I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember although I didn’t know it. It was just part of me. Part of what I knew as me. It wasn’t until my anxiety hit a peak that I really realized what it was.
During my undergraduate degree I had begun a history of taking on way too many things, partially because I realized there was a world available to me with so many opportunities and fun things to do. I would immerse myself in activity after activity. I maintained that level of “to do” for quite some time, in fact I got through 2 degrees that way.
Then I moved to Halifax to do my PhD and study the neuroscience of anxiety and fear behaviour. Not because I knew I had anxiety but because I thought the topic was interesting. But when I got there, things sped up. The research was demanding, the coursework was demanding, I started drinking coffee for the very first time, I stopped sleeping as much as I needed. I figured 5 hours of sleep was enough and that extra time would allow me to keep on top of my game. On top of that, my grandmother was dying of cancer and I was a few months away from breaking up with my boyfriend of 12 years, who was back in my hometown of Winnipeg.
By January 2001 of that first year. I was anxious. REALLY anxious. My anxiety had hit an all-time high. My heart was pounding constantly, but I thought it was normal, at first. I stopped being able to go out with friends instead preferring to come home to my empty apartment and have a drink of wine and watch TV. TV was my social escape where I didn’t have to do any of the socializing but could feel it vicariously. Eventually, I realized that my anxiety was anxiety and that it was bad enough that I wondered about taking anxiety medication. I went to the university health services and sat down in the doctor’s office and started crying as I mustarded up the words “can I get a prescription of paxil?”.
I started taking it that day and within 24 hours I felt relief. In fact, it was so surprising because I knew, based on my studies, that this wasn’t even really possible, neurochemically. But what I felt… or rather what I no longer felt… was my pounding heart. Instead, I felt a deep sense of calmness come over me. I felt like I was laying on a cloud looking down at a peaceful world. Everything seemed fine… so wonderful!!
I vowed to stay on till May, just to get through my courses. May 1st hit and I was off the meds. The experience was quite enlightening, in many ways. It provided me with the experience of calmness - an experience that I believed till then was only available through several isolated moments in an entire lifetime - moments like drifting away on a boat, hanging out on a dock, or just feeling the wind blow through your hair as you bike. Instances, not constances. It never occurred to me that this might be the norm for someone. It definitely never occurred to me that it could be the norm for me. It never occurred to me because my norm was so different for my entire life.
That experience didn’t end my anxiety but it changed is dramatically. It gave me a new baseline to seek and achieve. It gave me journey and a destination. I struggled with anxiety here and there afterwards. I had another episode in 2005, after I had finished my PhD and was in a new lab as a post-doctoral fellow, on top of which I began teaching my very first university course. My life instantly hit a whirlwind and I was spinning out of control. Lindsey and I were living together at the time and because she was an undergrad student wanting part-time work I hired her to mark the tests for me, to clean my room, and to do my laundry. I felt like I was going crazy… again. The term ended and I found my way out of the whole I dug, mostly because I knew that familiar land and didn’t want to stay there.
But, this life and the struggles we encounter provide a journey for us. I may never live a completely anxiety-free life. In fact, stress (the basis of anxiety) is an important part of our existence. From a neuroscience and psychology perspective, stress is important for our survival. But too much stress is the culprit. So the challenge (and the reward) is about finding a path that meanders through this life with awareness of when we flip into that zone of “too much”.
I realized I hit that zone again recently, actually. I currently run my own business, which is more than a full-time job, and on top of that I accepted two new teaching contracts at UofT. I thought I was managing this past month and a half fine but in reality. I’m not. I’ve been having problems falling a sleep because I’m up all night thinking about my performance and the performance of my students and how that will reflect on my performance and then a whole network of anxiety-provoking thoughts begin to spin out of control as I lay there awake in their presence.
But it’s different this time. First of all, it didn’t take my 25 years to figure it out like the first time or a year the second time. It took me 6 weeks. It took me 6 weeks because I know the warning signs. I know what anxiety feels like and I know I’m in it.
It’s hard for me to admit this tonight but that’s exactly why I share it. Because my life, my life coaching practice, my teaching philosophy, and an organization that Lindsey and I founded called Body Monologues is predicated on the very notion of openness and sharing.
So that’s my story. That’s my Body Monologue: Me and my anxiety.