Anxiety Part One: The Reason Behind It All
by: Nola Johnson
For a little over two years now I’ve known that I have anxiety. It seems a bit strange to say now, because my anxiety didn’t pop up two years ago. Nope. Anxiety has been in my life for as long as I can remember.
Going back to the age of 4 or 5 when I started biting my nails and establishing rituals, like not sleeping on the side of my bed near windows, or lining up all my teddy bears every night to protect me from the intruder that, thankfully, never came. The habits and rituals evolved as I got older, but it would be a number of years before I first asked for help.
The Burden of a Panic Attack
I had my first panic attack at 17 during calculus. I remember telling my friend that sat behind me I was having a hard time breathing. Unsure about what was going on, but not concerned enough to leave the class, I stayed and my friend rubbed my back. Missing class for a little bit of restricted breathing never crossed my mind.
Later that afternoon, I went to track practice and finally called my mom to take me to the doctor when I lost my vision, everything outside turning a vibrant shade of orange like I was staring into the sun. I was annoyed when the doctor told me that the medicine in the nebulizer would remedy the panic attack but make me jumpy and likely unable to complete my homework that night. I went to the doctor to get back to my regularly scheduled program of academics and athletics, not to be temporarily derailed. I stayed up late until the symptoms wore off and completed my homework.
First Break-Up Can Be Downright Depressing
At 19 I experienced a bout of depression that lasted months instead of days. I would burst into spontaneous tears, lost 13 pounds in a semester, and tried to be asleep for more hours than I was awake because sleep was my only break away from the hamster wheel in my head. I called home a lot trying to explain that something was wrong. No one heard me. I made the six hour drive home one weekend under the guise of surprising my mom, but really hoping that they would see me and notice I was wasting away. They didn’t see me.
I scheduled a doctor's appointment when I returned home from another great semester academically because I hadn’t moved my bowels in over a month. I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. I remember coming out of anesthesia and the doctor explaining that everything looked fine and then he asked me if I was okay and those spontaneous tears showed up again.
I explained that I had just gone through my first breakup, that I was sad, detailed what my semester had been like and he said–that sounds like depression and recommended I find a therapist when I got back to campus. I took a lot of comfort in knowing there was a name for what I had experienced and someone that could help me.
I saw my therapist in secret and I relied on the answers–I’m fine or I’ll figure it out well into my 30’s about all topics that didn’t relate to my education or career.
Too Blessed for Sadness
I didn’t tell my parents I saw a therapist until over ten years after the fact. My silence didn’t come from a place of embarrassment, but rather concern about acceptance. I was expected to be obedient, make good grades, and follow through on commitments, which came pretty easily to me given the emphasis and guidance provided to excel in these areas. However, I still struggle with all the things we didn’t discuss: feelings, relationship building, establishing boundaries, adapting to change.
If I felt sad, I was reminded of my many blessings. Rather than feel disappointment, I should feel thankful because there are so many others with less than myself. I was fortunate and there was no room for sadness in the life of someone rich in material possessions. I was also achieving in all the areas that I understood to matter, so I oscillated between an inability to connect and an unwillingness to try for roughly twenty years.
Anxiety: The Well-Oiled Machine
By 26 my anxiety was working across all sectors of my life:
- Health: If I was at home, I ate the same dinner for three years which included no protein or vegetables, my doctor was threatening to put me on high blood pressure medication, I was experiencing extreme fatigue, and using exercise as a way to quiet my mind because if my body hurt that was something I could focus on instead of my thoughts
- Career: Working 60+ hours a week and accepting promotions on a career path I didn’t enjoy because I couldn’t rationalize saying no to growth
- Safety: Religiously watching Dateline and any other documentary crime show in an effort to not become one of the story lines. I checked every room when I got home to make sure no one else was in my home. I had my neighbor come over one night and stand outside to confirm that my blinds could prevent him, but really the imaginary lurker, from one - seeing inside and two - seeing my silhouette.
- Relationships: In short they didn’t exist. I hated surprises, last minute plans, and simply refused to engage in anything that sounded like a no plan, play it by ear moment. Instead I scheduled brunch or dinner with friends at least a month out, modeling behaviors that respected everyone’s time. Romantic relationships had to be on my terms. Compromise didn’t feel safe. I had created a structure that allowed me to get through each day and I didn’t trust what might be waiting for me on the other side of compromise.
- Finances: It could take multiple days, weeks, sometimes months for me to commit to a purchase. Not your normal grocery store or Target runs, but say I needed a vacuum - I had to research every possible option. Then once I decided on an item I needed to research again which retailer was offering the best price. On the flip side, every August I’d get really sad and go on major spending sprees. So much so that I started saving purchases I couldn’t justify, like buying formal gowns for the black tie wedding I hadn’t been invited to yet, for that time of year. August was always my month to spiral and rather than try to understand why I just accepted it as the norm.
Establishing Mental and Physical Healthcare Team
Then at 32 my hair started falling out and I found my way to a functional medicine provider. My intent was to get my hair to grow back, but she was the one that told me I had anxiety. As soon as she said it, I had the why for years of unexplained compulsive behaviors.
Through supplements and countless hours of conversations, my lab work began to show that my nervous system was calming down and I also saw the impact in my behavior. Then at 34 I decided to uncouple my functional medicine and informal therapy sessions, by finding a licensed therapist to continue my work.
I have anxiety. I’ll probably always have anxiety. I am however, less anxious than I was two years ago.
About the Author
After 18 moves and one dream, Nola Johnson is proud to call Raleigh, NC home. With a bachelor's degree in marketing and a MBA in nonprofit management from the University of Missouri-Columbia, she now serves as a people-first Senior Manager. In her free time you can find Nola watching documentaries, exploring cities through donuts, or dreaming up her next interior design project.