I woke up one day to find a demon sleeping next to me. Mom and Dad dismiss it as hormones. But they do not see my demon. In the morning I leave him like a lover. I try not to look back. I lock the doors, I bar the windows. But somehow his darkness always finds its way back.
I couldn’t have been older than seven when I had my first attack. I remember sitting on the couch, watching oversaturated animated characters float across the TV screen. Suddenly I started shaking as if I swallowed a mug of lightning bolts. The world shifted in and out of focus as my mind buzzed with a million different thoughts. What was this unhinged feeling and was I just nervous for something and did I eat something weird earlier that day and maybe it was all in my head and and and I was dying. This was going to kill me—I was convinced of that fact. I began shaking so violently that I kicked a bowl of soup out of my mother’s hands. Barely able to get the words out from between gulps of air, I quietly asked my parents to drive me to the hospital. The diagnosis fell heavy: anxiety disorder.
Calmed by Xanax, I lie on my bed while the full moon watches over me. I was a woman possessed. Attacks still call to me in hushed whispers. They are waiting for me with open arms and sharp razors. Like thieves, they are always looking for the easiest way in.
Ever since that first panic attack, my anxiety has lingered in varying degrees of severity. But it has never been worse than one summer when I was a teenager. I was working at a summer camp teaching math, reading, and writing skills to elementary and middle school kids. For the month and a half that I worked there, my heart was so full. But for a month and a half, when I got home from work, the dark thoughts in my head consumed me. It started with a small seed that eventually grew. Every. Single. Night.
I called in “sick” almost every morning.
“Sorry, not feeling too great today! Will be in around noon.”
How could I explain to my boss that I was a different person at night from the bubbly camp counselor she knew during the day?
For me, the disorder centered on the idea of death. Every ache in my head meant that I had a brain tumor. Every crick in my neck meant meningitis. I could not drive my car without calling my mom on speakerphone. I would talk to her about what I had done that day, the homework piling up, anything else in an attempt to distract me from the obvious fact that I was going to crash and die before getting home. Mental illness convinces you that your irrational thoughts are the only logical conclusion.
I started going to therapy. Immediately, it seemed, things were improving. I remember driving my car without calling my mom, still hyperventilating the whole ride, but feeling like I had climbed Mount Everest by the time I got home, out of breath and glowing with pride. The buzzing in my mind finally slowed down and my life was no longer slipping through my hands like sand through a sieve. It was a false victory. I soon fell into the worst depression I have ever experienced. I was doomed to feel this way for the rest of my life, only existing in the liminal spaces in between anxiety attacks, in the breath before an exhale. In the heavy quiet of a room after the party is over, in the darkness of the horizon the instant before a downpour.
Anxiety is like an animal that is never satiated; it is dumb like a child, wild and growing and never willing to forgive. It is feeling someone follow you down a dark sidewalk but turning around to find your own shadow. Like an asymmetrical rock I hold in my hands, like a plant that has suddenly decided to bloom. I am swirling around the drain of life. In the morning I leave him like a lover. I try not to look back. I lock the doors, I bar the windows.
Finally, over time, therapy helped. I started to deconstruct my thoughts, to realize that they had no bearing on what could or would actually happen to me. I do not even want to imagine where my mental health would be without my therapist. Still, I find myself mourning for the life I could have had without anxiety. Sometimes I feel it like a missing appendage—all the time that could have been spent with family, with friends, fully present.
Today I can barely remember the last time I had an anxiety attack—something I never thought I would have the privilege of saying. I know I have achieved some sort of victory, but some battles are worse than others. I still deal with the overwhelming darkness that always sits on my shoulders, the heavy burden of being a host to my grief. Some days are full-blown wars. Mental illness is not a battle that can be folded and put away neatly. But there is triumph in not fighting some of the battles, in laying down my weapons and realizing how I feel will always pass. There is triumph in asking for help. There is triumph in just getting through another day.