Next month, May, is dedicated to Mental Health Awareness. Prince Harry gave an interview recently in which he spoke of how he is just now dealing with grief over the death of his mom, Princess Diana, in 1997, and has encouraged others to speak up and seek help when needed. I’d like to share with you my experience of living with anxiety.
When I was 15, I took my first flight on a commercial plane. I flew to Surprise, Arizona with my dad and little brother, to visit family. I was in awe of that plane, a huge mode of transportation that could take me to faraway places. I loved the feeling of the take-off and the landing. I wanted to sit by the window and see everything, until the landscape disappeared below the clouds.
The next time I flew, I was 19 and on my way to Hawaii, for a summer-intensive Bible school. From there, we went to Seoul, South Korea for a week, and on to our missions trip in the Philippines. Our trip ended in early November, and I flew home on Thanksgiving day, with only a handful of other passengers. They served turkey dinner. I loved every minute of it.
Fast forward to the summer of 2000. I was almost finished with college at U.C. Davis, just one more semester left. My boyfriend and I planned a seven-week backpacking trip to Europe and took off in mid-June. It was an incredible journey that I was fortunate to take, but something strange started to happen to me there. I began experiencing my first battles with anxiety.
By week two, we were on our way by train from Italy to Switzerland. There’s this series of super-long tunnels through the Alps. My heart started racing each time we entered one, and I started to have vicious, racing thoughts about all the “what-ifs”. What if we broke down, if we couldn’t get out, if the lights went out, if I ran out of food or water…I was panicking. This was weird though, I’d never worried like this before. In fact, I used to love tunnels, found them exciting, anticipating the light to emerge at the end. This time the light couldn’t come fast enough.
By the sixth week, we had traveled through France, Switzerland, Germany, and Brussels, and were on our way to finish our trip in the U.K. I was desperate to go home instead. I looked into changing my ticket, but decided to stay. After all, I thought I was just going a bit crazy with home-sickness, or maybe I was just tired of couch surfing and carrying that stupid 45-pound pack. The uncertainty that sometimes comes with traveling had stopped being an enjoyable adventure.
The remainder of the trip, I couldn’t bear being underground anymore – forget the subway, especially in London, in the heat of the summer, which did break down regularly for long periods of time. I had a hard time being in traffic, crowds, or loud situations. Taking the Chunnel was out of the question.
Finally, we were home-bound! We were departing from the same airport, but we were on separate flights. Mine stopped over in Cleveland and then on to SFO. It was a Continental flight, and it was the absolute worst culmination to my developing situation. It was so hot in the cabin; the air wasn’t working. The flight attendants were the worst, unfriendly and rude. They waited for eons to serve any drinks, and my mouth was dry as a bone from being so nervous. It was turbulent; it was terrible.
Anxiety makes you feel like you’re going crazy. A panic attack feels like death is imminent. My anxiety was manifesting in a way that made me feel like I had to pee every five minutes, so I was up and down from my seat during the entire flight. When they turned on the seatbelt signs, I felt trapped.
Safely landing in San Francisco, my mom and brother picked me up. I was pretty much a wreck from that flight, but I was so glad to be on the ground. We had a three-hour drive home, back to Murphys. When we hit the San Mateo bridge, we came to a dead stop in rush-hour traffic…it was my last straw! I couldn’t fight it off any longer. I gave way to a complete and utter attack of panic, all that I had held back while abroad.
Screaming and crying like a wild animal, I could NOT handle being stuck on that bridge in that traffic, with no end in sight. I wanted OUT! My poor, poor mom and brother witnessed a full-on crazy-person breakdown from me. After we finally made it off that dang bridge, we still had about two hours left in our drive. I begged my mom to pull over in Livermore to stay the night at a hotel. Just one-and-a-half hours from the safety of home! I couldn’t make it. I had to get out of that car. We stayed the night, and finished the trip in the morning.
For the next couple of years, I really struggled with anxiety, in large part because I never talked to anyone about it, and never sought help from a medical professional.
Surprisingly, I still flew, even after that horrible Continental flight. I took a trip back to the UK about a year later, in 2001. My sister was in Seattle, so I flew to see her a few times. I took a trip to Panama, and Mexico. But, I had lost that very comfortable feeling for flight and travel that I had when I was a teenager.
I refused to drive over the San Mateo Bridge for years after that breakdown. It was only very recently that I was faced with finally driving over it again; it was the most direct way to get from Point A to Point B. I said to myself, “Self, you can do this.” So I did. I conquered that bridge once and for all. It was empowering. As F.D.R. said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” That pretty much sums up what anxiety is about, the fear of something that may happen in the future. The fear of fear.
We recently took my stepson on a trip to D.C. I was really looking forward to the trip, as it meant a break for me during a very busy time at work, and it was our first sight-seeing trip together. At the airport, I got this sudden flutter of excitement – excitement to get on the plane. You guys – I’m telling you, this was a miracle moment. It’s been 20 years since I had that flutter of excitement to board a plane. “Twenty years,” I thought. Twenty years. I was doing a happy dance in my head. Dang. This is what healing feels like.
I had stopped thinking about healing from anxiety altogether. I figured it would be my little-lifetime-quirky thing to deal with, and I was grateful to have a husband who is supportive. This spark of excitement to fly again…it was a teeny, tiny, personal victory that made me realize, hey, time does heal. Apparently, the magic number for me was 20 years.
Media sells us this idea that change/healing/transformation happens fast. If you’re not perfect in a week or less, something must be wrong with you. We’ve all seen the headlines: “6-Pack Abs in 2 days!” “3 Weeks to Your Best Marathon Time!” “5-Minute Gourmet Dinners!” Stop listening. It’s a lie.
I see clients that have had surgeries, or suffered a physical or emotional injury of some kind. They’ll come to my office and say, “It’s been a week! Why do I still hurt? Why don’t I feel better? When will I feel normal again?” I tell them it’s extremely reasonable to assume it’ll be six months to a year, and they groan and roll their eyes annoyedly. Healing – of the body and of the mind – takes longer, and sometimes much, much longer, than we want it to.
Don’t pressure yourself to be healed or “fixed” in a day. You will heal. When you do, you’ll be stronger and better equipped to manage whatever life throws at you next, and ready to help others who are going through the same thing you did. In fact, maybe you’re going through this rough spot to be able to take the lessons you’ve learned and coach, assist, or befriend someone else who is going through the same thing.
For everything, there is a season. If you’re going through a dark time right now, experiencing internal or external stress and chaos, I ask you to give yourself grace to just be in this crappy moment. If you feel like you’re drowning right now, I beg of you, hang on. Your time of peace, healing, and comfort is nigh. Your miracle is around the corner. I’m here for you; you have a friend. I stand with you.
“No one said it would be easy. But, no one said it’d be this hard.” – Sheryl Crow
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Winnie the Pooh
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
In memory of J. Chris Toushan, #bedeeplykind.