A breakthrough, part 1: anxiety

A quick prologue...

As I'm about to submit this post, my heart races. My anxiety kicks in and the very symptoms I write about here take place. I worry that what I've written isn't good enough, that people will judge me for it, and that I'll just look stupid. But, I have to do this. Awhile ago, I had one of those moments where I asked myself if (hypothetically) I died tomorrow, what would I regret? My answer: not sharing my story and doing more to advocate for people with mental illness. Writing about my own experience is my starting place. I don't know where it will lead me, or whether it will make any sort of difference. I don't know if I'm ready, but I'm going to do it anyway...

Flying through the air from 11,000 feet feels more wonderful than I ever thought it could. The wind holds me up, smashes against my body, and I feel safe. Safe through the 10 seconds of free fall. Safe with the swift jerk of the parachute deploying, and safe during the 5 minutes under canopy, gliding nearly at eye level with Mt. Hood, above the Oregon farmlands. So, why is it I feel safer up here than I do with my feet planted firmly on the ground? 

Since I was a child (officially diagnosed in high school), I've lived with generalized anxiety disorder, with an extra serving of social anxiety. (I also have depression and trichotillomania, but more on that in parts 2 and 3). While the term "generalized" makes it sound like stale toast, for me this means that I am (generally) anxious/afraid of most things—afraid of life, afraid of living. This anxiety manifests itself in three main ways inside my brain: catastrophizing, panic attacks, and what I'll call "chatter". 


Catastrophizing means that I'm really good at figuring out the worst possible scenarios that I could encounter out in the world. As an example, let's say I'm in a grocery store. I look around and I see a crowd of people trying to make sweet little decisions about whether to buy "organic" produce or "local" produce, and I start to panic. I panic because I worry that one of these people will talk to me. They'll start to talk to me and I'll say something really stupid. I'll say something really stupid and they'll look at me like I'm crazy. And then, they'll start telling other people in the grocery store how crazy I am, and pretty soon everyone in the store is looking at me and laughing at me. And, just for good measure, an earthquake strikes at the exact moment that I'm in one of the isles reaching for a jar of tomato sauce, and the whole isle starts shaking its sauce at me, burying me in a saucy death. *End scene*

Panic attacks

The constant catastrophizing is often accompanied by panic attacks, which range from "not-able-to-concentrate" to "heart-and-mind-are-racing-so-fast-that-I-literally-make-myself-sick". That saying: "making yourself sick from stress"? Yeah. It's a real thing. Body aches, nausea, migraines...there's a host of symptoms that like to show up when I'm stressed. I've had to walk out of or skip important things because I felt too sick to function. 


Catastrophizing, panicking: it's all part of the constant soundtrack of "chatter" in my brain. Not only do these negative voices in my head constantly analyze every situation for worst-case scenarios, they're fantastic demotivational speakers. They like to pick apart everything that I do, worry about everything that can be worried about, and chip away at my self-esteem. Their greatest hits include "you're not good enough", "everyone is mad at you", and "you're probably going to fail anyway". Basically, my brain is filled with a bunch of jerks. When I'm at my worst, they're all I can hear; any kind words from myself or others are drowned out. Any insults? They just confirm that these negative voices are true. If you want to insult me, let me save you some time: those insults are probably already floating around in my brain. In fact, I've got a few zingers you can use.

And all of that is what makes me want to crawl back into bed, pull the blankets over my head, and go to sleep to try to turn the chatter off. 

So, back to flying through the air. Why did I choose to jump out of a plane from 11,000 feet? When my boyfriend mentioned he might want to go skydiving for his birthday, I realized this might be the perfect opportunity to not only face a fear (I'm terrified of heights), but face all of them...at the same time. Among the chatter in my head, a small voice whispered, "if you can conquer this, you might be able to conquer anything". And so I did. For his 35th birthday, we drove to Mulino, Oregon and tandem skydived with very experienced instructors strapped to our backs. In order to keep myself as "calm" as possible throughout, I wrote the diving instructions on the sweaty palm of my hand and four important words, "go above your nerve"—a quote from one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems. It was terrifying inching over to the door of the tiny Cessna plane and then being not-so-delicately flung out of it at over 100 miles/hour. But...then it was beautiful. It was absolutely amazing. And it did exactly what it was supposed to do. I went above my nerve. It was my breakthrough. 

Did jumping out of a plane "fix" me and clear me of all future anxieties? No. That's something I'm working on diligently (and have been working on for years) with the help of a Psychiatrist and a few carefully prescribed medications. I've been living with this illness for such a long time, with more bad days than good, so I know there's nothing that will "cure" me completely. In fact, I know that anxiety will likely be something I'll always have to live with and manage. The important thing, though, is that I have lots of tools in my toolbox to combat those bad days: the aforementioned Psychiatrist and medications; exercise; hobbies; and wonderful friends and family who care about me. Jumping out of a plane added one more important tool to the toolbox: the confidence in myself that, if I can conquer the fear of jumping out of a plane, then I can conquer any other fear in front of me.

(Post script after the jump)

Skydiving notes to myself. Photo my own. 

Skydiving notes to myself. Photo my own. 

On the Cessna plane, taking off for my jump. Can you feel the nerves? Photo by  Pacific Northwest Skydiving .

On the Cessna plane, taking off for my jump. Can you feel the nerves? Photo by Pacific Northwest Skydiving.

P.S. Why am I writing this blog? 

I know there are plenty of blogs out there that deal with mental illness. Jenny Lawson and Wil Wheaton are some of my personal heroes and (virtual) mentors on this front. They express their feelings and experiences with mental illness more eloquently than I ever could. So, I know I'm not adding a drop of anything new to the internet bucket. But, I felt like I needed to do this for me. I need somewhere to share my thoughts and keep a record of the good days and the bad days so, when the bad days come (and they will come), I'll be able to look back and remember that I can get through this. So, that's what this blog will be. And maybe I'll write about some other things, too. Who knows. 

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this series, where I'll talk about living with depression and trichotillomania. After that, I plan to write about my day-to-day experiences, struggles, and victories with mental illness. If you have any (nice, please) questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Currently listening to....