I’ve been wanting to write something extensive about this for a long, long time so… get a snack and settle in.
My earliest vivid memories of dealing with anxiety in any form start somewhere around the age of 12, though I’m sure I had some lesser experiences before that. I occasionally had instances where I felt compelled to check the locks on the doors before going to bed (and checking them multiple times) but it wasn’t a regular thing. But every night for weeks I would try to make sure I went to bed before all the neighbors’ lights I could see out my bedroom window were off. Most nights this wasn’t a problem — I could see at least one house’s lights on and somehow it comforted me knowing other people were awake, even if they were strangers. The few nights that I went to bed while the street was dark I felt a very clear sense of panic and had trouble falling asleep, even though rationally I knew it had no effect on me.
My anxiety and panic attacks didn’t come into full swing until I was 15. My father passed away fairly quickly and totally unexpectedly that year, in August (more on that in a future blog post). I fully admit that I never dealt with that grief and shock, and still haven’t to this day (I’m currently 27). It was several months after his death — I think late the following spring or maybe early summer. I remember that my Mom was going on a date with someone… her first since he had passed. If I remember correctly it was someone she had met online, and she had plans to meet him for dinner that night. I was home alone with my brother, Gray, and his friend Jordan. Out of nowhere it just felt like I couldn’t breathe very well — I could breathe but only shallowly, I couldn’t get a full breath. The knowledge of this, the perceived danger, the confusion, the attempts (and failures) to achieve a full breath… all of them compounded on each other and threw me into a full state of panic. I remember telling my brother that I had to get some fresh air and we walked up and down the street, but I couldn’t calm down. He didn’t understand what was happening and was too distracted by his friend — he was only 11 at the time — so he couldn’t help me. I remember just pacing the downstairs of our house trying to take my mind off it, but I was convinced something was terribly wrong with me. I ended up calling our family friend Bridget for help, and she called my Mom, who thankfully came right home to be with me. It took several hours of talking before I could finally calm down, and afterwards I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Shaky, starving, emotionally and physically exhausted. It was terrifying. At the time I couldn’t connect the two events — now it seems so logical that I wasn’t emotionally dealing with anything in my life, least of all my father’s death and my mother’s attempts to move on.
My anxiety continued throughout highschool, though not always so severe. I am fairly easily triggered by people and settings even to this day, so if, for example, I had a mild panic attack in history class, simply going back into the same classroom with the same people and the same teacher would trigger at least slight feelings of anxiety for me. I will also occasionally get the “vague sense of impending doom” during a panic attack — I remember one time I was simply walking through Hannaford with a friend and suddenly it was as if I was thrown backwards through a tunnel. I felt like death or something equally terrible were imminent, though I couldn’t explain how or why. I felt like I was larger than everything around me and that realization just escalated my fears. It’s a completely surreal experience.
At some point late in highschool my Mom suggested that I see a therapist. She actually didn’t know much about my anxiety so it was mostly an attempt to help me deal with the grief about my father. I finally caved, found a therapist downtown, and went. I started crying almost the minute I started talking and cried for the entire hour about… I don’t even remember what. I remember walking out of there with an odd smile on my face and a bounce in my step and the absolute determination that therapy wasn’t for me.
Since I graduated my anxiety has changed forms many times. It comes and it goes. It surprises me with new symptoms. Sometimes it’s completely, easily controllable and sometimes it’s entirely chaotic. But hindsight is always 20/20. I can look back at periods in my life and easily pinpoint why the anxiety was so prevalent (or why it was seemingly nonexistent). But when I’m in the middle of it? Not so easy to decipher. I had a long streak of happy jobs and a busy but relatively stress-free life and very, very few anxiety-related attacks. Working retail, amazingly enough, will do that to you. For me, my work and related stress was contained in a place I could visit (or not). When I left, I was done — home was its own thing. Things aren’t quite so simple now.
My last retail job before starting my photography business was at Ace Hardware. I had quit Whole Foods with a job lined up but it fell through at the last minute and I was fairly desperate. My father-in-law is the general manager of two Ace Hardware stores in Scarborough and he let me have a job. The whole process of things changing and not going as I planned and the added pressure of working for my father-in-law (and alongside my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, soon-to-be-brother-in-law, and then-fiance) were a bit too much for me. It was this period — May of 2008 — that my panic attacks decided to take the form of heart palpitations. I had always had the occasional palpitation but this was much more intense, and more frequent. I would generally wake up feeling mostly okay but by mid-morning I’d have regular palpitations and they would continue (and escalate) through early evening, finally slowing and calming down completely around bedtime. I kept trying to tell myself it was just the new job, just the hot summer weather, just more physical activity that I was used to, but I had this feeling that I couldn’t shake and visited a cardiologist. It felt a little odd to be in a waiting room surrounded by people in their 60’s and 70’s but I was convinced that something had to be wrong with me. The doctor gave me an EKG, tested my blood pressure, sent me off for a round of blood tests, and hooked me up with a 24-hour Holter monitor. I was instructed to return in a week to go over the results, and I counted down the days like I was due for the firing squad.
When I came back, he actually chuckled. Told me I was as healthy as he’d expect a 22-year-old to be. My EKG had no abnormalities, my blood cell counts were all perfect, my cholesterol was downright amazing… and my Holter monitor showed that my palpitations coincided exactly with my anxious feelings (and stopped entirely when I slept). Nothing to fear. That one doctor’s visit was the cause for my panic attacks stopping dead in their tracks for a solid 2 years or so. I was able to confidently tell myself that the palpitations were nothing to worry about, and when I did, there was no anxiety to fuel their fire. It was amazing (and totally worth the $1,000+ my uninsured self paid for those visits).
But good things can only last so long and around 2010 or 2011 my panic and anxiety returned. Nothing crazy, just the normal attacks. During the winter of 2012 I went into full blown depression. It was only a 3 week span or so, but I was miserable. I cancelled everything I had scheduled (which, being winter for a photographer in Maine, wasn’t much). I rarely left the house. I didn’t shower. My panic attacks around this time decided to manifest in the form of difficulty swallowing (due to the tightness in my throat and chest) so I rarely ate. I dropped 10 pounds in the span of a week. I was constantly on edge, constantly tired, constantly bitter and panicked and hopeless. My marriage was suffering — Nate didn’t know how to help or how to make things better. He felt useless. He couldn’t understand what I was going through and it frustrated me and made me feel like I was beyond help, beyond understanding. I finally realized I needed to do SOMETHING so I found a therapist. Simply having the outlet helped immensely, and soon things improved.
Since that point I’ve only had one other longer span of attacks, in the spring and early summer of this year. I have lots of health anxiety so anytime something is off with my body — even if I know it’s normal and totally explainable — I tend to feel anxious. I was having bad allergies thanks to the start of spring and I was mildly stuffed up for several weeks. This made my mind focus overtime on that one symptom and had me convinced that I couldn’t breathe well, which often spurred mild panic attacks (and a few more intense ones). It would get worse at night when my body would try to relax. I would be on the couch watching TV or a movie and as my body tried to drift off to sleep, my shallower breathing paired with the stuffiness would make me jerk awake as if I was falling. My anxious feelings even crept into a few photo shoots and weddings, places I am usually safe — generally the adrenaline and the focus on something outside of my own self helps immensely, but not this time. It’s a scary place to be — to think that even your normal safe spaces are being invaded.
None of this even touches on my OCD and germophobe tendencies. I don’t remember exactly when these started — as I mentioned, I had some OCD tendencies dating back to around 12 years old — but I think they really came into full play a few years ago. My “routines” vary but almost entirely center around hand washing (generally just before eating) and bedtime (mostly checking the door locks). I can oddly separate myself from the hand washing when I’m out in public — which is odd, because restaurants statistically have way more bacteria than my own home — but it still comes out occasionally. If you’ve spent time with me, you know I have no less than 2 or 3 bottles of Purell or something similar on or near me at any given time. My hand washing and door checking all also tie into counting routines… and those counting routines also come out when I am changing the volume on the TV, changing the volume in the car, doing anything that requires numbers that I can control (they need to be even). My bedtime routine has evolved many times over the past couple years but has involved counting how many times I check the side door, counting how many times I check the front door, doing certain things in a specific order, petting the cats a certain number of times, folding my clothes in a specific way… it can be exhausting. Lately I am trying to do some exposure therapy on myself — lessening my counting routines or skipping certain steps to show myself that the world doesn’t come crashing down if I ignore the impulses. But it’s hard to resist.
I think ultimately it’s so important to realize how many people suffer from various forms of these disorders on a daily basis. As much as people might seem put together and carefree, they could be struggling underneath that facade. So many people can’t slow their minds down, can’t focus on a simple subject, can’t ignore their impulses no matter how much they interfere with their lives. People struggle with feeling inferior, with feeling broken, with feeling like they’ve been damaged beyond repair. People struggle with feeling crazy, with feeling insecure. They struggle to scrape together the money they need for therapy if they lack insurance, or if their insurance doesn’t cover it. I know myself that I’ve been out of therapy for years now because it seems like a luxury I can’t justify, even though what could be more justifiable than my strength of mind?
Anxiety and depression and suicidal tendencies and everything that falls under the very broad umbrella of mental disorder is seen so often as an embarrassment, as something that should be kept under wraps, as something that will make us appear weak. But I say fuck that. We all have our struggles and this is mine. I would rather talk out about it, share my experiences, expose my tenderness, and hopefully inspire someone… at the very least inspire them to just put their own story out there. To reach out for help, even if it’s just opening up to a friend or family member. You don’t have to suffer alone. You’re not weak. You’re not less than. You’re not broken. You’re struggling and you’re human and you’ll get through this.