It is no wonder I am the way I am.
I was at risk for developing an anxiety disorder. I was an introverted and self-conscious child. My mother dealt with severe panic attacks. I was bullied. My father neglected me emotionally. As a teenager I was not encouraged to take risks or to do things for myself.
But remembering my childhood I cannot picture myself as afraid. Hesitant to warm up, yes, but rarely fearful and never phobic. I was strong, and strong-willed, holding up against the adversity of my young life.
Despite being introverted I would still seek the company of others. I showed innate leadership skills as a child, organizing the other kids in my neighborhood for forays into the nearby forests or for games of basketball and football. I was creative and motivated. I started a lawn watering and raking business, canvassing my neighborhood for “clients,” and I always sold the most for school sales. I looked forward to college and adulthood, growing up and being able drive and work.
I never struggled with who I was. My struggle had always been with the outside world. I was happy doing what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, whether by myself in my room, or with friends and my parents. But I was constantly buffeted by life. We moved every year, sometimes two or three times during a school year. I lost friends, and had to adapt to new environments even before I got used to old ones. My parent's marriage began to erode. By the time I was in fourth grade they were both working long hours. Often I wouldn't see them until six or seven at night, and when they were together, they fought. My mother, once a cornerstone of my life, burned out emotionally, and my father became even more aloof.
I finally stumbled in the face of this adversity. The daring brat slowly eroded and atrophied. The introverted recluse grew to take over. Adolescence was a reversion into a shell.
This period of my life began when I was 12 and I moved with my grandparents (my mother's parents) during the middle of sixth grade. I was escaping an intolerable school experience and my parent's melting marriage, but I was merely exchanging one struggle for another.
My mother, so adamant in my participating in sports and in Boy Scouts, was no longer there to push me to take risks, and my grandparents, two generations older than me and unable to relate to my needs did not offer the encouragement young teenagers need to grow into adulthood. Over the years they seesawed between showing me love and affection and verbal and emotional abuse.
I acted out against these negative life experiences. When I lived with my parents I dealt with my father's emotional absence with anti-social behavior—I was obnoxious and overbearing in class and on the playground, making myself an easy target for the other kids' teasing—and while I lived with my grandparents I reacted to their abuse through physical destruction, no doubt making the situation worse.
The table was set for my fall, but it would take something unrelated to my past to push me over the edge.
I was 14 when I had my first panic attack. I did not know what I was experiencing, and I wouldn't find out for another five years that the pain I felt had a name, a reason, but by then I had already developed generalized anxiety disorder, a panic disorder, and agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder because of my panic attacks.
My anxiety began with an illness. In February of the eighth grade I grew sick with the flu. Because my stomach hurt and I had thrown up several times the first night, I refused to drink water—making myself even sicker. I quickly dehydrated and for the next three days I was in agony, as if my body was eating itself alive.
I recovered after several days but for the rest of the school year I suffered from panic attacks almost every morning and at night. Food only upset my stomach so I refused to eat breakfast and lunch, losing thirty pounds in a month.
My once normally-functioning body was unable to cope with the stress of illness, dehydration, and malnourishment. Today I know that the attacks I experienced were due to my body's imbalance, but at that time I had no idea that what I was doing was hurting me.
The panic attacks I had in the first few months after my illness determined my social life for the next decade. It was a cause and effect relationship. Panic led to phobia as 1 leads to 2.
The first phobia I developed was an aversion to school. I found class constricting and claustrophobic. I was sometimes bullied, making elementary school a nightmare. In junior high I had friends and dealt with class the best I could, but those early morning panic attacks caused me to relate anxiety with going to school, something I had never enjoyed anyway.
My train of thought was simple: “If I have to go to school today, will I have another meltdown?”
If I thought for even a moment that I would feel a stomach ache or racing thoughts (or if I was already feeling them), I would try to avoid these uncomfortable sensations by not going to school. I began to set up a pattern of escapism that would dog me into adulthood.
Everything I did was to get out of doing things that made me feel emotionally exposed, because it was this feeling of discomfort that seemed to trigger my attacks. The more I got out of having to do things, and the more this relieved, temporarily, my anxiety, the more I began to connect the two in my mind. To me it wasn't my illness, my diet, my poor sleeping and other bad habits that caused my anxiety, it was school.
Then it was work. It was going to a friend's house. It was learning to drive. It was going out for sports. I had no idea that it was the stress of living an unhealthy lifestyle, not the social situations I was involved in, that sparked my fears. These situations were simply where and when the anxiety happened, not the cause.
I went out for football and baseball and quit both. I finished driver's education but I wasn't confident enough to buy a car or drive by myself. I grew nervous around telephones. I stopped eating school lunch—stopped eating in public.
I exaggerated every little neurotic and self-conscious flaw. Any shyness became a big deal. Everything revolved around having the next panic attack—and I didn't even know what I was going through, I had no word for it, I just knew it intuitively as fear. And I sought to be in a place where these attacks would not find me; safely tucked away in my room.
In the coming years it would be difficult for me to deal with life. I had no coping skills, no way of working through stress, and definitely no way to work through or to even understand my anxiety. I would go through cycles of getting stressed out and then breaking down emotionally. I quit school when I was 15, was able to finish, but then quit work when I was 18 (to later go back, rinse, and repeat).
Then my life changed again, this time in a way that would eventually lead me out of the emotional swamp I lived in.
I moved back with my mom, living with her for the first time in nearly six years. She helped me into counseling, and the therapist I saw knew exactly what he was doing. He introduced me to exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. He opened my eyes to what I was dealing with and gave me a road map out.
During that time I found something else to calm my anxiety and ease my panic attacks. The Tao Te Ching—my first introduction to Taoism. In this short, poetic philosophy I found a new way of looking at the world in which I wasn't against everything but one with it. Not fighting with life but flowing with it was a weight off my shoulders.
Both of these experiences built upon each other, and I was soon able to see life with a perspective I never had before. Much of the guilt and anger I lived with for so long melted away, and as when the sun peaks through the clouds, a brightness entered my life.
I'm still recovering from social anxiety disorder, but I no longer deal with agoraphobia or generalized anxiety, and my panic attacks are few and far between—and when I have one at all I calmly and comfortably let it pass.
Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn't gotten sick, or if I had consumed even a little water when I did. Would I have still developed anxiety if my grandparents or I had been better informed? Would it have changed anything if my mother, who dealt with her own panic attacks, was there to help me?
I was not at all thrilled by many events in my childhood, but I was happy with enough of it that looking back at the first 12 years of my life, I would have changed nothing. And I am not sure I would have changed what I experienced as a teenager, either, even the panic attacks.
My anxiety has been a great burden, but it has also been a blessing, and it has undoubtedly made me who I am today. I would not trade the knowledge I have gained through my difficult life for the chance to be “normal.”
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series