One in forty Americans adults are affected by anxiety. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from it.
And so do countless other moms, including several women here on our Alamo City Moms Blog team.
As moms, we read stories to our children about being afraid. Afraid of the monsters under the bed. Afraid of the dark. Afraid to start school. We talk to our kids openly about it. We encourage our toddlers to share their feelings. We offer reassurance.
However, when it comes to adults who experience fear and worry, it is often a different story. We remain quiet. We retreat. We hide.
May is Mental Health Month, which includes National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week.
Throughout the day, we will be sharing posts on anxiety. We’re coming out from hiding – shedding light on an all-too-often dark subject.
It’s 3:39 AM.
I’m lying on my living room couch, eyes open and tears flowing as fire crawls down my spine. My heart is racing. I am breathing but can’t catch my breath.
I make promises to God.
Just heal my body, Lord.
I think about my five-month-old daughter and three-year-old twin boys. Will someone tell them their mom used to be athletic? Will they look differently at me when I am unable to run with them or feed myself?
I have Multiple Sclerosis.
Like a needle on a record my thoughts scream over and over to me.
You have MS.
The tingling in my wrists and hands. The headaches. Blurred vision. The symptoms started shortly after I gave birth to my daughter.
Unable to think about anything other than my impending diagnosis, I made an appointment with my family physician and prepared myself to hear how my life would soon change. Forever.
“Erin, you have carpal tunnel syndrome. It is my opinion that you do not have Multiple Sclerosis.”
You have MS.
I am certain my doctor missed something. I can’t stop thinking about it.
You have MS.
And, if I’m with someone, talking about it—breaking the news to them that their daughter, friend, wife, and daughter-in-law has a disease that will slowly debilitate her, just as it has my uncle.
You have MS.
My doctor’s attempt to ease my worry is pointless. The MRI he ordered for me—not because he believed I needed one for diagnosis, but because he thought it might put my mind at ease? Pointless.
I could no longer shop in the mall, watch my favorite television show, or care for my children without the constant physical pain and slew of negative thoughts about my impending declining health.
I continued to visit my doctor. Back again after a clean MRI scan, my doctor said something to me—something that resonated for the first time:
“I don’t think anything is physically wrong with you,” he said. His tone put heavy accent on the word physically, and he paused.
“I think you should talk to a psychiatrist.”
I’m not crazy. I just have Multiple Sclerosis.
That’s when my physician suggested I might be suffering from anxiety.
To me, anxiety was something that comes right before a big test or job interview. It passes quickly and life moves on.
But this was different. Whatever I had was debilitating—physically and mentally. My body ached. I was tired all the time. I felt disconnected from my husband, twin sons, and mostly, my infant daughter. I was there, yes, taking pictures of her, smiling at her, going through the motions of new mom. Yet I wasn’t there—something had hijacked every thought in my mind, turning it to incessant worry.
My physician prescribed Cymbalta (duloxetine) an SNRI, or selective serotonin and norepinephrine repute inhibitor, and I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. Not a licensed therapist or a psychologist, but a psychiatrist!
I still remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s waiting room and looking at the others who were also waiting. Were they crazy? Was I?
Because on my darkest days, which were many in the last five months since having my daughter, I felt crazy.
Now sitting on the infamous psychiatrist couch (I refused to lie down) and assuring this new doctor that I was, in fact, not crazy, I began to divulge every detail of my physical pain and mental torment. I revealed my self diagnosis. And then she had one for me. In a matter-of-fact tone, the psychiatrist’s eyes met mine and told me that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
My mouth dropped.
I can’t have OCD. I’m not a germaphobe. I don’t count or open doors repeatedly.
The psychiatrist explained it to me like this: I’ve probably always had anxiety. Delivering my daughter likely triggered it. Like depression, anxiety and OCD can also manifest in postpartum, she said. Hormones can spark it. So can stress. I had heard of postpartum, of course, but only ever associated it with depression. I had no idea anxiety could crash this party we call having a baby. I had no idea anxiety could show up out of nowhere. I had no idea anxiety could lead to such physical pain. Not imaginary pain, but real physical symptoms that seem to have no rhyme or reason.
As I left the psychiatrist’s office with another prescription in hand for Cymbalta and orders to get plenty of exercise and fresh sun, I began to assess my life of 33 years.
In the six months prior, my husband and I had moved to a new city, bought a house, and had a baby, while raising two wild twin toddlers. We had no family in town, my husband worked long hours, and I had little opportunity to make friends.
As a kid, my dad called me his “worry wart.” I was afraid of getting lost, fearful of running out of gas on long trips, and suddenly, I remembered an especially dark period in my adolescence when worry consumed me. When I was 14, in the height of puberty fueled by crazy hormones, I went through a period of weeks where I thought I had a brain tumor. I couldn’t sleep, prayed to God to spare my life constantly, and often knocked on my parents’ bedroom door in the middle of the night, too afraid to fall asleep for the fact that I may not wake up. My parents took me to several doctors who assured us I did not have a brain tumor. Despite that assurance, fear then overpowered my 14-year-old self, like it had again at 32.
Back at home with my husband, three children, and a new diagnosis and about four weeks into my medication, the obsessive thoughts of illness disappeared. So did the aches, burning sensations, blurred vision, restless legs, and shortness of breath.
I began to see myself in a new light. More importantly, I began to see my anxiety as something manageable. It freaked me out, for sure, to think I had gone to such a dark place, swimming with such irrational thoughts.
However, in this new place, I could once again go online without googling Web MD. I was able to get lost in a movie again. I could socialize with friends and not talk about my impending death. Most importantly, I was able to connect and be fully present with my new baby girl, twin toddlers, and my husband.
I joined a gym and got back into exercising. I made sure to play outside with the kids a lot, allowing the sun to soak into my skin. I took my medicine daily with dedication. I practiced meditation.
Nearly 10 years later, I have chosen to cut down on my antidepressant medication. My current physician says it is such a small dose he is surprised it does much for me at all. But it does. I am a better mom, more patient wife, and better able to handle the stresses of raising three near teenagers while running my own small business.
I have a mental disorder.
Some call it a mental illness. I still cringe at the sound of a term that carries such negative associations. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Women have double the risk for anxiety disorder compared to men, and it strikes women most often between puberty and age 50. For more interesting statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, click here.
I know now that when I am stressed my brain creates false reasons to worry—kind of like a fight or flight response. I must fight what’s real so my brain doesn’t create something that’s not. I still fight obsessive thoughts, but I have learned to recognize them now as just that: stress.
I have a secret. I have anxiety. I am not ashamed. I am proud.
My anxiety no longer controls me. I finally control it.