When I was 12 or 13, I told my parents I was really stressed out. I don’t remember why I said it, but I remember lying in bed every night, wide awake, my mind racing with worries that would probably seem absurd now, and I couldn’t make it stop. I didn’t know how to describe this, because I didn’t know that there was a difference between everyday stress and more serious anxiety, and my parents dismissed it. What could someone in middle school be so stressed about? That was over 15 years ago and I haven’t brought it up to them again.
As I got older, it got worse. I started having panic attacks as a teenager that felt, at first, like I was dying. I developed insomnia in high school that lasted all the way through college, so I spent half of my teen years and my early twenties staying up all night and grabbing naps during the day when work or school allowed it, and I constantly felt like I’d been run over by a truck. My sleep schedule finally normalized, but the anxiety didn’t go away. Over the years, I’ve had some friends and roommates who realized that I wasn’t quite okay, mostly because of the never sleeping thing, but I never talked about it at length. It’s not that they didn’t care, I just didn’t think I could be helped. I felt like I was broken and wondered why I couldn’t just be a normal person.
When I was 24, I landed my absolute dream job: writing about video games full-time at a fledgling website. I was there for three years, and in that time I worked almost non-stop. Nights, weekends, holidays, on vacation, there was never a day when I didn’t do at least something work-related. Unfortunately, not everyone shared my enthusiasm, and over time my dream job turned into the most toxic work environment I’d ever experienced. As millions of dollars were squandered and horrible decisions beyond my control were made, I spent months and months as an absolute wreck. Every two weeks, I felt like I couldn’t breathe as I wondered if we were going to get paid. Every time someone called a meeting, I felt sick to my stomach. I was constantly on edge and prone to panic attacks more frequently than at any other point in my life. Everyone there was stressed out, but I could barely function—and continued to work relentlessly even as everything fell apart. When it finally ended, I was more relieved than anything else.
That didn’t make the problem go away. Most of the time, it’s just there, and I’m used to it. My mind starts racing as soon as I wake up in the morning, cycling through everything that I should be worried about. If I catch myself in a good mood, I immediately feel like something’s going to go wrong. I get a tight feeling in my chest that gets worse when I’m more anxious. When it’s really bad, I get really tense and shaky, and then I’m sore and exhausted for a couple of days. Sometimes it’s triggered by stressful events, and sometimes it just comes out of nowhere.
The only person who knows how bad it gets is my husband. When we were still dating, I had a humiliating panic attack at a party that forced me to be more open about my issues, and thankfully he didn’t run in the opposite direction. He does his best to understand what I’m going through. I brought it up to a doctor once, in passing. He suggested I cut back on caffeine, and I told him he was making me more anxious. That was the closest I’ve ever come to attempting to get help.
So why have I avoided talking about this? Is it because I don’t want to burden my friends with my problems, or because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy—or overreacting and exaggerating? I don’t know. Talking about it is hard. Writing this is hard. But as I’m finding out, I’m not nearly as alone as I thought I was. And though I’ll never be a normal person (for reasons that go far beyond anxiety), I don’t think I’m broken anymore… most of the time. I’ve been not talking about this for over a decade, and it hasn’t helped. The thought of sharing this story has been terrifying, but now that it’s on the page, it feels different. I know it won’t fix everything, but maybe I just needed to know that I don’t need to keep this to myself. Dealing with constant anxiety is exhausting enough. I’m done with making it worse by carrying it around like a horrible secret.