I want to take back the joy of doing mindless things without worrying about what I’m doing next. I want to take a walk without having my phone on me so I can obsess over the time. I want to remember what it’s like to be mindful. I want to be able to get through writing this paragraph without setting a reminder in my phone to do something five days from now. I want to be in a place where I trust myself to get through my to-do list without obsessing over it. I want to be in a mental space not consumed by the to-do list. I am more than the to-do list.
I want to be present when my Mom is recounting the events of her day when we go out to lunch and shopping without thinking about how what she’s saying to me affects my life, what I have to do because of it and if her words are a personal attack against me. I miss not convincing myself every day that every human that I interact with hates me. Not every person I engage in conversation with “sees through my mask and knows that I’m an imposter”. I want to get back in a place where I believe my words, so that I can convince others that my points are valid, and that I’m valid.
I miss being so engaged in a moment with someone that I look deep in their eyes and feel what they’re saying in my soul. I miss making solid connections with others that aren’t masked by self-doubt and thoughts that try to convince me that they just feel bad for me. I miss being so lost in a conversation that I lose where I am in the time-space continuum. I want to forget where I am and be okay with it. I want to lose myself in a moment and come up for air feeling refreshed, not anxious.
I don’t remember what its like to be happy with where I am in life. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be negatively motivated by my works and accomplishments. I don’t remember the last time I took a break after I accomplished something and just relished in my own awesomeness. Better yet, I don’t remember the last time I accepted a compliment. Can’t I just acknowledge that I’m a force to be reckoned with? Rather than accept my flaws, can’t I accept my skills?
I want to take back the joy of driving. I miss the days when I would lose my mind to the music on the radio and burn the images of the scenery surrounding me in my head. I didn’t need a GPS, I just remembered what turn I made when the new Beyonce song came on the radio. Car rides were a thing I looked forward to. I relieved the little stress I had from the day as Ryan Seacrest’s voiced carried me up and down hills.
I used to have my greatest ideas while driving and in the shower. Now I have my greatest anxieties. I used to dwell on exciting future possibilities like running into my crush at the corner store. I would think about what I would say to them to make them fall in love with me. Some were highly unrealistic, some were closer to reality. I used to think I was psychic when my fantasies came true, and I really did see my crush at the 7/11. Now, I dwell on future possibilities that aren’t so bright. I think about what I would do if I lost my job or my apartment. I make back-up plans in the shower instead of far-off fantasies.
Life is more than the to do list. I am more than the to-do list. I am more than my accomplishments. I am capable of enjoying little moments again. I am capable of enjoying life again.
I first moved out of my parent’s house in September of 2017. Technically, I had been living away for the four years prior to that as well. I moved into my college dorm four years earlier in August 2013. I came home on the weekends and on breaks more my freshman year, but as I came into my own and started making more friends, I stayed on campus more. I couldn’t help but feel like I was Hannah Montana, living a double life. My home life was stagnant. The people appeared to be the same as they were my whole life. Those people in my life represented my past. They represented who I thought I was and what the world was up until that point. My friends at school opened me up to new ways of thinking that I had never considered before, nor knew were a possibility. My professors, supervisors, friends and peers at school represented what life could be from that point on.
I became very good at compartmentalizing. I didn’t think that these two worlds could combine. Meet the Hannah Montana-type feelings. School Nikki was one girl, home Nikki was another. The idea of these two worlds colliding made me very anxious. Anxiety was a thing I finally was giving words to that I had felt my whole life. In fact, there were many new words for me for sensations that were so close to me my whole life, but not close enough to give a name to. One of these new notions I adopted through my college exposure was that strictly compartmentalizing parts of my life isn’t healthy. Another realization I had was that I never unpacked the trauma of enduring a 2-year emotionally abusive relationship. I didn’t have a word for that either – the only words I had for myself were the words he gave to me: “ugly”, “stupid”, “liar” and “bad girlfriend”. I also never came to terms with many things that were true about me, like my sexuality.
I’m not sure where it started. Was it the Catholic guilt? Was it the guilt of attending a private, catholic school and always feeling a little too “different”? Was it the pressure of being an only child? Was it the abusive relationship? Whatever it was, it was deeply buried in my body because I didn’t know what I was going through or how to explain what I was feeling until the pain started leaving my body through my chest one day. It was Halloween 2017 weekend in Salem, Massachusetts. I was hosting a massive Halloween party at my apartment that night, and was driving to pick up my boyfriend. I started feeling chest pains that were simultaneously sharp and dull. I thought, “this happens sometimes, they’ll go away in a few hours”. They didn’t go away, however.
I went to urgent care the next morning and they did all sorts of tests on me to rule out anything serious. Everything was ruled out, thankfully. I wanted to know what was going on with me, however. I remember falling asleep every night during that period thinking that I wasn’t going to wake up. I occasionally would get heart flutters from time to time. My heart would beat out of my chest for a few minutes at a time. I’ve been to the doctors for it with no diagnoses but an actual helpful hint to clench down to make it stop. I was sure that these pains and those flutters were related, and that those were the two factors that would lead to my premature death.
It turns out, however, that the flutters were panic attacks, and the pains were a psychosomatic form of anxiety. I had to find out the hard way, from a doctor that is entirely indebted to “big pharma”. The Monday after Halloween weekend, my arm started going numb. See, this didn’t help my “I’m going to die” complex. I scheduled an urgent care appointment with my PC who couldn’t care less about seeing me. I told her my story – the pains, the persistence, the Sunday urgent care. She asked me if I had anxiety. Hearing that word took me aback. It’s like that word was a stranger approaching my side of the street with a weapon at night. I couldn’t run away quick enough. I had heard the word, but never thought that it would be a part of my life, let alone my identity.
While I was processing all this, she was at the computer informing me that she needed to get the lorazepam order in before 5PM, and it was currently 4:55. Five minutes. Five minutes for me to re-evaluate my entire life before this appointment, and imagine living my entire future life with diagnosed anxiety. I had no words. I wanted help, but five minutes is a short amount of time to unpack 22 years of mental health stigma in. I agreed to put in for ten low-dose lorazepam to take “as needed”. After speaking about this with friends, I learned that lorazepam is a highly addictive benzo that I should absolutely NOT take willy-nilly, and that it’s technically a sedative. It would only be useful if I wanted to sleep.
Needless to say, it took me a few months to actually seek a mental health professional for help. What gave me the final push? Suicidal ideations. When asked on the phone by the person performing my triage if I had ever had suicidal ideations, the “yes,” that came out of my mouth was like the stranger on the sidewalk at night again. I was scared enough to get help.
I wish it didn’t take me being afraid for my physical health to get mental health help. However, I’m just happy that I did. Society puts constant pressure on us to: be our best self all the time and to never need help. We’re actually encouraged to help others all of the time, and looked down upon if we don’t. With the combination of society’s stigma around mental illness, and its expectation for us to always be “on”, a recipe presents itself for much-needed help being put off.
That was almost my exact concoction for waiting, plus the fear of judgment. Would my friends and family judge me? My employer? The mental health professional I would be seeing?
You most likely won’t find your perfect therapist the first time. I didn’t. I don’t have a horror story, but there were a few barriers between me and the ideal therapy experience. I didn’t feel completely comfortable being honest. I didn’t lie, but I feel like we didn’t relate to each other enough. There were a few parts of her personality that added to this barrier. She wouldn’t let me get my full thought out without jumping in with her take on it, and she always told me her experience with what I was going through. There were times where we would just get into a normal conversation, and I couldn’t help but think that it was a waste of time, just going off on a tangent. Yes, you should be friendly to your therapist, but those 45 minutes are precious, and expensive.
The main reason I went there, anxiety, was dealt with through workbooks. I didn’t mind them, but it wasn’t exactly the intervention I was looking for. The exercises were very helpful, but that’s something I could’ve done on my own. I also was suggested to use apps like Calm and Headspace when I asked for tools to help me deal with anxiety. I learned that the meme of therapists asking if you’ve ever tried meditating was real.
I also may have had a wrong idea of what therapy was due to the media. It wasn’t me airing my complaints to a man in a tweed jacket on a grey chaise lounge. Perhaps I let my idea of what therapy would be cloud my judgement of my experience. I do feel like I’m in a better headspace now, and have some, albeit not as many as I’d like, tools to help me deal. I do find myself doing more things that I wouldn’t have done before. I’m in a space right now where I’m doing “exposure therapy”. I’m pulling a Nike and just doing things that make me anxious. I’ve recently started a new job in a new field, doing my work for a totally new company that is very different than my old one. If that isn’t exposure therapy, I don’t know what is.
My greatest takeaway from therapy was the analytical mind I gained. I always knew to be a smart consumer when it came to decoding messages from the media and advertising, and I am now doing that with my own mind. If I have a negative thought about myself, I ask myself why I am have that thought, and where it came from. Realizing that I’m not “stuck”, and that I don’t have to live in the trap that anxiety built for me has been relieving.
Once I ended therapy, I moved to a new city and started a new job. These are the events that originally triggered my anxiety even more and made me want to seek therapy. This time, it was met with mostly happiness and self introspection. The first three weeks here, I questioned my anxious thoughts instead of believing them as much. I had a lot of alone time because I was working part-time remotely. Usually, I fill my days with activities to avoid my thoughts. Instead, this time, I did a lot of work on myself and analyzed my thoughts.
Even though my first therapist wasn’t ideal, she still helped me face a lot of things about myself. I’ve become more comfortable with many parts of my personality that I was so uncomfortable with before that I just denied. I’ve allowed parts of myself to come out to the world, and have invited others to accept them. The hardest part was inviting myself to accept them. I think that starting to overcome my anxiety has contributed to becoming more comfortable with myself.
Overcoming anxiety and accepting yourself is not easy. Reaching out for help is not easy. I hope that sharing my story with you showed you that starting your journey of working on your mental health is worth it. The fix is not quick and easy, it takes a while. I’ve only started my journey. Although this is part of my story, it does not end here.
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