Today, as I sat in Panera with a friend and fellow jail volunteer, I hid my hands under a sweatshirt so I could pick at my cuticles without being seen. I purposefully wore this sweatshirt to our meeting, in spite of the fact that it is 80 degrees outside, to cover my bloody fingers. I had to sip my decaf latte strategically in hopes of hiding my mutilated hands.
When most people hear the word “anxiety”, they think of every day worrying or someone repeatedly cleaning their house. Oh my friends, it is so much more than that. Everyone’s anxiety looks different, but I want to share a little about mine in hopes of creating empathy in those who don’t experience anxiety and don’t understand what it feels like to live in an anxious world.
I have coped with anxiety for as long as a I remember. Even as a child, I organized and reorganized toys and doll houses and movies until I felt like I had some feeling of control in my little chaotic world. Depression became more of an issue once I reached high school, and the mix of depression and anxiety became too much for me to bare. I started “skin picking” at a very young age. I would sit in the back of classrooms when necessary to hide my messy habit from friends. I would constantly pretend to be putting lotion on my hands in order to stop the bleeding. Regardless of how much it hurt, I couldn’t make myself stop. I wore bandaids on my hands, covered them with long sleeves, and painted my nails to stop the habit, but it was overwhelmingly compulsive.
The skin picking, or “excoriation” as it is called in the mental disorder world, is a pathological and compulsive behavior that I still can’t control even at age 33. I KNOW it is bad for me. I KNOW it is gross. I KNOW it is painful. Similar to skin cutting, I don’t do it to “feel something” or because I “like the pain”. These are very common misconceptions. Something in my brain calms down when I claw at the skin around my fingers and even when they are bleeding, nothing I do in all common sense or logic can make me stop.
In times of low stress, my habit goes into remission and I can go get a manicure without fear of rejection (because no one wants to manicure bleeding hands). When my stress level goes up, my hands look like I have been in a cage fight. No variation of “stop it” works. I can’t sleep because my legs feel like they have worms crawling in them and hurt all at the same time. My mind races and if I do doze off, my stress dreams are so violent I can’t stay asleep. In the morning, the bed sheet and comforter are in knots around the bed or on the floor.
My anxiety shows up in other, more subtle ways. Racing thoughts, obsessive and repeated thinking, compulsive behaviors, sleepless nights, and ignoring the phone and emails are all signs of even high functioning anxiety. It feels like my circuits are overloaded and the only way I know to feel some relief is to do something compulsive or shut down completely.
And none of that includes the panic attacks. I had not had one for quite some time, until this past Friday when I was sequestered in a small apartment with my boyfriend, two cats, and a large dog for nearly 48 hours. The city of Orlando was under mandatory curfew because of hurricane Matthew, so no one was allowed to be outside. At first, this seemed like an easy way to watch movies, read books, play games, and just stay in my pajamas because the whole city was shut down. About 30 hours into our “confinement”, though, I started to feel it happening again. My head hurt, my chest started tightening, and an old, familiar feeling started creeping up from my bowels to my chest. I thought I just needed air, so I took the dog for a much-needed walk since we had not been able to go outside. A few steps into my walk, I started hyperventilating and realized I was having an anxiety attack.
Thankfully, I am now at a point in my life where I can walk my self out of a panic attack. I kept walking, taking in long, slow breaths (count to five in, hold, then let out to the count of five). I verbally reminded myself that I live in Florida, that I was walking my dog G, and that I was walking around the Avalon Park neighborhood. When I got back to the apartment, I tried to verbalize what I was experiencing to Tim, but it was impossible to communicate. I realized that the combination of being cooped up inside, watching the movie we had watched, and a few other triggers had sent my brain and body back to a very dark place and fear completely took over. The only way I know how to explain it in English is to say that, in the midst of a trauma-induced panic attack, I feel like I am back in a place of great danger. Even though I can look around and physically see that I am not where I used to be, my body and brain feel and think like I am back in a time and place of immense fear and stress. It feels like being strangled from the inside. It takes a great deal of emotional and mental energy to bring myself back into the present and remember where I am, as opposed to where I have been.
Panic attacks are no joke. Anxiety is not just a passive, every day thing. Both are real, and very overwhelming. Even though I have been in therapy for several years (and am now a therapist myself), take medication, take herbal supplements for anxiety and sleep, and know every tool, trick, and technique for reducing anxiety, I still fight this battle every day. Some days are better than others. Some days are really hard and I wear a sweatshirt to a meeting to cover my self attacks.
My sweet Tim tries to understand, and asks me what I need in this battle. Sometimes I know what I need – a hug, a reminder that I am safe, a hot cup of tea. Sometimes I don’t know what I need, other than someone to step in and remind me of what is true and what is good. This evening I ran into a dear friend on my way back to Samaritan Village, and when she saw my hands tears started to form in her eyes and she held my hands and just hugged me. I needed that.
If someone you love is affected by anxiety, please be kind. Don’t tell them to “stop it” or “buck up” or “get over it”. In the height of my own anxiety, I am my own worst enemy and I am fighting an internal battle for my very sanity. It takes all I have not to just completely break down and shut off to everyone and everything around me.
On a good day, I am calm and happy and aware of my anxiety but I am in charge of it, rather than it being in charge of me. I know where I need to cut back in order to get back to that state, and my friends and coworkers and loved ones are helping me in that. Just be aware that the people you love may be fighting an incredibly difficult internal battle, and sometimes we just need a calm hand rather than a stern look.