*This article was originally published as a guest post on my friend Jo’s blog, Creating My Odyssey. I invite you to check her writing out as well!*
The churning, out-of-control thoughts and sick feeling under the diaphragm. The intense urge to curl up in a ball under a heavy blanket and never come out. The physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. In Western society, we call these thoughts and feelings symptoms of anxiety. If these symptoms fit you, even in part, you don’t need me to tell you that coping with anxiety is not for the faint of heart!
As a teenager, then young adult, I was certainly well-acquainted with generalized anxiety. After developing and then recovering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), however, I discovered one day that my general anxiety was gone! I was so pleasantly surprised by this unexpected path of healing that I wrote a dark-humored, satirical piece about PTSD curing anxiety.
Just to be clear, I wouldn’t wish PTSD on my worst enemy — truly! For those who’ve dealt with this beast of mental illnesses, you know it’s a hellish experience. So how could PTSD have brought about my healing from anxiety? How could anything good come from remembering and facing your worst memories of the worst moments of your life?
That’s what I want to understand.
Being humble isn’t my strong suit, so I have lots of opinions about why this happened. And I have a few take-aways for you, whether or not you’ll ever experience my strange kind of anxiety cure.
PTSD forces you to face your worst fears and most terrifying anxieties. You have to re-live, not just remember, past trauma. Not just once, though! That would be much too easy. No, PTSD forces your body and brain to re-experience your personal nightmare over and over and over again.
The horror comes at you when you wake up, when you take a shower, when you get dressed, when you drive, when you’re in therapy, when you try to work, when you eat, even in your sleep.
But it’s exactly this flood of horror that eventually healed my anxiety. Why?
Think for a moment of what causes your worst anxiety. Here’s my list, in the glory days of my generalized anxiety:
1. I feared God. I feared going to hell.
2. I feared making ANY (supposed) moral mistake.
3. I feared making a bad grade on a test or college paper, thereby becoming an absolute failure.
4. I feared my own unwanted and often quite disturbing thoughts. I feared exposure of these thoughts, or worse, acting on them.
5. I feared ending up in a psychiatric ward.
6. I feared men. Especially men who were intimidating, in an authority role, inappropriately flirty and suggestive, or middle-
7. I feared not being perfect.
8. I feared getting seriously hurt or killed.
9. I feared not getting everything correct and right in my beliefs,
values, and behavior.
10. Underneath it all? I feared losing control of myself, my life, my well-being, my self-respect.
And what did PTSD do to these fears? PTSD combed through these fears, picked out the juiciest, then smashed them in my face. We are talking wedding-cake-in-the-face smashing. Picture an unruly (and perhaps intoxicated) groom, who not only smashes the cake in his brides mouth, but also up her nose, down her neck, and into her eyes and perfectly made-up hair.
This is what happened to me. Only there were no divorce papers to sign and no way to stop the ongoing assault.
What exactly happened? See number 10 on my top-anxieties list. I lost control of my life.
Suddenly, I couldn’t so much as hold down a coffee house job, much less my post-graduate school position as a family therapist. I couldn’t plan a meal or grocery shop. I cried or sat in stunned silence in church. When I tried to hang out with a friend, I couldn’t think or talk about anything except my early childhood abuse.
So there I was. My treatment went from individual therapy to partial hospitalization to finally taking medication.
Then my perpetrator read my letter of confrontation. His damaging response, and its ripple effects on my support system, snipped the last thread holding my life together.
I went in-patient.
In a psych ward.
We all know that this is officially the end of life, right? My career would be ruined. And who would want to hire, date, or trust someone who had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons?
A month later, I emerged. My life continued.
Now I am happily employed, doing work I love. Heck, I’m even good at what I do! My supervisor actually trusts me enough to let me drive around my neighborhood, visiting dying people and their families. (I’m a hospice social worker, LCSW.)
Now I’m happily dating a pretty legit guy. As in, we’ve been dating over a year. I love him.
Every Friday, two parents in their right minds pay me to nanny their most precious gifts: two toddler boys.
People are interested in listening to what I have to say on my blog about trauma recovery and spirituality, Thawing Out.
After I was thrown head first into the deep end of the pool, my generalized anxieties no longer held power over me. What if I’m not perfect or make big mistakes or my loved ones judge me or someone hurts or abuses me? Been there, survived that. And I trust I’m capable of surviving it again if needed!
As it turns out, we humans can survive a lot of pain and suffering. Not alone, mind you! And sometimes, not without going through the deep, deep valley. There are no short cuts that last. My valley involved being locked up in a psych ward for a month. Your deep valley might include something just as terrifying for you.
But you know what? Life really does go on. Our life circumstances don’t dictate our ability to live well. Not nearly to the extent we assume, at least.
So, here are three take-aways:
1. Facing your worst fears may break their power over you. Anticipatory anxiety — the infamous “what if’s” — may actually be more paralyzing than the moment of truth itself, when you hear the words, “You’re fired!” Or those long minutes in an ambulance, headed for the hospital. Or [insert your worst fear here].
2. Getting at the root cause of your generalized anxiety or depression may set you free! My personal journey started with a present-oriented, problem-solving, cognitive-behavioral therapy approach. Although this was an important starting point, the pain hiding below my symptoms wouldn’t let me go until I’d faced it head-on.
3. Do not go at healing alone! Trust me. Many people, both professional and non-professional, as well as formal and informal resources, have been invaluable to my progress. So look for the help you need until you find it! It will be worth it. It will be essential, even.
And with that, take courage, friends! I’m with you in this thing called surviving life. May we live this life well!