Tonight, in search for an inspiring topic to post about, I pulled out my good ol’ fashioned handwritten journal to see if there were any ideas in there appropriate for broadcasting to the public sphere, when I stumbled on this little snippet:
Dear Future Self,
I hope you are returning to these pages to remember with fond nostalgia the hard/painful/anxious/naive/stupid days of your past. Please have pulled your shit together and be here to record happy memories and success stories. I’ll leave the details up to you, but I hope they’re exciting.
That was written the night before I started my first class as a Mechanical Engineering student, and in classic Jessica fashion I was freaking out a little.
Something I would like to explore with this blog is the issue of anxiety. It’s personal and a little scary to throw out there into the vast series of tubes that is the internet, but I think it’s important to raise awareness (even if just a little, to the limited group of people who will actually read this.) Mental illnesses of all types tend to get passed over in our society as not-really-a-medical-problem, but instead are viewed as a personal failing of some sort. While I do feel that everyone needs to take responsibility for their actions/behaviors/etc, I also think we all need to be a little more sensitive to the fact that brain chemicals are real and can get out of whack.
I’ve always been a little “high strung”. I can remember an example from elementary school-5th grade I think- losing sleep at night because I had gotten in trouble in school the day before. It wasn’t anything major, just a little talking to by the teacher about the fact that I talked too much during class and was behind on an assignment. I then proceeded to toss and turn all night, extremely worried about what the next school day would bring. (In fact, nothing happened. I finished the assignment and all was well.)
Around the time of my senior year of high school is when I began to feel the levels of anxiety that have become pretty standard for me. I was terrified about “the future”- having to pick a college, decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life (what 17-18 year old has any business making decisions like that, really?), move away from friends, worry about finances, blah, blah, blah. Senior year of college was a similarly terrifying time. I was about to graduate with a degree in Graphic Design that I didn’t find particularly inspiring, didn’t have job prospects, was again having to leave everyone I cared about and move. It was rough emotionally, and I cried a lot. Both of those periods in my life I imagine are common times of anxiety for people as they grow up, but for me it was panic and worry and angst to the point that I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I would worry about everything that could go wrong in my future, and everything that I had done wrong to lead me to where I was, but never seemed able to make plans or take steps to do something proactive.
I always just thought this was normal for me. Not normal in the grand scheme of “normal”- obviously the entire graduating class of 2009 wasn’t as freaked out as I was- but worrying and being anxious has always been the status quo for me.
I found a job and moved back to my college town within a couple months of graduating, and then proceeded to worry about wasting my life in a dead-end job in a crappy small town while all of those loved ones I didn’t want to part from ended up graduating and moving on. I was too scared of change, so settling in back here was the more comforting decision short term, but would I regret it later?
This past summer I was dealt quite the emotional blow by way of major relationship issues. It was awful and painful in ways I didn’t quite realize life could be awful and painful. But, long story short here, it was a catalyst for change. I sought counseling, made better friends with my co-workers, re-evaluated some things, and decided to go back to school. It was scary, but it was good to finally be making plans toward improving my future.
While seeing my counselor, we discussed my anxiety and determined that I likely have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Reading the description of GAD still surprises me how well it describes me. Excessive worry/anxiety, difficulty controlling the worry, feeling keyed up, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and trouble falling asleep being among my most prevalent symptoms. It was that bit about muscle tension that finally made me go “Whoa! Maybe this my problem!” For several years now, I have had tension in my shoulders to the extent that they are rock hard and frequently ache. Somehow, having a somatic symptom made it real, whereas all the worry/anxiety/etc was “just in my head.”
I only saw the counselor for 3 visits, but it helped me recognize thought patterns that aren’t helpful and change some of those behaviors. Now when I start feeling anxious for seemingly no reason, I stop and think about what is likely triggering it and work to relieve the trigger. Am I freaking out at work? I probably have a lot to do, feel a little overwhelmed, and just need to focus on getting my work done instead of worrying about all the work I have to do. Same with school- I just have to get off Facebook, stop procrastinating and do my homework. Am I worried about more potential problems in my relationship? I just come out and talk to Ben about my concerns instead of fretting over all the what-ifs in my head.
Lori (the counselor) also suggested that medication may be helpful, but I was reluctant to take that path. Only the really crazy people take meds, right? I can deal with this on my own; I’m the master of my own thoughts. Again, it was the shoulder pain that made me re-evaluate. I wanted something to make the physical pain go away. So I made an appointment with a doctor (who was surprisingly willing to write a prescription for the med I was asking for, even though it was my first visit) and have now been taking Buspirone for about a month. It’s an anxiety drug that is different from what you generally think of in an anxiety drug. I was wary of meds like Zoloft b/c I’ve heard scary stories of the reactions people can have to benzodiazepines. Buspirone has a much smaller chance of weird physical side effects, is non drowsy, and has pretty much zero chance of dependency. It also takes longer to take effect than benzos, but I thought that was a fair trade to avoid the side effects. It also doesn’t have any muscle relaxant properties, but I’m hoping that lower all around levels of anxiety will help naturally relieve the tension over time. As an aside: Buspirone is only indicated for GAD type anxiety, not panic attacks or other anxieties, which worked out well for me but is something you may want to keep in mind if considering anxiety meds.
Now, I’m just wondering what “normal” is in terms of anxiety? Everyone feels anxious at times; it’s a perfectly common human emotion and can be useful in moderation. I find myself thinking “Oh no! I’m feeling anxious! The meds must not be working!” But what if it’s just a totally normal situation in which to feel anxious? That’s something I’m still working through. I can tell I’ve made progress, though. Just this past weekend on the Dallas trip, Ben asked me “Are you feeling anxious right now?” after just having driven 6 hrs, partially through some intimidating Dallas traffic and I realized that I wasn’t! Jessica of a few months ago would have been much more panicked that I was. It was a good feeling.
I’m hoping to make this a recurring topic here. I am a little worried (surprise!) about what judgements people may pass in regards to my taking “crazy” meds, but that’s exactly the type of misunderstanding I hope to address by being open and honest about my experiences.