i’ve recently taken on a project to share, in advance of my 32nd birthday on November 9, what life has looked like (and how it currently looks) in terms of my battle with anxiety and depression.
i’ve written on anxiety before, but each day between October 29 and November 9, i’m offering snippets of my journey with anxiety and what it’s taught me. i’ll be posting each day on Instagram (find me @whatsarasaidblog) as well as on Facebook (What Sara Said).
i’ve already received numerous supportive comments that are so encouraging to me, and i’m so grateful that my story is resonating with people, both those who have their own experiences with anxiety and those who do not.
-What did your anxiety look like as a child?
Worrying about my dad getting hurt while lighting fireworks on the 4th of July. Overly concerned with mortality. Frequent and deeply felt homesickness. Obsessive personality, i.e. when I became interested in something, like a TV show or made a new friend, I was all in and just wanted to watch, just wanted to hang out with that person, etc. I would plan my days, even as a 9-year-old, so as to avoid any surprises.
-What did your anxiety look like as a teenager?
High-functioning, mostly. My anxiety drove me to high achievement. First chair flute as a freshman. Obsessed with grades my junior and senior years. Early admission to college.
But the darker side to my anxiety went largely unseen. I was consistently questioning the lasting power and the truth of the relationships I was having, both romantic and otherwise. I checked my behavior based on what I thought was appropriate or “cool,” and conformity moved beyond peer pressure for me into a more quietly obsessive drive.
-When did your anxiety first become a problem?
I first noticed that my anxiety had gotten more pronounced and difficult to manage when I was in graduate school. I was newly married, away from home for the first time…ever, new teacher, reading literature all the time and at unrealistically fast paces. The way my academic life operated before became unsustainable. Then, because my academic life was harder to manage, my daily life had to pick up the slack, so to speak, and it couldn’t – it buckled under the pressure. Then Jordan took me to see a therapist in February 2011.
– What did you learn in therapy that helped you cope with all of the changes in your life, namely marriage, a new town, and graduate school?
I learned to appreciate the value of a sounding board – a neutral person whose only job was to listen to me and to care about me. I learned that my anxiety, at least at this point, was rooted in perfectionism – I wanted to be all things to all people, and I didn’t realize, until I went to therapy for the first time in 2011, that I was setting my sights not simply on improbabilities, but on impossibilities. And I learned that no matter how badly I wanted to shed my high standards, they were buckled in for the ride with me – I still battle and fight against moving toward the unreachable today. And finally, I learned that medicine can help. I was prescribed a low-dose antidepressant, as well as an “emergency” pill to use in times of high stress.
– After seeking therapy and starting a low-dose medication regimen, did your anxiety improve? What role did medication play for you in helping you regain your health?
After a while, my emotions began to even out, and I felt comfortable and confident moving forward in my graduate studies, my teaching assistantship, my marriage – my LIFE – without the emergency medication in my purse. Jordan and I began to seriously discuss starting a family, and I discussed this huge decision in depth with my therapist as well. Approximately 7 months after I began taking medication, we were expecting our Lionel.
In light of my improving health and my pregnancy, together with my doctors’ counsel, I let my prescription on the “emergency medication” lapse, but I continued to take my daily low-dose anti-anxiety medication throughout my pregnancy with Lionel.
Taking a low-dose anti-anxiety medication on a daily basis allowed me to complete my graduate studies. It allowed me to re-engage in my marriage. It even allowed me to consider becoming a mother. And it allows me, still today, to be the mother and the wife and the Sara that I want to be.
– Was it a difficult decision to take medication while pregnant with Lionel and then again with Quincy?
I took medication for my anxiety during both of my pregnancies, with Lionel and with Quincy. While my doctors placed me on a different brand of medication during these time periods, so as not to adversely affect pregnancy and breastfeeding, my physicians didn’t hesitate to allow me to take medication, especially in light of its low dosage. I faithfully took my low-dose anxiety medication each morning of both of my sons’ entire existence, both on the inside and in the outside world.
When Quincy was born 3.5 weeks early, the NICU doctor pointed to my low-dose (50mg) medication as the culprit behind Quincy’s brief NICU stay. After much debate between me, my doctors and the NICU doctor, this claim was eventually eradicated from our medical records.Despite this painful misdiagnosis and the emotional turmoil that followed, if we decide to have another child eventually, I will not hesitate to continue taking my medication because I know that doing so saved me many times over. I didn’t experience post-partum depression with either kiddo, thankfully, but I did experience the expected swells and heightening of emotions after such a monumental life change like welcoming a child, and I feel confident that my medication helped me to better cope with these hormone-induced emotions.
– What coping strategies have helped you to manage your anxiety?
Hot bubble baths. Coloring with colored pencils. Holding Jordan’s hand. Candles flickering. Writing. Listening to memoirs written by inspiring women. The crackle of a fire in my fireplace. Long, tight-gripped hugs from Quincy. Walking my dog. Asking for help. The feeling of Lionel’s fingers rubbing my back. Reading fiction. Making plans. DIY projects with my brother.
– What kinds of thoughts run on a loop in your head when you’re feeling especially anxious?
You’re not enough.
The world doesn’t care what you have to say.
Saying “not right now” means “not ever.”
The world is the light, and I am the dark spot.
I’m never going to be as talented a writer as _______.
I’m never going to have a devoted blog following like _______.
I don’t have anything meaningful or interesting to say, so why would I write? Why would I blog?
My ______ only loves me because he/she is supposed to.
What I’ve learned about these looping thoughts is that they are distortions: untruths that I tell myself over and over until I believe them not only to be true, but to be integral to the very foundation of who I am.
But like bricks can be demolished and rebuilt into beautiful, strong structures, I work hard each day (and I fail a lot, let’s be real) to combat these thoughts, to rectify a more positive, kinder inner voice.
– Is your anxiety and depression really “that bad”? You always appear so [fill in the blank here, but what I typically hear is “happy,” “optimistic,” “bubbly,” “passionate,” “motivated” …]”
What I’ve learned as a result of conversations with my care providers is that anxiety and depression aren’t necessarily experienced the same way for everyone. While this may seem like common sense to someone reading this, I felt surprised and then relieved when I learned this.
As my post yesterday may have suggested, I’ve always struggled with thoughts of comparison, and these distortions have only increased my anxiety at times. Part of this tendency to compare myself to others, though, made me feel like I wasn’t “depressed” enough or that my life wasn’t “that bad” to require so much support from doctors or so much patience and love from family and friends. I was constantly asking myself, “Why can’t I just shake this? What I’m going through is just a normal day for some people, or is even a good day for others.”
But after many, many conversations with my primary doctor, other physicians, and my therapist, I finally understand that my brain operates uniquely and differently than other people, and even than other people who are living with anxiety and depression. What’s become so important for me, though, is to identify triggering factors and try to minimize them, as well as to develop coping strategies to mediate any anxious or depressed feelings I may be experiencing. In short, everyone’s anxiety or depression or whatever he/she is dealing with may not sound “that bad,” but only the person herself can truly know.
– Do you think you’ll always live with anxiety and depression? What do you hope that people understand about your personal struggle?
I’m not sure if I’ll be dealing with anxiety for the rest of my life. I am learning more about myself and who I am as a person living with anxiety, and as I’ve reflected on my past during this series, I’ve really noticed how my anxious feelings really developed as a child and have continued, in more or less severe capacities, throughout my life.
If I am a person who lives with anxiety and depression for the rest of my life, though, I’m at peace with that being my story; I feel oddly blessed to be able to share my experience and my truth with others, in hopes of inspiring authenticity in all aspects of life, the beautiful and the difficult, and embracing whatever our stories are.
Thank you to all of you for following along! Your words of kindness and support have been food to my soul.