Living with anxiety can be all-consuming.
For some, it comes in waves, sneaking up during times of stress or worry. For others, it lasts hours or even days at a time, swooping in out of nowhere and hanging around like an unwelcome guest.
Writer and Babble contributor Kim Zapata knows a lot about what that feels like. The mom of one has suffered from chronic anxiety, as well as depression, for the last 17 years, and chronicles much of how it has impacted her daily life and role as a mother on her blog, Sunshine Spoils Milk.
“Being a parent with anxiety is tough,” says Zapata, “especially when you are a stay-at-home parent, because there is only so much I can do with my daughter — and in front of my daughter. That said, when I feel my anxiety rising, I try and make the best of a bad situation by involving my daughter, i.e., I color with my daughter, I swim with my daughter, or I run with my daughter. I dance, sing, and scream with my daughter. Does it work? No, not always. But when all else fails, I turn on the TV, step back, and walk away. When all else fails, I parent from the bed.”
It’s this same candor about the hard stuff that has led a recent Facebook post penned by Zapata to resonate with anxiety sufferers everywhere. In it, the mom offers an honest glimpse at what life is like when anxiety takes over your day — when it overcomes your body, and leaves you gasping for air.
“Lately I have been anxious: unbearably anxious,” her post begins. “Maybe it is all of the impending changes in my life. Maybe it is the current state of our nation, the insecurity I now feel in the country I call home. Or maybe it is just my damn anxiety disorder, but whatever it is I find myself on edge. My heart has been racing and my mind has been chasing after random thoughts and barely formulated ideas. I am afraid of a monster I cannot see, of a future I cannot predict, and of matters [over] which I have no control.”
Most of us feel anxious at some point or another in our lives; to some extent, nerves are normal — healthy, even. But for the 3.3 million Americans who suffer from chronic anxiety each year, the symptoms go far beyond a “bad case of nerves.” And the physical and mental toll they have on them can disrupt their very way of life.
They are the ones who, like Zapata, may find themselves one day shaking uncontrollably behind closed doors, crying and unable to articulate what’s wrong.
This was one of those days.
“Earlier today, my anxiety came to a head,” her post continues. “My thoughts, my feelings, everything was just too big. Life suddenly became too overwhelming.”
Zapata goes on to explain that while she has anti-anxiety meds to take whenever she feels this way — “a little pill which should put everything into perspective” — she often refuses to take it.
Like so many who suffer from mental illness, the fear, the shame, and the stigma that continues to swirl is all too real.
“Instead of taking my prescription, I sat with my anxiety,” writes Zapata. “I tried to meditate and breathe through it. I tried to write and work through it, but nothing helped. Nothing was working. So I headed to the pool and swam. I swam until my breathing was labored and erratic. Until my heart beat so fast and hard I didn’t think it could beat anymore. And then I stopped I sat on the concrete steps and focused on one thing, well two: inhaling and exhaling. In and out. In and out.”
But while Zapata admits that anxiety sucks — a whole lot, in fact — she’s also quick to note that there is hope.
“Anxiety stinks. Depression stinks, and the associated fear, uncertainty, despair, dread, sadness, self-loathing and doubt? It all stinks,” Zapata’s post continues. “But everything passes. With medication. With meditation. With exercise. With counseling or cognitive therapy, group therapy or art therapy, or any other thing which gets you through. So find what centers. What grounds you. And what pulls you through. And when you need it, go to it. Don’t put it off. Don’t put yourself down, and don’t feel like a pill is giving up. Don’t feel like taking ‘me time’ is giving in. And breathe. Try to remember to breathe.”
Speaking with Babble, Zapata shares that she began struggling with mental illness at just 15 years old. “However, despite the fact that I was diagnosed early, and was exposed to various treatments early, I still wrestle with it,” she says. “[And] when I am in the midst of an anxiety attack (or a depressive episode), everything I know — every tip, trick, and coping mechanism — goes out the window.”
That’s also part of the “double-edged sword” of advocacy, she says, adding that whenever a depressive episode or anxiety attack hits, she shuts down. “I completely and totally shut up,” she admits. “Of course, I know this only makes things worse, but advocacy can be a double-edged sword: advocates know how to help but they cannot help themselves.”
Still, talking about it helps. Writing about it helps. And giving herself a little much-needed grace helps.
“I hope whoever reads this post realizes mental illness is more than a ‘mental’ disease. A ‘crazy’ disease. A ‘this is all made up in your head’ sort of disease … They are not ‘going nuts.’ They are not ‘going crazy.’ They are not alone … and there is no shame being open and honest about your struggles. There is no shame asking for help.”