What If the Water is Cold? My Story of Anxiety
It was the last day of 3rd grade. I remember being in my room, comfortably snuggled underneath my silky blue covers. I had the whole summer of sun, pools and lazy days ahead of me. Instead of thinking about all the fun things I could do, the actual thought that crossed my mind was, I wonder what I should worry about?
I’m not kidding.
I was literally worried about not having anything to worry about.
I want to be clear, I do not like worrying all the time. I would prefer to live without anxiety. It creeps up at the most inopportune times, creating an unsettling environment and causing my reaction to be both unflattering and at times, embarrassing.
The problem is that it has become a mainstay in my life. Anxiety is like that one friend that we all have that smiles in our face and then stabs us behind our back. We have such a history with that friend that we can’t imagine our life without her.
Wait, Not Everyone Worries About What to Worry About?
From as young as I can remember, I was a worrier. I worried about everything that I could not control.
- I worried that the water in the community pool would be too cold;
- When I sat for the ACT, I worried my #2 pencil was not the correct #2 pencil;
- I worried about being judged;
- I worried that if I made a mistake, it would mean that everything would come crashing down around me;
- I worried that everyone was talking behind my back.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. If you are reading this right now, you can probably relate. Anxiety is not discerning. It attacks all of our thoughts; from the absurd (a #2 pencil is a #2 pencil) to the personal (being judged).
Anxiety has always been a part of who I am. My story is not my story without it. Letting go of anxiety would feel like losing my right arm. Without my right arm, my handwriting is really sloppy, and driving becomes challenging.
Wait, Not Everyone Lives Their Lives This Way?
As I entered adulthood, my anxiety did not dissipate. Instead, it became bigger.
Now that I was on my own, my worries became consuming.
- What if I don’t get married?
- What if I can’t have children?
- What if I can’t afford the house I want?
My whole life was controlled by the word if, which is the worst word in the English language. Think about it. If has no absolute. It is completely dependent on something else happening.
I’m only a complete person IF I get married
I am only a real woman IF I can have children
I’m only successful IF I have a nice house to show off
My life was lived in the bubble of the words “can’t” and ‘if.” Rarely did I ever think about what I could do. That mindset was in opposition to the way I did life.
Wait, There’s a Diagnosis for This?
Turns out that all the years of worry are not actually “normal,” whatever normal is.
In my early 30’s I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (to keep this in perspective, I am in my mid-40’s). Great. So now I was a label straight out of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. MENTAL DISORDERS!
I didn’t want to think of myself as someone with a mental disorder. After all, I was a well-functioning individual. Aren’t mental disorders saved for people who cannot manage life?
I think the word that threw me off was disorder. I am not a disorder. I am a person who manages my life in a very orderly way. In fact, when that order is challenged, anxiety takes over.
Therefore, I have a mental order, not a mental disorder.
Wait, Not Everyone Thinks this Way?
One thing that I have always been good at is observation. I grew up in a home with substance abuse. In my experience, children who come from this type of environment often develop a keen sense of surroundings. We become hyper-aware of the littlest changes in behavior in those around us.
This is probably one reason why children who grow up this way are likely to become adults with anxiety. We are always aware of how people are acting and are constantly telling ourselves a story about why someone is behaving as they are. For me, the story was that I must have done something wrong.
In any case, I decided to start paying attention to how other people behave in situations that typically caused me great anxiety.
Turns out other people don’t think once, much less 5,000 times about the temperature of a community pool. They also don’t define their entire character by one set back.
Other people are able to compartmentalize.
Wait, Now I Have to Re-Write My Entire Narrative?
I have finally realized that I cannot live my life in a world of unsettled thoughts surrounded by misguided narratives. I need to re-think how I approach situations.
Anxiety is Comfortable. I know that sounds weird, but think about it. Anxiety is both comfortable and uncomfortable. When it arrives, it makes us feel like we cannot breathe. But because it is there most of the time, it becomes the one thing that we can count on.
Anxiety stems from fear and lack of control. Oddly, the excessive worry that morphs into anxiety is something that has become a constant. So while we might feel out of control in its presence, without it we feel entirely unraveled.
This is Not Easy
I have not figured this out yet. In fact, the only thing that I have come to terms with is that I will never be without anxiety. This was big for me. After my initial diagnosis, I tried everything to get rid of anxiety. Nothing worked.
It wasn’t until I changed my mindset and realized that maybe getting rid of anxiety is not the goal. Maybe the goal is learning how to manage it.
It’s not easy, managing anxiety. It sometimes catches me completely off guard. But, looking at it differently is helping me to manage it much better.
The first thing I did was change my language. I used to define myself as an anxious person. Then I realized that by putting anxious before person, I was giving anxiety the control.
So I flipped the script.
Now, I define myself as a person who struggles with anxiety. I am a person first. Anxiety is just part of my story, not my entire book. It is surprising how something so simple as changing our language can change our perspective.
I also try to challenge my thoughts and avoid using words like can’t and if. When I do, I ask myself to provide evidence to the fact that I can’t do something, or that if something does not happen then it means there is something wrong with me. This has helped me to look at things differently.
I don’t live my life in absolutes anymore. I am not absolutely a horrible person if one thing does not happen. Like the people I observed without anxiety, I am learning to compartmentalize.
I am also learning to understand my triggers. Knowing why I may carry my anxiety around is essential. The why behind anything is crucial to its defeat.
The last thing I do is I bring it to life. It has occurred to me that we cannot kill something that is not alive. So my anxiety is a person. I have named her. When she shows up, I treat her like that frenemy who makes me think I need her but is really causes more harm. I acknowledge her existence; what she is causing me to feel and think. Then I tell her that I will not allow her to skew my definition of myself any longer, and I tell her to leave.
I Am Not a Success Story
I have not figured it all out yet. I am a work in progress, we all are. There are some days that I am still that 3rd grader worried about whether the pool will be too cold. But now there are also days when I tell myself that even if the water is cold, my body will acclimate to its temperature.
I am not a success story of someone who figured out and defeated anxiety. Not yet. But I no longer allow myself to surrender to its death hold on me.
Image credit: Charles Rondeau
Monica Pitek-Fugedi is the owner of MindGal, a website dedicated to helping people with anxiety, panic attacks, and overcoming obstacles so that we can live a life of purpose. Monica also hosts The MindGal Podcast, which aims to erase the stigma surrounding mental health.
Monica is a licensed professional mental health counselor, and works as a High School Counselor in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. She has struggled with anxiety and social phobia throughout her life. Her passion is to help others understand that they are not alone, and to offer helpful resources.