When I was younger my friends would say they had monsters. Monsters in their closets and under their beds. But my monster was always in my head. It controls my body from the inside while also controlling my mind. It also controls the weather. It creates a foggy cloud around my head throughout the week, causing me to live life in a daze. It even forces sensations onto me, making me unable to trust my own body. And just like any other monster, if I give it too much power it engulfs me, leaving me terrified.
My monster has been with me since I was 7 years old and its name is Anxiety. My earliest memory of Anxiety was when I was at my grandparents’ house. My cousin recounted a story about her friend who was recently rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. I had no clue what appendicitis was, let alone where the appendix is located, but it didn’t matter. My abdomen started to hurt, my stomach whirled, and I suddenly had to go to the bathroom. My friends and family know that I’m usually a very talkative person, but I stayed silent for the rest of dinner; images of being fatally ill flashed through my head. It was like the monster was growing in my body, causing pressure to build up inside of me until it was too much. Once I got home, I threw up and cried, expressing my fears to my parents.
For the next few years, every time Anxiety thrashed inside me, I threw up, until I eventually grew out of it. That doesn’t mean Anxiety disappeared. I remember some days I would walk around school almost as if I was sleepwalking. I was participating and doing everything I needed to, but the whole time I was focused on the anxious thoughts swirling inside my head like a tornado.
Then, in grade 8 my worst fear came true and I ended up in the hospital for two weeks due to a spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung). I underwent three surgeries, many x-rays, and a rollercoaster of emotions. After this experience, my anxiety was worse than ever, so I told my parents that I needed to see a psychologist and get help. Therapy had always been an option, but I was reluctant until this point. I was scared of having to talk about everything going on inside.
Seeing a therapist was the help I needed, despite how emotionally taxing it was at the time. I saw the same therapist for about a year and a half, until the middle of grade 10. My health anxiety got better for the next couple years, until grade 11 when it developed into social anxiety and I experienced my first panic attack. I remember crying so hard that I couldn’t catch a breath, causing me to panic even more. By the time I calmed down, my lips and fingers tingled with numbness.
Luckily, that was the worst my anxiety got until the pandemic started. It felt like all my progress went down the drain and I was back to being 7 and experiencing anxiety for the first time. I started developing a cough, fatigue, sore throat, and would even feel short of breath. I was convinced that I had COVID-19, despite receiving a negative test result. Even more than a year later I still experience many of these symptoms. I still can’t trust my body.
Starting university just added to my anxiety. I moved away from home and had the stress of classes. It didn’t take long for Anxiety to creep back into my life. Feeling well rested became a rare occurrence. I had trouble falling asleep and would wake up with my heart pounding. I experienced more panic attacks than ever before, coupled with recurring nausea, making me dry-heave over the toilet in my dorm room. In addition, I would constantly check that I had my keys, wallet, took medication, and locked the door, despite knowing deep down I had remembered all these things.
I finally told my parents that I needed to see a therapist again and that I wanted a diagnosis. I was tired of feeling crazy and like my anxiety was all in my head. I wanted a diagnosis that would validate my feelings.
I’ve now been seeing a therapist since January. I’d like to say that my anxiety has gotten better, but I don’t want to lie for the sake of a happy ending. I experience ups and downs, good days and bad days, but I’m grateful to have my family and friends as a support system.
As for the diagnosis, I feared that my doctor would tell me that everyone was anxious at this time and that I was fine, but my mom urged me to still make an appointment. I was scared that, as a woman, I would get written off as being emotional or just looking for attention and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Plus, I always felt like I needed to be perfect and strong so that people would take me seriously, but talking about my anxiety made me feel weak and vulnerable. I talked to my doctor about my anxiety and she listened and supported me the way I hoped she would, without dismissing my symptoms. She offered to prescribe me medication, but I declined. It feels like medication is the go to, but doctors don’t understand how scary that can be. While anxiety hurts me, I am anxious about not being anxious, so the thought of medication is automatically scary. Yet, options also feel limited. If you don’t want medication, but therapy only somewhat helps, there are very few alternatives.
After my first few phone calls with my doctor, I realized that despite having been offered medication, my doctor never told me what she diagnosed me with. I called her again as a check up and decided to ask. I was diagnosed with GAD, OCD, and social anxiety, but was told that differentiation wasn’t really necessary because all the treatment is the same. I can only speak for myself when I say this, but in my experiences, even if the formal diagnosis isn’t important for treatment, it is comforting. I don’t make Anxiety visible to everyone, so when I was told that I am lucky that my anxiety isn’t as bad as some people’s, it makes me feel like I’m crazy and making it all up. A concrete diagnosis is powerful because it allowed me to learn about what was happening and reassured me that I wasn’t making it up.
Despite all this, I still feel like I am faking it, or that I’m not actually anxious enough to say I have anxiety. I go to work, I go to school; I do everything I’m supposed to do and sometimes even more. Some people with anxiety can’t even get out of bed. Is it really fair for me to say I have anxiety if I can still function?
These are the kinds of tricks Anxiety plays on me. It gives me physical symptoms, intrusive thoughts, and feelings of faking it all. I hate the monster, I really do. And yet, I can’t seem to part with it. It’s been with me since I was a child and there is comfort in familiarity. Plus, It has been a part of me for so long that I’m not sure who I would be without It. I guess that means my monster is not just my worst enemy, but also my best friend; always there controlling me, but also there to save me. Right now I still don’t feel like I can trust my body, but I hope that eventually anxiety won’t have so much power over me.
Story by Emma, Toronto, Canada