I remember thinking it was the end. Sounds dramatic, I know, but for a 12-year-old boy, there’s nothing more terrifying than being suddenly told you need to lie in traction in a hospital bed in a foreign city 45 minutes from home. I couldn’t sleep that first night. I lay awake imagining the worst. And in the middle of the night, with every other patient fast asleep, I suffered my first anxiety attack.
I was lucky. I called the on-staff nurse, hoping for some comfort. I’m not really sure what I expected, nor what the kind-hearted 20-something could provide. I just wanted the anxiety to go away. Mercifully, she stayed, gave me water, deflected the jabbing fear.
Over the next few hours, it passed. Morning came eventually, as did a chorus of yawns, sleepy but smiling faces, a bright sun, and my parents. I settled in after that, knowing those around me had my best interests at heart. Soon, I was able to sleep through the night. I made friends with the soccer players in the beds next to mine. We played games, all three of us pinned to our backs. We laughed, though we could hardly understand each other. And while there were difficult times yet to endure – not the least of which was surgery that would hobble me for six months – I didn’t experience another anxiety attack until adulthood.
Unfortunately, times have changed a bit since then. With adulthood came independence and with independence came a need to manage my own emotional well-being – something that has never been my strong suit. Anxiety attacks are more frequent now, spurred by any number of small, insignificant things: A bad day at work. A horrendous date. An embarrassing gaffe during a friend’s game night. These are things most people would be able to shrug off. I envy them that – to make space in life for what matters, to dismiss the trivial, to learn from silly moments when we trip over air. To devote their emotional energy to what lifts them up instead of what shackles them.
I don’t know why I can’t do the same. I hold out hope that discipline, intentionality, rigorous practice, meditation, self-love, and time will ultimately cure me. There have been many stumbling blocks, however; many moments when I have stepped backwards. And perhaps the most difficult part of this enduring struggle is that I feel I must go it alone. Why would I burden others when I know the root of my anxiety lies within? I’m the one controlling it, grasping it, wrestling with it. But also this: I fear it makes me look weak, broken, less-than. My friends and loved ones are impossibly amazing people who deserve those of greatest mettle in their lives. I worry I cannot give them that.
Recently, I suffered things slightly more anxiety-spurring than the usual ephemera: an accident, a broken bone, surgery. I have been sleeping poorly, leaving me in a perpetual haze. I am depressed, riddled with self-doubt, uncertain of my recovery. This has caused multiple anxiety attacks. While I’m used to them at this juncture – treating them with a mix of breathing exercises, dismissal of hypochondria that adds fuel to the fire, and activity, I do not have access to all of the usual tools at my disposal. Meanwhile, I attempt to trod the road alone.
Perhaps in this moment, down on my luck, tired, not nearly my best self, I am facing a reckoning. Not to keep fighting this battle in isolation but to let others in and trust they will stay to help. That’s really the heart of my anxiety, and what I must un-learn: I’m afraid those closest to me will find cause to leave if they see me at my worst.
Before you say it, I know: How unfair! Absurd. A radical distortion. An untruth. In my heart of hearts, I know that if those I love are the best of those that are, abandonment isn’t in their blood.
Fortunately, in the corners of my mind, I hear this echo, too: If I am better with them on my best days, imagine how much healing they will surely bring on my worst.
I apologize, my friends, my family, my loved ones – for doubting, fearing, distancing you. And I promise to patiently wait out the darkness alongside you until the morning – when its bright sun, smiling faces, and new horizons come again.