What is anxiety? Anxiety is being around your family member, very much alive and happy, and having constant intrusive thoughts about the day they’re going to die and how you’re going to survive that…
Anxiety is preparing entire defence arguments in your head in case someone verbally attacks you, so that you’re ready to defend yourself at any moment. Anxiety is walking into a room, hearing people laugh and being persuaded they’re laughing at you, even though they have no idea who you are and probably haven’t even noticed you.
Anxiety is getting ready for the worst case scenario, every day. Anxiety is polluting your moments of most authentic happiness with worry. Anxiety is stopping yourself from feeling deep happiness for fear that it disappears at any second. Anxiety is downplaying love or emotional attachment for fear of it being broken. Anxiety is shutting yourself out from the world as to not be hurt by it but desperately craving connection, all at once.
Anxiety is anticipating pain and disaster based on past experiences. It is not being able to breathe when you think about certain places, people, events. It’s not being able to sleep at 3AM but already being awake at 6AM. Anxiety is thinking that it never gets better and that this is all life’s ever going to be. Or worse. But I’ll tell you what anxiety is not.
Anxiety is not the first day of spring blossoms, when the air is so fragrant you start breathing deeper and smiling despite yourself. Anxiety is not the tight hug of your best friend when they tell you that they are there for you, no matter what. Anxiety is not the belly-aching laughter that erupts after a silly joke. Anxiety is not love.
But anxiety is real and can often go unnoticed for years until the symptoms become too overwhelming. Anxiety is treatable and it does get better. With the right support system. With the right therapeutic approach. With the space to be listened to and to feel and to be human in all of our complicated glory.
I was always the ‘high achiever’
Ever since I was a child, a heavy expectation has been placed upon my shoulders – the expectation to be the best at everything I did, all of the time. And so I was – I raked academic achievements the way other teenagers and young adults would rake shots at an afterparty. Top of the class, top of the school, Dean’s List, Best Student Award, then several promotions within the first year of my new job.
Already at 15 years old I started having panic attacks due to the incredible pressure and the accumulated stress I was denying I was even under. I thought they went away, but never permanently. And even as to the outside world, it looked as though I was an incredibly successful young adult, on my way to a brilliant career, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. Like I wasn’t doing enough, like I wasn’t being enough. The achievements, although definitely helpful on a CV, felt shallow and unfulfilling.
Then my life tipped upside down
At the beginning of 2020, everything came to a stop and life as I knew it was over. I lost the most meaningful relationship of my entire life and a few months later, I had to give up my London flat and move out, as all event and photography jobs I had coming up got cancelled because of the pandemic.
It felt like everything I had worked so hard to build up from scratch ever since I was a teenager got blown away like a house of cards within seconds. With no job stability, no relationship and no end of the pandemic in sight, I found myself succumbing to a deep, soul crushing depression and suicidal ideation that lasted nearly a year.
All of my previously repressed symptoms flared up, begging to be healed. I couldn’t fall asleep for months without sobbing into my pillow. I was having nightmares that only contributed to my anxiety. When I would wake up, early in the morning, I often couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating so fast as though I’d just run a race and I was terribly scared. The days were all blurring into one another and the nights offered no comfort.
Depression and anxiety are an explosive combo on any given day, but suffering from both and from panic attacks during a pandemic is a particularly daunting experience. I couldn’t escape physically because of the lockdown restrictions and as I don’t do drugs or drink much alcohol, I couldn’t escape mentally either. I was stuck with no exit from my thoughts or my grief for months.
I began to heal
My healing process was gradual. It was really hard. But it was so so worth it. And now looking back on it, I’m so grateful that I didn’t have any ways to escape or distract myself from the pain because it forced me to really look at it, at its origins and to heal it. A baptism by fire. Sink or swim, if you will.
I was forced to confront all of my childhood traumas. I was forced to see my upbringing and its deficits under a brand new light. I was forced to realise that although my family loved me and wished the best for me, they were also unhealed and so they passed their own pain, expectations and misplaced desires onto me. I was forced to acknowledge that you can have the best intentions in your heart and still emotionally abuse someone that you love, even when you don’t mean to.
Understanding my family dynamics and reframing my childhood traumas finally shed some light on why my anxiety, depression and panic attacks were there in the first place. Doing this work helped me to create a safe space within my body that is so strong and so sacred that I no longer look for external validation or measure myself by any standards except my own.
I realised that all of my professional achievements were a desperate bid for genuine love and connection. It was truly a revelation to finally acknowledge in my body that everything I did, I did out of a need for love.
So, for the first time in my life, I gave myself permission to do absolutely nothing and to not feel guilty for it. To make no plans for the future, to not work on my career, to just be, day by day. And it became a miraculous practice.
The sad, abandoned, unloved child within me was receiving my full attention for the first time in her life. There was no guilt, no shaming, no judgment. There was just listening to what would make her joyful, even a little bit, on any given day. It included not doing any house chores for several weeks. It included leaving behind any ‘adulting’, simply opting out of it. It included spending entire days playing video games with cute animals in them. It included going from feeling guilty for existing and feeling like I need to help save the entire planet to not caring about anything except my well being, for those first few months of healing.
It no longer controls my life
And it really worked. I felt safe and justified in expressing all of the anger that has been quietly festering inside of me for years. Anger at my lost childhood. At having to become incredibly responsible at the age of 11 due to my family’s circumstances changing. At having to be ‘the perfect child’, the one that never caused any trouble, the one that did everything so well, it was almost as though she was parenting herself. Anger at the fact that even though I did everything as perfect as I could, it still wasn’t enough to keep the person that I loved the most in my life. Anger at how unfair and incomprehensible life was, even though I did my very best to follow its rules and be ‘good’.
Once the anger had subsided because it was finally expressed, the healing followed. My panic attacks stopped completely. So did my anxiety and depression related symptoms. I sleep like a baby. I’m joyful most days. I’ve made friends with my grief over my lost relationship, lost flat, lost jobs. I’m still sad occasionally, but because I now always acknowledge my sadness instead of pushing it down and forcing myself to be ‘productive’, it no longer controls my life. Any physical symptoms I’d previously had have disappeared.
Healing is not linear. You may think you’ve healed from something ages ago and be surprised when it pops back up again, in full force. The best thing you can do, is offer yourself as much compassion as you would a three year old child. Because the wounded part of us hasn’t aged and until we are ready to fully accept what it is trying to tell us, it will keep on nudging us, sometimes not so subtly.
I hope that my journey is of some comfort to you and that it gives you hope that healing is possible for you too, dear reader. If you are or having been suffering from anxiety or depression throughout your life, I see you. You are so so strong. Thank you for still being here and being human with us, despite how hard it is at times.