It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, with a focus on anxiety, so I thought I’d share my personal story on the topic. Please know this is a hard thing for me to write because I’m opening up and sharing something upsetting and embarrassing to admit. But if sharing my pain can help someone else who isn’t able to share their own story, it’s worth it.
My anxiety issues began in the hours after my husband died. I’d never experienced anxiety before so didn’t know what it was. Of course, in those early days and weeks, my intense grief overshadowed everything else, so I didn’t even realise I was experiencing it. I just knew I was… broken. Really, really broken.
The full-on panic attacks began about a month after Paul died – just about the time that the immediate shock wore off. And because he died from a viral myocardial infarction, so unexpectedly and suddenly, I became convinced that the anxiety was a sign that my own heart was failing from the same viral infection. (It wasn’t. My heart was physically fine; emotionally it was wrecked and shattered beyond repair.)
It took about six months for the panic and anxiety to subside and then it stayed behind for quite some time. But the panic and anxiety didn’t stay away forever.
I’m no longer actively grieving, but because I spend so much time in isolation – and because I no longer have a trusted confidante to share my worries with – times of great stress and panic tend to bring up underlying grief. And that creates this horrible cycle of panic and fear and deeper grief.
And it all manifests itself into anxiety. Horrible, frightening, seemingly uncontrollable anxiety.
And then I feel weak. I feel like a failure who can’t handle stress and I start to hate myself for being so emotional.
And then the anxiety gets worse because I can’t console myself and I’m afraid that others around me will try to help by telling me to “not worry” or “calm down” or “it’s not a big deal”, or any number of other useless platitudes that make me feel like I’m crazy or blowing things out of proportion.
When all I really want is for someone to listen to me and to tell me that they’re there for me. All I really want is for someone to hold me and let me be an emotional mess. All I really want is for someone to reassure me that I am going to be OK; that they are there for me and I am not alone in the world.
Before widowhood, I managed my stress rather well. My outlook on life was generally positive and I knew that I could handle the worst that the world had to throw at me. Life was happy, even when it was hard, and I had a sunny disposition that would have made you want to vomit.
But after widowhood, my naive sense of a just and wonderful world was shattered. I finally knew how terrible and dark and miserable life could be and the lesson learned has stayed with me.
So when things start to look bad, I now imagine they will get worse. Because I know the world can get worse. I know that the world can close in on you so viciously that you pray and beg God on your knees to let you stop breathing; to let you drift away into the Afterlife so that you don’t have to feel the pain.
And when things start to get that bad, my heart pounds in my chest so badly that I think I might die. I wake in the middle of the night with stabbing pains in my chest, convinced I won’t see the morning.
I can’t breathe. I can’t eat. I can’t think. I can’t function.
But I pretend that I’m OK; I pretend that life is wonderful; I pretend I am happy.
Because if anyone knew how frightened I was, if anyone knew how weak and vulnerable I was, they might think less of me.
So I suffer my anxiety in silence because I fear the pity of others will make it worse. And I fear that if it gets worse, I won’t survive it.
And then, whatever was causing my stress is over. And like the aftermath of a summer storm, the skies clear up and the rain dries. And before I know it, I’m basking in the warmth of the glowing sun. My smile has returned to my face; joy has returned to my heart.
I’ve forgotten all about the pain of the anxiety and life is normal and happy again.
So, that’s my personal anxiety story. As hard as it is to admit it.
Note: If you know me personally, please know I don’t wish to talk about this; I’m too frightened to admit my weaknesses face-to-face. But if you know I’m in the midst of a stressful time, and I seem a bit scattered, feel free to invite me out to do something fun and social – that will help to distract and de-stress me and if I’m feeling comfortable later, I’ll open up. That’s just the way my brand of crazy works. Thank you.