I thought I was going to start this month out fresh, with February’s confusion and stress behind me and fresh optimism and motivation in front of me. But when I woke up on March first, I was immediately overwhelmed by panic.
I got out of bed to assess what might be wrong, and started becoming faint. My face and my hands felt numbed. With blurry tunnel vision, I slowly crawled downstairs before my parents left to go to work; I told them what I was experiencing, while struggling to take full breaths. My mom called in late to work and drove me to urgent care.
When we got to the clinic, filling out paperwork was hard with how weak and distant I felt, but I managed to do it. They soon called me back to the exam room. I answered questions about my symptoms the best I could as the doctor checked my breathing and heartbeat. She asked me how long I’d had anxiety.
At the end of the exam, she told me she wanted to have my blood tested just to rule out anything else, but that I was probably having an anxiety attack. I went out to the waiting room, told my mom, and sobbed.
My mom went back with me because I asked her to. When the nurse entered the room, he said in a pleasant voice, “Do you do okay with needles and blood?” I was still crying a little and whispered a teary, “No.” I don’t like needles at any time, but every hesitancy I had about them felt almost intolerable then. The nurse was kind and spoke gently with me, even as I started sobbing again when I had to lie down and let him push up my sleeve. Both he and my mom led me in calming breathing and in trying to shift my focus. I still panicked the whole time, but my blood was successfully taken. At first, the nurse said cheerfully, “That wasn’t too bad, was it?” But he quickly added, “Actually, it was probably hard for you. But you did a good job.” I tried to laugh, but I don’t think I did.
The doctor sent me home a few minutes later. And a few hours later, she called with results of my blood test: everything was fine. It really had been anxiety.
I struggled to accept the fact that any of this happened. I didn’t believe it was okay– didn’t believe going to urgent care for anxiety was a good enough reason. I thought it made me weak, unstable, and immature. Did I think that about anyone else who’d done so? No; just me.
The tears in urgent care had been about how scared I was of needles, that was true. But, mostly… they had been about how ashamed I was to even be there.
I knew my anxiety was a disorder. But I thought that because I worked so consistently hard to walk in truth and courage, anxiety wouldn’t be too much of a factor in my life. Sure, I still had it, but I could live as if it was a small thing.
It is true that I am more powerful than anxiety, and that it doesn’t have to rule me. And after my visit to urgent care, I’m realizing maybe another thing is true: maybe acknowledging and accepting the anxiety isn’t the same as giving it power over me.
In my desire to be completely better and completely rid of it, maybe I’ve ignored caring for myself. Not that I don’t take good care of myself, because I do: exercising daily, drinking lots of water and teas, taking important vitamins, avoiding caffeine, using breathing techniques, making gratitude lists, having creative outlets, talking to my safe people, studying scripture and telling myself the truth, praying without ceasing… the list goes on. I know what to do to manage my anxiety, and I do it diligently.
But when I’ve been consistent in all these things and I still end up having an anxious day, week, or even couple of weeks? That’s where I’ve been getting stuck. Because I’ve blamed myself for it. I blame it on not doing enough, not taking good enough care of myself, not giving my worry to the Lord often enough… even when those things aren’t true.
Last year was hard for me. One night I called a friend, crying and asking if I could just talk. She was a gracious listener, and after I let out what I could, she began speaking into me. There’s one thing she said that has since stowed away in my mind, because it was unique and hadn’t sunk in before: “There is delicate and complicated chemistry in your brain, and it doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to do, but you are not less than anyone else for it.”
It wasn’t my fault.
When it comes to anyone else’s struggles with their mental health, I know it isn’t their fault. But with myself, my low points have felt like failure, like falling short physically, mentally, and spiritually… like defeat. But I’m learning, slowly, that not only is that perspective skewed and untrue, but it helps nothing.
I apologized to everyone I interacted with at the urgent care office that day. I felt like an inconvenience, like I was taking time away from real issues with my inability to handle my own. But when I apologized to the nurse taking my blood after he informed me he’d have to try another vein since I was dehydrated, he looked me in the tear-covered face and immediately told me:
“No, don’t apologize! You came here because you needed help.”
I needed help.
It wasn’t a silly outburst, wasn’t a pointless inconvenience, wasn’t all the things I felt like it was– it was a real anxiety attack. Part of my real disorder. I needed help. And it was okay that I’d asked for it. Actually– it was good and brave that I’d asked for it. I was already crying, but his words made me cry a bit more.
I have generalized anxiety disorder. Sometimes my brain reacts to things in ways I know are unreasonable; sometimes my body takes on every little stress to full capacity and makes me feel ill; sometimes I feel completely paralyzed and stuck in one terrible thought pattern or circumstance, and don’t know how I’m going to get out. I still feel shame about these things, and going into any detail about them makes me feel like I’m just being too negative and sensitive, like I’m making excuses. But that’s not true.
Anxiety is not an excuse— it’s a reason.
The things my symptoms tell me are not real, and that is so important and empowering to remember. But my symptoms themselves? They’re real. I truly do experience them. They show up, and not because of any lack of effort— physically, morally, or spiritually– on my part.
Having anxiety symptoms isn’t losing the battle.
Victory isn’t found in not having them at all— it’s found in how I respond to them and live through them.
I won’t let myself think otherwise anymore. I’ve taken care of myself, yes. But it’s time I care for myself, too.
I’m not completely sure what that looks like yet; it’s only been a few weeks since I went to urgent care (and proceeded to experience some painful and confusing life stuff that same day), so I’ve been taking things slow. But maybe that’s part of it. Maybe recognizing that I’m not at full capacity and refusing to beat myself up for not doing more than I have the mental energy to do is okay; maybe it’s even good and brave.
I might not be able to stop anxiety from showing up in my life. But caring for my spirit and not allowing shame to stick around makes those appearances a little less devastating, because I’ve removed an extra enemy– my own critical voice– from the equation.
I kind of feel like I don’t really have a strong conclusion to share right now, but I wanted to talk about this a bit, because it’s hard to do, so not a lot of us do it. And we need to remind each other:
The symptoms of our mental illnesses are not our fault, are not signs of failure, are not pretend little things we should feel guilty about facing or needing help with. And we’re probably doing a much better job than it feels like we’re doing.
Let’s start caring for ourselves, okay?