I've always been an anxious person. I think this stems from an early and deep rooted need to always be perceived as perfect (ridiculous, right?). I blame being the middle child - aka the "peacemaker" - during a tumultuous childhood. When things felt out of control, I took it on as my job to attempt to keep the peace. Or at least not add to the turmoil.
Don't create waves. Don't rock the boat. Don't cause drama. Be polite. Be nice. Be quiet.
Be unrealistically perfect.
I was a straight A student and a varsity athlete. I didn't drink or party or date. I didn't cuss. I didn't talk back. I did everything I was "supposed" to do.
I was miserable. I was drowning.
Drowning in my own anxiety. Drowning in my own expectations of everyone else's expectations.
I couldn't outwardly express myself, so I internalized. It wasn't anyone's fault really. I remember my mom constantly asking, "what are you thinking?" "How are you doing?" desperate to know what was going on inside my head. But my scripted answers were always the same, "Nothing." and "I'm fine."
Through multiple divorces and addictions and traumas and my life, at times, spiraling completely out of control, I was always fine.
Brad was the first to challenge that. When we first met, he asked me "What's your story" and when I replied that I didn't have a story, he kept asking. He never let me off the hook - always pushing for me to reveal more of myself. The parts of myself I kept hidden from the world. The parts of myself I hated. My anxiety, my fear, my stubbornness, my anger. He wanted to see it all.
By the time we were living together, Brad was well versed in my internalized anxiety. Our running joke about my constant state of anxiousness became, "Why worry when you can panic?" a stolen quote written in graffiti on the bathroom stall of a bar. It summed me up perfectly.
Outwardly, I was calm and collected, laid back and agreeable. Outwardly, I was "fine." Inwardly, I felt like I was in a constant state of panic. I was overwhelmed and stressed. I took on the weight of the world, even when I had no business doing so.
Then I got cancer. And I wasn't fine. And then Brad got cancer and I really wasn't fine. And I couldn’t pretend anymore.
During that time, keeping quiet and internalizing my thoughts and anxieties felt like I was emotionally being choked by my own inability to express myself. My own cancer, a tumor in my chest and creeping up into my throat, seemed like a blaring sign from the universe that my refusal to release these feelings was literally strangling my voice.
So I took control in my most unnatural way: I let that shit go and started sharing my inner thoughts with the world.
I started this blog. And then this blog. And finally this blog you're reading today.
I started dropping f-bombs all over the page. I wrote about fear and anger and all the shit life was throwing our way. I wrote about anxiety. And about being vulnerable. When Brad got sick, I wrote about feeling helpless and my worry of not being enough for him.
I found my voice and I wrote about it all. The topics I had internalized and had been stuck in my head, suddenly were written down for the world to see. And then when writing about it wasn’t enough, we started to talk about it. Through the podcast, we openly discussed our anger and our guilt and our hopes and our fears and our optimism.
Brad was there though it all. A constant companion, encouraging me to keep going. Keep sharing. To continue finding - and using - my voice. When I felt weak, he built me up. When I closed off, he opened me up.
And when Brad died, I continued. For him, as much as for me, I continued. I kept talking and I kept writing and I kept sharing. And it helped. Helped me connect. Helped me digest. Helped me to externalize my internal thoughts.
Then the anxiety started to creep back in. Not all at once, instead starting like a slow drip. And with that anxiety, I started sharing less and started retreating more. Back into my head. Drip. Drip. Drip. Until eventually, I felt like was once again drowning in anxiety. Drowning in my own thoughts. Only now, Brad wasn't there to pull me out.
And I realized, right around the 6 month mark, that I had been running on the adrenaline of grief. I was numb and in denial and had run away and was distracted by the stress of logistical things that no 34 year old should have to think about. I was writing and living (as best I could) and doing all of the things Brad would have expected of me.
Until I wasn't. Until I couldn’t. I ran out of energy, out of motivation. 6 months after Brad died, I couldn't keep going. So I slowed down and this "new normal" started to emerge (fuck this new normal by the way). And I started to live in a routine. And it was in that routine that I realized - like a wind knocking punch to the gut - that the only person that ever really knew me - knew how to handle all these difficult parts of me - was no longer here.
The person that helped me reveal myself - my true and authentic self - was gone. And a new layer of grief, a layer I didn’t know was possible, set in.
Brad used to walk in from work every evening and tease me because - within minutes - I would download an entire day's worth of information to him. Before he even had time to take his suit jacket off, I'd tell him about the article that I couldn't stop thinking about or a situation a client was in or a joke that I couldn't stop laughing at. I would wait all day to share with him, eager to know his take.
And now I walk through the same door. Every evening. And It's just me. And I have no one to download my ideas to. No one to question about the day. No one to dream with. No one to ask, "your thoughts?" And that lonely, quiet, reality, was more than I could handle.
I was stuck and I was alone.
So I started to retreat. To hide those parts of myself I struggled with. The sadness, the anger, the overwhelming grief started taking over my life. I woke up every morning physically feeling the weight of my anxiety on my chest. And instead of leaning on the people around me - the people who wanted to help - I closed up. I didn't allow them to show up because they weren't Brad. And those that showed up anyway, I still resisted because I didn’t want my anger and negativity and struggle to become a burden on them.
But at some point last week, in the middle of immobilizing, hyperventilating tears, I realized I couldn’t keep living this way. I was refusing to accept my reality and in that, I was falling down a deep, dark hole of depression, focusing on everything that was missing and awful in my life. I hit rock bottom. And at some point in the middle of it all, I realized I had to stop waiting for Brad to show up and pull me out. I knew I needed to rely on myself and some way or another, crawl my way out.
It wasn’t easy. It isn't easy. It's probably one of the most difficult things I have to do. Day in and day out, I have to acknowledge my new reality and keep living anyway.
In order to do that, I needed a plan. I needed to force - not joy - but acceptance. Contentment. Gratitude. I needed a list of the most simple things I could do at any point, on my own, to help myself breathe when the anxiety became too much. When reality became too much. So I made a list - a list of ways I could deal with my crippling anxiety and channel that negative energy in a more positive way (ways that didn’t involve me constantly breaking things…).
And because I am sure I am not alone in experiencing soul crushing anxiety, I want to share my list. Because as much as I refuse to admit it or allow sometimes, we are all in this together. So here it is. The list of "Things to Do When It’s All Too Much:"
This list isn’t perfect. Sometimes none of these help. Sometimes, I really do just need to ride out the wave, feeling every ounce of anxiety ridden sorrow before I can move forward. But sometimes, simply focusing on breathing or taking a walk is enough of a step in the right direction. And that one tiny step is followed by another tiny step. And slowly, progress is made.
One small step at a time.
Please feel free to share what works for you - even if I don't ask for it and tell you "I'm fine," I’ll take all the help I can get. Until then, let's all just keep breathing.