“Anxiety is the anticipation of pain. It could be physical pain or emotional pain,” says Christian Grillon, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This was the definition given to health reporter Andrea Petersen. Petersen writes, “Depression may get most of the headlines and the research dollars, but anxiety is more prevalent. In people with a history of both an anxiety and a mood disorder, anxiety usually makes an appearance first. Anxiety can be deadly. Depression is the mental illness most strongly associated with suicidal thoughts, but it doesn’t often lead to suicidal acts. Recent research has found that it is anxiety disorders and other illnesses, like problems with impulse control and addiction, that are more likely to lead to suicide attempts.”
When I was little, I didn’t understand what anxiety was. I thought that me being nervous all of the time was only out of shyness. A shyness towards life, like a pair of jeans I could eventually grow out of one day, as most adults have tried reassuring me. Okay, I thought. No big deal. I’ll just work harder and swallow my fears. It’ll all eventually level out. I’m just a kid. I don’t know anything. I’m still growing. And one day, I’ll grow out of this terrible sick feeling. I’ll break out of it like a fever.
But, that just wasn’t the case. Anxiety followed me like a shadow. To school, on the bus ride home, to the grocery store, and into my room even with all the lights turned on. It stayed with me until one night, it decided to spiral out of control. I was 11 years old starting sixth grade. I felt very maladjusted to middle school life. My best friends from elementary school, whom I once felt inseparable from because we bonded over drawing and singing pop songs on the playground, slowly began to fade from me because we didn’t have any classes together. And while they started becoming concerned about boys, I couldn’t even begin to understand that, because I was too busy trying to deafen the loudness in my own head.
My father left that year to go to Canada to help out with a friend’s business and didn’t return until the year after. So it left my mom with a lot more responsibilities around the house as a single parent. At the time, I was much more scared of her than I ever was before. This was a period in my life before she was diagnosed and given medication to help her cope with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But the symptoms were undeniably there. As an 11-year-old girl, I did not know what psychological disorders even were. I simply saw my mother as someone who was very uptight and made me feel nervous when I couldn’t meet her standards of perfection.
On the surface, what my mom battles with looks like numerously flicking light switches on and off, turning knobs multiple times, and habitual cleaning rituals. But all of it is done and performed out of the anticipation of threat. My mom felt like she couldn’t afford to mess up, otherwise it would feel like the whole world collapsing on her. And as a child, I felt my own world being tightly reined underneath hers.
Meals would be eaten as late as midnight sometimes on school nights because she would get preoccupied with house chores. I would complain about it and ask her why we couldn’t eat on time when I would have to get up early the next morning for school. And even on days when we did eat on time, there was always a rushed timeline we had to follow. She would have to leave for work shortly afterwards and didn’t allow flexibility for me to eat whenever I wanted to at my own convenience. Because to her, flexibility meant space, and space meant room to screw up, which would only trigger her own anxiety levels.
One night during dinner, a piece of food stuck to my throat and wouldn’t go down. The first thing I wanted to do was vomit. Shortly after when I was finally able to get it out, I found it immensely difficult to swallow. I told my mother that I wasn’t hungry anymore and asked if I could be excused from the table. She shook her head disapprovingly at my plate of food that I barely touched. But because it was only one night, she let it go and I headed off to bed. The next day, I found it hard to swallow again, and the day after, too. A few days turned to a week until it went on for a long extended period of time.
Looking back, the time frame is a total blur, and I can’t remember precisely how long it lasted. All I know is that it felt like forever, and I thought I was going to die at any minute. I lost a lot of weight. The thing about anxiety is that it takes a lot from you, physically. It’s not just mental.
It felt claustrophobic to be in the cafeteria. I was ashamed of myself when I couldn’t do something so simple and basic as eating, so I stopped showing up. Instead, I’d head towards the girls’ bathroom and lock myself in a stall. I wouldn’t come out until the bell rang, signaling that it was time for me to make my way back to class. Then, I’d come home and cry myself to sleep nearly every night, because I was scared out of my mind. I felt completely screwed up —damaged beyond repair.
When my inability to eat first started, it was easier to hide it at school, but not at home. Initially, I would take my bowl of rice my mom gave me every night and when she wasn’t looking, I would quickly scoop as much of it into my brother’s bowl before all of us gathered at the dinner table. Then, I would try smoothing and spreading the small amount leftover in my bowl to look like more instead of less —the illusion of normalcy. My mother, however, caught on and she grew angry and impatient with me. This was meant out of love and concern, but her disappointment made me feel even more ashamed of myself.
One night, my father wanted to speak to me on the phone, so we talked. He asked me why I wasn’t eating. I was always less afraid of my father than my mother growing up. Just hearing the calmness in his voice made me realize just how much I missed him. I started tearing up and told him that I just wasn’t hungry. “You need to eat,” he said. I choked up. “I’ll try.” And I did. If only they knew. Every day, I tried. But, nothing ever went down. It was as if someone had sewn my throat shut.
My mother wanted to take me to see a psychologist. But I was terrified and against the idea. So, we never went. The holidays were especially difficult for me, because holidays mean family gatherings, which meant even more food. I sat awkwardly at dinner parties during Thanksgiving and Christmas and felt so completely triggered. People would ask my mother right in front of me why I wasn’t eating. My mother would stop chewing midway through and stare at me from across the table, telling them that I simply wasn’t hungry.
Anxiety made me feel alienated. I felt like disappearing and never wanting to come back. The more my stomach shrunk, the less amount of times my brain would receive the messages from my body, telling me that I needed to eat. Things felt unreachable and painfully far away. Hunger became very much a foreign concept to me as much as rocket science.
I can’t remember when my body began to eventually normalize itself again. The thing about anxiety is that you can’t ever actually get rid of it. It stays with me forever. From time to time when I am triggered, I can feel myself closing up again. They’re only small episodes now in comparison to that catastrophic year in my life. However, they’re enough to frighten me, causing me to fear reverting back to that long dark period of uncertainty.
Anxiety is difficult to stop, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it defeat you. I remind myself of this whenever it feels unbearable.
Do you have anxiety? How do you cope with/manage it? Leave a comment below!
Petersen, A. (2017). On Edge. NY: Penguin Random House.
Edited by Viveca Shearin