Anxiety is complex. You may not know what it means when I tell you that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder [click the links to learn more]. In short, my anxiety disorders lead me to react with excessive anxiety to triggers that do not always merit an anxious response. Anxiety permeates every aspect of my life, it is far more than a desire stay home and avoid social gatherings. I hope that in sharing my list of anxiety triggers I will help shed some light on how debilitating anxiety can be and hopefully challenge some false assumptions along the way.
The triggers listed below are my own – anxiety triggers differ greatly from person to person. The items on this list vary in their severity and the frequency at which they provoke my anxiety and panic. They are not all things I dislike or am afraid of, in fact many of them are things that I really like. In some cases I have a good understanding of why these triggers cause me distress, in other cases I have no idea. With all that in mind, here is a list of some of the things that trigger my anxiety and panic.
Being far from home
Being in the same space as other people
Changes in plans
Changes in temperature
Clicking publish or send on any form of online communication
Conflict (even if I’m not involved)
Feeling as though I can’t escape
Lack of sleep
Large groups of people
Leaving the house
News (good or bad)
Not having a plan
Portrayals of suicide in media
Scary fictional stories
Seeing neighbours through the windows
Small groups of people
Talking in person
You may now be wondering how it is possible to be so sensitive and easily provoked to panic. I wish I could explain that to you. If you haven’t experienced an anxiety disorder you probably won’t understand what it is like to feel anxious, as though something truly awful might happen, in response to mundane things in your daily life. I have had Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder for many years, Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety Disorder are newer to me. I am still learning to understand my own anxiety and how to best manage it. It makes very little sense to me that I can become dizzy and hot, hyperventilate, have chest pain, feel weakness in my legs, shake, be disoriented and feel as though I am in imminent danger as a result of things as unthreatening as reading positive news articles. Being constantly anxious has had negative impacts on both my physical and mental health. Irritability, weight gain, hair thinning, moodiness, headaches, seclusion and muscle tension are just a few of the negative changes that my anxiety has contributed to. Anxiety has hugely impacted my life and my relationships.
Even if I employ as much planning and as many coping tools as possible, it is inevitable that I will come in contact with my triggers throughout my day and respond with anxiety. I have lived in near-constant anxiety for a couple of years now, because there is always a chance that one of these many triggers is just around the corner. The anticipation of something anxiety-provoking is often just as bad as the thing I am anticipating. Additionally, I still frequently experience increased anxiety or panic attacks without any identifiable trigger. I am slowly learning to tolerate my anxiety and panic, but my anxiety remains exhausting and incapacitating even as my ability to withstand the distress increases.
I write this because anxiety is misunderstood. When most people think of anxiety disorders they likely don’t imagine someone having a panic attack every time they shower without understanding why. You may not know that there are people like me who have been working for years towards goals like going outside for walks. The best way to understand how anxiety disorders affect someone’s life is to ask them about it, anxiety is a deeply personal experience. It can be easy to reduce anxiety disorders to chronic fear or nervousness: emotions that we can all understand. Anxiety is so much more than that, even I don’t fully understand it yet.
Last week I asked my husband Tom a tough question and was touched by his heartfelt and encouraging answer. I thought today I would share his response with you.
First, some context.
I am struggling through a bad low. The respite from my last depressive episode was far too brief. Now that depression has returned, I am trying to counter my feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness by pushing hard to establish my “base.” This basically means maintaining a basic routine and meeting my immediate needs by eating regularly, maintaining a sleeping schedule, getting out of bed, etc. I have learned a lot in my therapy the past couple of years, I am trying to apply what I have learned in order to keep my head above water. More often than not it feels like I am drowning, but I’m resisting as best I can.
All that to say that last weekend at this time I was ruminating about my life and what was to come of it. What was going to happen to me? Would I get back to how I used to be a few years ago or would I die soon? What was most likely? Not for the first time, I decided to turn my questions to Tom. Not for the first time, he answered with exactly what I needed to hear.
Here is what he said:
I definitely don’t think on either one extreme. I don’t think you’re going to be dead in the next couple of years or anything like that. And I don’t think you are going to find a magic miracle pill that all of a sudden makes everything peachy. But, I think that right now you’ve got a really great set up with Dr.___, who I think understands you a lot better than when we first started seeing her. I think she’s a really good doctor and she’s really helping.
You’ve also learned a lot of really good coping skills quite recently. I think right now you use them but they’re going to become a lot more so second-nature [with time and practice]. As more of those become more second-nature you’re going to struggle through the day to day a lot less. If you’re struggling through the day to day a lot less then all of the sudden it opens things up and you can be doing things like go out with me or go see a friend or you know, all these other things… Do a chore around the house kind of thing… That’ll really mean that all the sudden your lifestyle will improve a lot just with minor amounts of improvement to building your base. I think with the base right now we’re just locking it down and I think we’re going to get it locked down. And then the next time if you’re ever in a spot where you don’t have that locked down, you’ll know you can do it. You’ll know and it’s going to be easier, you’re going to be more confident and it’s not going to be so scary. Right now, it’s obviously really scary.
I think we’re going to continue to find more things like the click and collect groceries where for a long time we were worried, “we’ve got to find a way to get these groceries done.” It was really tough for you but we found a way to do the groceries.
[Me: Yeah, adaptations that suit our lifestyle. I think we’re getting to a point where we’re realizing that that’s okay.]
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s awesome. Click and collect groceries is growing like mad. I think we’ll find a couple more things like that and you get that base built so that on the days when you’re pushing, you’re pushing to do something like a little more. It’s going to bring the whole quality of life/lifestyle way up there. Just a small improvement is going to make a massive change to the lifestyle and the day-to-day. I really believe that.
There are so many things I love about his answer. I love that every bit of it shows just how much he understands what I am going through and my goals. He lives this with me every day, after all. I love that he acknowledged that I was thinking in extremes without mocking me for it; instead gently helping me recognize it for myself. I also love that the emphasis in his answer is that I have gained and continue to gain information and tools from therapy, the impacts of which are beginning to be established and will grow with time. He is right, if I am able to get to a point in which the beginning of depressive episodes don’t completely wipe out any semblance of my routine and my most basic of self-care practices, I will feel a lot better. That’s within my grasp. His answer places power on my shoulders, the belief that I have the ability to advance to a better situation by continuing my hard work.
Had Tom told me he thought I would fully recover, I wouldn’t have believed him. He wouldn’t have believed himself either. It might sound strange, but that is incredibly validating to me. We both awaited my return to “normal” for a long time. However, as time has gone on it has been clearer that we have to adjust what our perceptions of my normal are. This has been a challenge, but is bringing on some good changes for us. We have begun to embrace adaptations that work for us, like his example of ordering groceries online. This allows me to contribute in a manageable way – I make the list, I place the order and Tom goes to pick it up. I hope he is right that we will continue to find more adaptations that suit our needs.
I have found firmer footing and new motivation from Tom’s answer. What he explained makes sense and it helps me feel like progress is attainable. It reinforces my purpose with my short-term goal: strengthen my base, that alone should help make other improvements easier to achieve. Tom doesn’t think I am a lost cause, he sees me applying what I have learned and believes more improvements will come of it. That bit of hope is enough for now. It has helped me find the strength to keep trying.
P.S. Many thanks to Tom for not only being unfailingly sweet, honest and encouraging but also for patiently repeating his whole answer so that I could record him and write about it.
This is for anyone who has stories they cannot tell.
I share a lot on this blog. I try to be open and honest, as transparent and authentic as possible. But the truth is, there are stories I cannot tell. Parts of my story, parts of what make me, have to remain silent. There are certain topics that I can’t approach because I would risk hurting or embarrassing people I care about. There are pieces of myself that are regularly invalidated, but are nonetheless true.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am able to speak about my mental illness. There remains a wealth of individuals who we could be learning from, who could benefit from sharing, who are silenced. People whose stories are rich, complex and diverse. People who fear being stigmatized and ostracized. People who try to speak up but are quieted. People who wish they could speak up but are barred from doing so. People whose lives go unwitnessed. Whose stories go untold.
I see you, I hear you. Even as one of the privileged few who can be open about their illnesses and their stories, I know something of how it feels to have to conceal part of yourself. So, to the person who sees calls to speak up and feels heartbroken that you can’t, you are not alone. To the person who isn’t yet comfortable seeking treatment even though you know you need it, you are not alone. To the person who has decided to swallow trauma in order to avoid unpleasantness with people you care about, you are not alone. To the person who is silenced, you are not alone. No one is alone. I hope you have one person who you can trust to confide in without fear of judgement. Even a whisper can break the silence.
I find myself repeating “maybe someday” an awful lot recently. My mental illnesses are currently making it difficult or even impossible to do things I wish I was able to do. Will I ever be able to go for a walk on my own again? Maybe someday. Will I ever work again? Maybe someday. Will I ever perform in community theatre productions again? Maybe someday. Will I ever be able to see my friends and family without discomfort? Maybe someday.
“Maybe somedays” are hopes, dreams, goals, aspirations. Sometimes maybe somedays are desperate answers to prying questions (i.e. “are you working again yet?”) that highlight things I can’t do that I feel sensitive about.
The hard part comes when I have to accept that despite my best efforts my “someday” hasn’t arrived yet. Last week I had to cancel my trip with my husband to Stratford, Ontario for next month. Stratford is my place. If you dissected me and turned my contents in to a city, it would be Stratford. Theatre (musicals! Shakespeare!), music, art, cute shops, restaurants, friendly people, parks, water, mature trees, etc. Whenever I go to Stratford, I feel like I am connecting with something that is truly a part of myself. I used to go every year. I haven’t been able to go since 2015, since my depression and anxiety worsened. I dared to dream I could manage the trip this year. There are no words to convey how sad I am that I can’t.
Maybe someday. Maybe someday I will return to Stratford.
Maybe somedays can be uplifting or heartbreaking, it all depends on perspective and circumstance. Maybe someday means that there is hope, but not immediately. I know I’m not alone here, I know that many people with illnesses of all forms are torn between hope and desperation over the things they are currently unable to do.
I try goal setting, I try to gradually work towards being able to accomplish what seems so out of reach. This too can be either motivating or discouraging. I can see myself making progress and rejoice in small victories. “I left the house! Take that agoraphobia, that’s what progress looks like!” I can also see how very inconsequential my progress is, fixate on how many more small steps there are before I reach my goal and how these steps continue to be so draining. “So what if I left the house? Most people leave the house every day and most of them can do it alone without panicking.” Don’t even get me started on how it feels when I compare my current goals to the ones I had a few years back when I was unknowingly blessed with decent health. Comparison is fuel to the fires of depression and anxiety, and those fires are already burning me too much.
Lately I feel like I am being suffocated by my maybe somedays. They seem unachievable, completely out of reach. I’m not blind to my progress over the past couple of years, but there is far more ground ahead of me than what has been covered.
I could fill thousands of pages with my maybe somedays. I cower under the magnitude of the things I can’t do but wish I could. My maybe somedays range from things as seemingly small as, “maybe someday I will be able to do the groceries” to, “maybe someday I will be healthy and stable enough to be a mother”. They can be both things that others take for granted and things that are a challenge for anyone. It can be incredibly tempting to just stop trying. My husband has heard me more than once contemplate whether I would be happier if I just gave in and lived like a hermit, if I just accepted my limitations and stopped trying to overcome them. In my more rational moments, I recognize that I can’t expect myself to do everything and that balance is important. In my less rational moments I wonder whether there is even a point of being alive with so many road blocks ahead of me. Is the amount of progress I need to make to be a functional human even attainable?
I don’t have answers. I think maybe the best thing is to try to focus on what I am able to do and try to build mastery of things, one at a time. Perhaps trying to quiet the looming thoughts about the bigger more heartbreaking maybe somedays would help me focus on more achievable short-term goals. All I can tell you with certainty is that I have been working tirelessly to improve my mental health for over two years now and as time goes on it feels like I am accumulating more maybe somedays than I am accomplishing.
Will I ever lead a full life unencumbered by illness? I don’t know, maybe someday.
I’d like to thank the ever kind Nicole of Navigating Darkness for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Nicole’s newly revamped blog is always an interesting read so you guys should definitely check it out.
My understanding is that the Sunshine Blogger Award is a way for the blogging community to show each other support and appreciation for each other’s blogs. Each person who is nominated answers a series of questions from the person who nominated them and in turn nominates more bloggers. I am grateful to Nicole for recognizing my blog and enjoyed answering her questions. I hope some of my nominees will keep this chain of gratitude and recognition going, I look forward to hearing their answers and looking in to the blogs they choose to nominate.
Here are the rules of the Sunshine Blogger Awards.
Thank the blogger who nominated you and link to their blog.
Display the Sunshine Blogger Logo in your post or on your blog.
List the rules in your blog post.
Answer the 11 questions that are provided to you by the blogger who nominated you.
Nominate 11 bloggers.
Provide your nominees with 11 questions (different from the ones you answered).
I am so in awe of a plethora of bloggers. I am going to stick with mental health bloggers today. Here are 11 of the many that I admire. While I’m not including bloggers who were nominated along with me, I haven’t checked if the people below have been nominated already. My apologies if some of you have already been nominated, as I’m sure you have been! I hope some of you reading this will check out these fantastically written and deeply insightful blogs.
Thank you all for your contributions towards our ongoing discourse around mental illness and mental health. I am inspired and motivated by your writing.
Questions for My Nominees
What is your favourite book?
Which of your blog posts are you most proud of?
What quality do you value most in others?
What is your best joke?
Who is someone who had a big impact on your life?
What’s one aspect of blogging that you dislike or find challenging?
If you had to choose one meal to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What is your least favourite movie?
What is your favourite scent?
What is one way that you cope with bad days?
Where is your favourite place?
My Answers to Nicole’s Questions
Briefly describe the moment when you decided to start a blog. What made you want to start? Did something or someone inspire you?
Keeping this brief proved impossible, but here is how I decided to start my blog.
I started writing my blog in November of 2017. I wouldn’t say there was one specific defining moment that lead me to begin blogging about my mental illness, it was more of an accumulation of small moments over that year. In January 2017 my depression was at an all time low and I was hospitalized. I had been struggling more than usual and secluding myself. My friends and family knew I was ill, I have always been fairly open about my depression and anxiety, but I was avoiding communicating with them.
When I was admitted to the hospital I was completely terrified. I had been hospitalized just once before and that previous hospitalization had been a traumatic experience. Suddenly I knew I had to be transparent with my friends and family because I would need their support to get through my hospitalization. So, I started posting on Facebook. I let my friends know when I was admitted and gave them a bit of an update every day I was in the hospital. In response, my family and friends rallied, they made sure I wasn’t alone if I didn’t want to be, they showed me how much they care. But also, I started receiving messages from friends telling me how my writing about these experiences was helping them face their own mental health challenges. I knew I had to keep being open about it.
I was released from the hospital after a couple of weeks. But I was still not stable and was readmitted in March. I went back to giving my Facebook friends a daily update during that time in hospital and they kept telling me how much it helped them. I even started to get messages from people telling me they never understood mental illness and that I was helping them understand it better. This was heartening. I also started to notice that blogging was a release for me. I began considering to write a blog but 2017 was busy, we moved in to our house in April and I married my husband in October. Blogging was far from a priority.
After the wedding I started to look for a new project to dedicate myself to. I had been planning the wedding for two years and suddenly there was a gap in my time, I needed a new meaningful activity. I had continued to be very open with my friends on social media and I was continuing to receive positive feedback from people of all sorts. I took the plunge and I’m very glad I did.
What is one thing that you want everyone to know about you?
One thing I want for people to know about me is that I receive fantastic treatment and have an amazing support system. My husband Tom takes care of me in every way possible. I have caring, generous and accepting family members and friends who help me make it through tough times. I see a psychiatrist at least once per month. I have completed three group therapy programs in the last couple of years. I have worked with social workers, a psychologist, a case worker, occupational therapists… Point being, people can struggle even if they are getting the best care. I am being supported more than I could ever ask for, but I am still struggling. I have made some progress, but not much sustained progress, and I am still in a lot of pain and distress every day. It is too often assumed that if someone is struggling with their mental health they must not be receiving proper care. Or, even worse, we assume if they are receiving treatment and support than they must not “really want to get better” or “aren’t trying hard enough”. The truth is, even when we have the best of support and treatment at our disposal, recovery takes time. Everyone is different. I’ll admit, I do get tired of the assumption that my doctors and support system aren’t doing enough for me or that I am not trying enough solutions or trying hard enough.
Tell us one way that you are a good blogger. Stating that you are not a good blogger is not an acceptable answer because every one of us has good qualities. Maybe you raise awareness for something. Maybe you’re good at coming up with ideas for posts. Maybe you love working with other bloggers and supporting them.
I am honest. That’s one thing I think that makes me a good blogger. I try not to veil any emotions or hide any messy details. I am as honest and open as I can be about what it feels like to be me and the things I care about.
What is one of your biggest goals that you wish to achieve with your blog?
This might come across wrong, but I don’t really have goals for my blog. When I started the whole thing I just thought that maybe a couple of people would read it and find it meaningful or informative. I have already been floored by the amount of attention and love I have received for the blog. True, my readership on the whole is quite low. But a few of my pieces have been shared quite a lot and I have received such positive reinforcement. Every time I hear from someone that what I wrote helped them I am just so touched and grateful, it’s what keeps me going.
What is your favorite TV show?
Choosing just one would be impossible! My favourites are probably The Office, Game of Thrones, Gilmore Girls and Downton Abbey. I love stories and TV is no exception. I have been watching quite a lot of TV in the past couple of years while my energy has been so low, these are the shows I keep coming back to.
What is one country that you would like to visit, and why?
Italy is at the top of my list. I could tell you it was because of beautiful monuments and the culture… But honestly, it’s mostly about the gelato! That’s not to say that I haven’t always wanted to see Tuscany, the Trevi Fountain, the Amalfi Coast, the Colosseum… These are all necessary stops along the way, you know, to fill in the time that I wouldn’t be spending eating gelato, pizza, gelato, pasta and more gelato. I mean, who didn’t read Eat, Pray, Love and wonder why Elizabeth Gilbert ever left Italy? Ireland and France are also high on my list. My husband and I had to cancel our honeymoon to the Caribbean (probably Jamaica) in favour of nearby Québec City because of my anxiety, so I am also hoping to be able to go to the Caribbean with him some day.
What are three material possessions that you couldn’t live without?
I see this in two different senses. There are items I couldn’t live without because of their function and others I couldn’t live without because they are meaningful to me.
My oven: I love to cook and bake. I would be hopeless without an oven.
My iPod: Sadly, my beautiful iPod classic is on its last legs. I won’t be replacing it with a new version or putting my music on my phone. I need my iPod. I have already begun my desperate search for a fully functioning iPod classic. I’ve been using it for something like 12 years, I would be lost without it!
My bath tub: I can say this from experience. When Tom and I moved in to this house last year there was a tiny bath tub that I barely fit in. I rely on baths. It was of the utmost importance that we get a bath installed, ASAP. And my amazing husband and father-in-law did! In those interim months I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was panicking or very low and needed the warm embrace of a bath. I don’t function well without it.
My wedding & engagement rings, and my stuffed animal pig “Pandu”: Forgive me this triple item. My husband is my whole world and I will never get over that he chose me to spend his life with, flaws and all. My wedding and engagement rings are a material reminder of how lucky I am, how in love we are and that I am never alone. Why the pig stuffed animal? When Tom and I first starting dating we were making a stop at a pharmacy when I saw an adorable stuffed pig. He got it for me, we named it Pandu, it was his first gift to me. I ended up losing it during one of our moves and searched desperately for years to find it, even emailing the head office for the pharmacy chain to no avail. When Tom decided to propose he did an extensive online search, searching through thousands of photos of stuffed pigs. He eventually found it and ordered it for me. His plan was to give it to me as part of our proposal but when the delivery arrived at the house I googled the name of the company it came from and realized what he had done. I still feel awful for ruining his romantic proposal plan, but it was still such a meaningful and romantic gesture that meant the world to me. That is how a pig stuffed animal named Pandu became as important to me as my wedding and engagement rings.
My copy of Peter Pan: This book has been a favourite of mine for as long as I can remember. I even broke a tooth as a kid jumping off of a tall piece of furniture, convinced I would fly. I adore Peter Pan, it is so beautifully written. My copy is cloth bound edition with the original illustrations. I take it out and read a few pages regularly. I read the whole book at least once per year. It was my escape as a child and continues to be now.
My red blanket. During my first time in a psychiatric hospital ward back in 2010 my dad drove for hours to come visit me and brought me a cozy red blanket for my hospital bed. Nothing ever seems so bad when I wrap myself in that red blanket.
If you could have any superpower in the world, what would it be?
This one is pretty easy for me. I would want the power to heal others. I would want to be able to help others escape from their pain.
What is your drink of choice? It can be non-alcoholic or alcoholic, or feel free to list one of each.
Grenadine. (Hands up if you get this reference from The Office!)
What are three personality traits that you like about yourself?
I like that I am caring and I am creative. I also like that I value learning from one another more than sticking to my own beliefs and assumptions. I struggle to choose qualities I like about myself, but these few I am quite fond of.
What are your hobbies or some things that you like to do in your spare time?
I love to cook and bake. My favourite things to make are pie, homemade pasta, ice cream, pizza and veggie burgers. I also love to read, I fill my bookshelves with lots of novels and when I can’t decide on a new book to read I re-read the Harry Potter series. I love spending time with my husband, my dog, and my family and friends. I love playing board games, especially when I am well enough to get together with friends to play games. Perhaps more than anything else, I love singing. There was a time when I was going to pursue musical theatre as a career, I sang, acted and danced every day. I miss that very much. I have wanted for years to get back in to community theatre productions, but it’s not possible right now. But nothing could stop me from singing.
Thanks again to Nicole for the nomination. Thank you also to my nominees for their fantastic blogs that inspire me all the time.