried everywhere I went. I got through that first semester of university thanks to my boyfriend (now husband of 21 years), my family and a few new friends from my floor at residence.
By the time the next semester began, I felt much better, but I was cautious. Although fear no longer dictated my every action, it was there in the shadows. I guess I had good reason to fear the fear because the following fall I had a relapse of symptoms and started the process of digging out of it again. Essentially, I had episodes of bad depression and anxiety for the next 10 years. Every time I felt good, I’d forget to take my medication and then I’d question what the point was of taking it if I felt fine. But unexpectedly, the bad feelings would return, and I would spiral down, questioning my ability to be a good teacher, a good wife, a good mother. Sometime after the birth of my first child when I was finally being followed by a psychiatrist, he looked at me and told me I’d be on medication of some kind for my mental health for the rest of my life. I felt defeated but also relieved because the responsibility was taken out of my hands to a certain degree. It was also at this time that I decided it was time to give therapy a proper go. The therapy allowed me to begin to take some control over my thoughts. I learned to see them as just thoughts, not synonymous with me as a person and not a reflection of my worth. I started to journal my thoughts and see patterns of negativity that I could then try to turn around.
All the truly bad things in my life have happened in the last 10 years. My mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2009. She needed surgery and several rounds of strong chemotherapy and radiation that took a lot out of her and my dad. Her cancer reared its ugly head again in 2015 when we learned she had broken two vertebrae very high up in her spine because the cancer had spread to her bones. Again, I experienced intense fear, but this time the fear had a focus, and I was surprised to find that I could channel the fear into purpose. For 6 months I helped my mother take a shower a few times a week during which time her neck brace would need to be removed and then carefully replaced. I was terrified the entire time. Helping her through this time showed me my fear could be channeled into purposeful action.
My mother showed me how to face fear. She endured incredible pain and illness during the last years of her life as she tried different drug therapies, was hospitalized twice due to complications and nearly died after a horribly intense bout of shingles. Each time she rallied and came back to enjoy as many moments with her family and friends as she could.
The time for me draw on this strength came in early 2017 when my daughter who was just shy of her 10th birthday suffered a massive brain hemorrhage out of nowhere. The fear surrounding this event was on a different level and is a topic to be explored in a different post, but it brings me back to why I became grateful that I’d learned to live with fear.
Many times during the years of my mother’s illness, I could feel my anxiety try to pull me under, but I used my experience and focus to bring me back to the day at hand and push through the fear. This wasn’t always easy or perfectly successful, but I managed to avoid the truly debilitating episodes of my twenties and thirties.
In a most unexpected but strangely welcome way, fear taught me how to manage fear.
Part time teacher of French & Spanish, full time mother and wife. I love walking my dog, reading and travelling with my family when the world isn’t in the grips of a pandemic. If hoarding ever becomes truly necessary it will be coffee I stockpile, not toilet paper.
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