I did something tonight that might not seem like a big deal to most people but was a big deal for me: for the first time in my 20-some years of life, I bought a plane ticket. By myself. With no help from my husband or anyone else. AND I did it WITHOUT HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK.
When my husband & I went to Montana last Fall, he bought the plane tickets (actually I paid for them I think, but he did all the work of finding & selecting the flights). Ditto for when we went to Boston the next month for a wedding. Furthermore, every other flight I’ve taken in my life was planned by someone else; thus, I was never involved in the tedious process of finding & obtaining tickets. All I had to do was show up & follow someone else who knew what they were doing.
Not only did I find, select, & buy the plane ticket for this trip by myself, but this will also be my first time flying by myself. I know for most people my age this whole scenario probably seems like no big deal. But when you have anxiety like I do, even something as “simple” as buying a plane ticket, particularly for a solo trip, can induce extreme anxiety, the kind that most people associate with taking a major exam or giving a speech. (Oddly enough, neither of those activities has ever been all that nerve-wracking for me, with the exception of the NCLEX, although I only had major anxiety about that the day I actually took the test).
In any case, as “silly” as it may seem, one of the most beneficial things I’ve learned from a dear, dear friend of mine who is bipolar is that, particularly when you have a mental health issue, even something as “small” as mild anxiety, you have to learn to celebrate even the minor victories. You have to learn to recognize when you’ve reached a milestone in your recovery, if you will. I hate to use the word recovery because I don’t believe my anxiety is something I need to or can “recover” from. It’s not an illness, like the flu or strep throat, mostly because it’s not something that can be cured with a week’s worth of medication with only a small chance of recurring later. But my anxiety IS a disease that I have to learn to manage, just like many other folks have to learn to manage diabetes or heart disease or any of a myriad of other chronic conditions.
In my case, I’ve realized that buying a plane ticket by myself for a trip I’ll be taking by myself WITHOUT HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK is indeed a victory. It’s an accomplishment, just as much as is giving a successful speech, acing an exam, winning a game, or any other more commonly recognized achievement. A year ago, before I started taking Prozac, I can tell you without any doubt that this would not have happened. So this is progress for me for sure.
As I was telling a friend at work last week, the longer I’ve been in therapy, the more I’ve realized that my anxiety has very deep roots. In other words, this is something I’ve been struggling with more or less my entire life. It’s probably the major reason I wasn’t a very happy child. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t depressed or suicidal or anything like that. But I just never remember experiencing that carefree existence that most children seem to enjoy. I still feel guilty for that sometimes because my parents were & are wonderful people who did so much to ensure that I had a healthy, happy home. But I’m slowly beginning to understand that it was my own anxiety that prevented me from fully embracing life for so many years. And that wasn’t my parents’ fault. Or mine. It’s just the way it is.
The trouble is that when anxiety is something you’ve battled for so long, it’s very easy not to realize that it isn’t normal. After all, the only brain you know is your own! This is why it took me over 22 years to realize that maybe, just maybe, the constant swirl of anxiety in my brain wasn’t normal. Better yet that it wasn’t how things HAD to be for me. I look back now on my college years & I so regret not seeking help sooner. It’s not that I didn’t have a good time & create lots of wonderful memories. I absolutely did. But I also know it could have been much better. I’m also very aware that on the outside I probably seemed like I had it all together . . . & in a way I did. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, I maintained my relationship with my high school boyfriend (now husband), I passed the NCLEX on the first try, & I got married & started my first nursing job within 3 months of graduating from college. Outwardly, I suppose I was the definition of “put together.”
But on the inside my brain was a wreck. No wonder I struggled with high blood pressure for a while! My mind, & subsequently my body, was on constant overdrive for so many years. As my husband describes it, I had this endlessly “chattering squirrel” in my head that was always, always, always thinking, thinking, thinking! Despite what many people think, having anxiety isn’t just spending too much time pondering the “what ifs?” of life. It’s so much more than that. It’s a brain that never stops, that plans everything, & perhaps more than anything just doesn’t know how to shut up & relax. And a brain that can’t relax is a brain that will eventually burn out.
This is why I’m so incredibly grateful I took the advice of a friend & sought help: first through therapy & eventually by adding medication (Prozac). Through a combination of the two, I have come to an even greater appreciation of so many things in life that I’ve always enjoyed but that I can now enjoy even more & thus utilize to further relieve my anxiety: music, books, my relationship with my husband, & so much more.
Trust me, there are still days when I struggle with my anxiety. There are times when the idea of interacting with anyone other than my husband or closest friends seems like torture. But those days are much fewer & further between now. And even when they happen, I have the foresight to know they won’t last forever. And that one bad day doesn’t doom me to a bad week, month, year, or life.
I’ve wandered a lot in this post. But, as I’ve done so many times before, I want to encourage anyone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness to seek help. Admitting that you need help is NOT a weakness. Let me repeat that: needing help is NOT a weakness. Rather it is the first & perhaps most important step in creating a better, more peaceful life for yourself.
Looking back on my childhood, adolescence, & even into college, there were so many signs that the anxiety I faced on a daily basis was not normal. But they were mostly things that only I knew about (for example, the hours I spent awake at night off & on for years & years thinking about the Holocaust & how horrifying that was) . . . My point is that I didn’t realize how bad things were until I got the courage to ask for help. And now that I’ve gotten help & my anxiety is so much better managed, I honestly can’t believe I struggled alone in silence for so long. But I suppose sometimes we have no idea how dark the night is until we see the light of day. I’ve found that light, & there are days when it is dimmer & days when it is brighter, but I think I am now even more grateful for the light since I know what it was like to live in the dark for so long.
If you’re living in the dark of anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, please don’t suffer alone. Get help. Life CAN be better. I am living proof.