Anxiety is a funny old thing. For the longest time, I felt like I was an over thinker, that maybe I just analyzing things too much, or possibly that when getting into these thought patterns when my mind was quiet fit was more like a quiet mind is the devil’s playground rather than idle hands were.
However, recently, thinking back, I’ve just had anxiety for possibly the whole of my life. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain amount of anxiety that I’m sure keeps us safe, but I don’t think I’d classify the level that I had as being in this category.
Below are glimpses of the various anxiety that I’ve faced over my life. This isn’t some sort of self-indulgent, look at me and how anxious I am kind of post. This is just to help others who are possibly going through the same thing realize that they’re not alone and that while it may be “common”, it’s not “normal”.
For as long as I can remember, as a young child, I was deathly afraid of getting hurt or falling over. This made me an extremely cautious kid. The type that wears helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to rollerskate and rollerblade indoors. I saw the ground as the ominous thing that was out there to hurt me should I trip or if gravity worked against me in some way. I didn’t learn to ride a bike without training wheels/stabilisers until I was really old — like 8 or 9?
As I got older, I got to the point when I was maybe 7-9 years old that I became acutely aware of mortality, and these thoughts kept me up at night. A lot. They scared the bejesus out of me. I would stare up at the popcorn ceilings of my childhood home and worry myself endlessly over these. It got to the point that I would climb into bed with my mom (my parents had divorced by then).
Around the age of 9, my school began its campaign to educate its young girls in my grade about periods and basic sex ed. PERIODS WERE TERRIFYING! I knew changes were coming like hair and hormones, and I was aware of the tampons and pads in the house, but it all felt very, very early and overwhelming to think about. Too much, too soon is probably the best way to describe how I felt about this massive bomb being dropped on us. It felt like it was so much responsibility to contemplate at such a young age, even though everyone always said I was so mature for my age. It thoroughly freaked me out and again, I would stay up late at night and worry endlessly about this happening. Turns out it was good timing for me, because I got my period a few months before I turned 11, but still.
Ugh, this phase of my life. So hard. Peer group acceptance and finding yourself, need I say more? There is not enough money in the world to pay me to get me to relive those years. Pretty much everything created anxiety for me in those days. Thanks hormones! Writing helped a lot though during these tough times and in my teens as well.
With maturity came even more things to be anxious about: attention from boys, lack of attention from the right boys, making friends, feelings of Not Good Enough being thrown at by the media, worrying about getting attention from gross older guys while I was walking in my hometown, media pressure of having to be perfect where I never really sought it before (and to be honest, I don’t seek it now!), public speaking in the form of presentations in front of the class and pressures of maintaining relationships when everyone is so new to them and so emotionally immature (this caused me tons of stomach aches at the time, which at the time was diagnosed as accute IBS, but I know now was actually just massive anxiety manifesting itself as pain).
However, by this age group I came to realize the importance of taking myself out of my comfort zone to help me live a life not ruled by fear. I took French, where I had to routinely speak up in front of a whole class full of people in another language. I became a band geek in the marching band, where I had to perform on a weekly basis to a crowd of tons of people who I didn’t know. I forced myself to talk to the boys who caught my eye and talk to people who I thought were cool and wanted to get to know even though every fiber of my being told me to run away because it was way. too. scary. I made myself apply to my top choice college/university even though it meant I had to put myself out there a whole lot more by taking extra tests, writing an essay and had the huge potential to fail (I didn’t — and I loved it and flourished there).
Even though this time of my life was hard and I made a ton of mistakes, I really thrived and I grew a lot as a person and the anxiety diminished some as I grew older and became more self-confident.
Once I got to my college, I kept putting myself out there, even though I was painfully shy. I kept joining different activities like a Friday evening Francophone mixer, intramural soccer/football team, a brief stint in student government, yoga, Wind Ensemble, ballet and my first or second day on campus I wandered into someone’s flat because their door was wide open and they were listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, one of my favorite albums of all time. I introduced myself to them on the spot. It was invigorating to take so many chances and to meet so many different people and get to be part of so many interesting, new experiences. The questioner and Gemini in me loved it, even though, again, all of these were pretty scary to do.
I was pretty independent, but truth be told, calling some stranger on the telephone to do typical, not-a-big-deal adulting things like making an appointment or asking for information, still felt terrifying to me. I also had to force myself to put my hand up in classes and lectures. Fun fact, I made it a goal to do it once in every class to try and get myself more comfortable with it. It worked very well, too!
This was the real turning point in my life with anxiety. Ever since I first stepped into a French language classroom when I was 15, I knew I wanted to live abroad some day. The second I set foot on campus at my college, I set out to find out how to get the ball rolling on studying abroad. I knew it would be a huge challenge, but I just knew that I had to do it.
I remember arriving in France for the first time and standing in the immigration line at Charles De Gaulle. I had never been to France before and I was moving there for an academic year. Heck, I had never even been to a Francophone part of the world before. There was a sudden rush of panic where I was trying to eavesdrop on people’s conversations in line and I understood very, very little despite studying the language for 3 years in high school and 2 years in college.
Not long after that, I suffered from anxiety of not being successful in becoming fluent in the language. I was worried that all of this effort and upheaval would be for naught, and I would be the only one in our group of Californian students who didn’t “get there”.
There were times where I was afraid of failing. I had taken such a huge leap and was definitely in the deep end. I wondered how I would be able to stand on my own two feet in a country where I understood so little at the beginning.
On top of all of that, I was afraid of “messing up” the language and looking stupid — however, messing up countless times made me realize that this was okay and normal. It made me a better teacher later on going through that experience and realizing that it isn’t the end of the world if you make a mistake. The key thing is try to learn from it.
Once I came back from France, it was clear that I would be taking steps to move over to England permanently to be with The Brit. Trouble is I needed a visa, and let me tell you, visas are no trifle, people. The amount of money, time, attention to detail, paperwork and mind space that they take up is truly astonishing and even to this day, anxiety-inducing. Because even the slightest thing going wrong can result in you nearly getting kicked out of the country!
Public speaking, again. I couldn’t hide being in a new country, I had to put myself out there to succeed and move forward. I started out doing temp jobs in reception and HR, which meant I had to speak with lots of strangers on the phone with accents that I didn’t understand. “I’m really sorry, but could you please repeat that?” was uttered by me more times than I could count.
Teaching is a profession that combined so, so many things that have induced anxiety for me. Having to speak with unfamiliar parents on the phone and having no clue how they’d react, the unknown of new classes and how they will take to your teaching style and discipline, the insurmountable workload that never ends and is constantly prodding you to notice it in the back of your mind, worrying about kids in your classes and whether something you said to them or how you reacted in certain situations was good enough. I remember when I was doing my teacher training going to the bathroom stalls and basically having mini panic attacks, trying to big myself up in my head and convince myself that yes, I could do it and that everything will be okay. I’ve heard some actors say that they feel like that every time they step out onto the stage. That made me feel better. It was through sheer stubborn determination on my part that I was ever a successful teacher, and I honestly am not sure where that grit came from.
Loss has been a source of anxiety that has been pretty potent in recent years. Losing my maternal grandparents when I was in my last quarter of my undergrad and during my teacher training was a huge blow and threw up that old chestnut of anxiety related to death. Then, just before Christmas when I was pregnant (and many people didn’t know yet), my dad died. For a whole slew of reasons that I won’t get into here, we had the funeral nearly a year later, and that impacted me mentally in a big way, as did losing a very dear former coworker to me who left behind a beautiful, young family. This led to a lot of insecurity and terror that the same would befall our family.
Leaving teaching after returning from my maternity leave was a huge trigger as well, as I chose to give up financial and job security in the name of improving my mental and physical health. I am an extremely independent person, and I have long (wrongly) associated dependency on other people and financial dependency as a huge, negative thing. I also felt like I lost a massive part of my identity at the time and my support system of colleagues that I had built up relationships with for nearly 8 years. To make matters worse, the job I left teaching for was, to put it kindly, not the right fit and made me feel like I was a massive failure and that I had endangered our family’s future.
Since November, I have been regularly attending counseling sessions with an excellent practitioner who has really helped me challenge the whys of my anxiety and has given me really simple and effective tools to turn down the dial on these anxious, obsessive thoughts that can take hold in my mind. I started seeing her once per week, but am currently down to once every 3 weeks.
In the future, I will outlining some of the things she has recommended that has really helped me, in hopes that those suggestions have a positive impact for someone who cannot afford private counseling or who is waiting in the astronomically long lines that you have to wait in for NHS counseling. But, if you feel like you need help, please do yourself a favor and get it. You are worth the money if it comes to that.