There is a line in the ever popular musical “Hamilton” that goes like this: “I wrote my way out, I wrote my way out of hell.” For me, it’s the perfect way to explain how I conquer my demons of perfection and anxiety.
When I was first diagnosed with conversion disorder, I needed to learn how to rewire my brain in order to lessen the seizures my body was experiencing. This required me to wipe every belief and thought pattern I ever had and start over completely. The act of learning to think again was one of the most emotionally demanding things I have ever gone through. I have had lots of questions on how I learned to cope with my anxiety disorder then and how I still cope now, so here we go.
I started with “reality checks” as my counselor (Michael) and I called them. Every 30 minutes or so I was supposed to stop what I was doing and think about what I was feeling. I noted what was really going through my mind: what was I thinking? was I feeling scared, tired, shameful, imperfect, unworthy, okay, good, beautiful, healthy, relieved, etc? was I having thoughts that weren’t my own? Once I dug through my mind, I paired that emotion with a bodily reaction. Were my palms sweaty? was my stomach nauseous? did I have a headache? did I feel dizzy? My usual was, “I don’t feel like I’m good enough or perfect enough or worthy of love or anything good” and that was coupled with a heat wave and a racing heart which usually left me feeling like I was suffocating. Granted, it took me probably three months to actually admit that I was feeling the things that I was. I wanted to be fine, I wanted to be okay, and I most definitely did not want to admit to any weakness. Weakness meant imperfection and I wasn’t ready to go there. Only when the shaking/seizures increased did I give in to what Michael was telling me to do.
Once I was able to fully understand what I was feeling, I had to determine why I was feeling those things. Did my imperfect feeling come from something someone else said? did it come from the way I reacted to something? did it come from something I did? etc. I usually had to peel an onion of emotions to get to the underlying cause of why I was feeling a certain way, but often times it had something to do with someone not respecting me, saying the wrong thing in a social setting, or making mistakes. Other times my anxiety stemmed from something as simple as whispering or whistles, which for some reason send me straight into a stream of cloudy thoughts and anxious feelings. Being able to decipher my emotions was a process I struggled with for about six months; it requires unfathomable vulnerability and self love, which does not (and still does not) come easily.
Once I had the what and the why, I had to find, or rather, remember the who. I had to be able to take my feelings of inadequacy and suffocation and tell myself that I was worthy, I was enough, and I was okay. But before I could tell myself those things, I had to believe those things, and that’s the part I didn’t accomplish for a looonnggg time. I remember one particularly tough counseling session in mid-April 2016. It was a Monday at 1:30 in the afternoon. Michael was standing at the whiteboard in his office and I was sitting on the couch, wrapped in my favorite blanket, rolling my eyes at him. We were making a list of things I was good at, but I had to come up with everything. It was a physically painful process. At that point in my life, I did not believe one good thing about myself, and contemplating the topic made me sick to my stomach. I had tears in my eyes, but Michael wouldn’t sit down until we had at least three things. We ended up with “I am smart, I am beautiful, and I am a good coach.” I remember him sitting down and smiling at me proudly, but I was so exhausted and angry, feeling weak, imperfect, and unworthy of those words on the board. 20 or so minutes passed and we were on a completely different topic. Michael then asked me to do an exercise with him. He told me to stand up and take 2 steps to my left. Totally oblivious, I did so. Then he told me to turn around. I whipped my body around, screamed, and turned around faster than before, covering my face with my hands. Michael laughed. so. hard. What I saw when I turned around was a mirror, and I knew exactly what it was for. He led me over to the mirror, and asked me to repeat those three things we had written on the board to myself. He asked me to look into my eyes. So often, he explained, do we look at ourselves in the mirror, but we hardly ever look ourselves directly in the eyes. As I looked into my dark brown eyes, I saw exactly what I was feeling inside. Sadness, suffocation, a drowning girl. The phrase “I am good, I am smart, I am beautiful” turned over and over in my thoughts, but as I got closer to saying it out loud, my eyes pooled with tears and the voice telling me I was nothing, worthy of nothing, lacking everything became louder and louder. I closed my eyes and turned around. I couldn’t do it.
Months passed and the mirror haunted my dreams. I would catch myself, and I would look deep into my eyes, but nothing ever happened. It seemed that seeing myself drowning beneath my tears was not something I loved, and it was something my demons used against me frequently.
It wasn’t until I was in the middle of an anxiety attack that one of my best friends, who understood my darkness, shoved some paper and a pen in my hand that I really began to appreciate that day with the mirror. I couldn’t grasp reality, so I wrote was what real. I made a list of things I knew were real: the trees, the pen I was holding, the paper I was touching, the friend I could hold, the chair I sat on, the house it was in, the floor that held it up, etc. I wrote for close to an hour, transitioning from things I could touch to complex concepts I knew were real- like the fact that I was beautiful, smart, and talented. I put down that they were real, even though I had a hard time believing it. Then I made a “not real” list, naming all the things in my head that were loud and overbearing and negative, things I knew deep, deep down were not real. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my head was clear. When I finally put my pen down, my hand hurt, I was exhausted, but I was free. For the first time in my life, I was free of the demons of perfection and anxiety without sleep or medication.
Making that list on that rainy day in July completely changed my life. I had escaped my own personal hell with a black papermate pen. I wrote myself out.
I still make those lists today, but they look a little different. I now use all three crucial steps in order to stop myself from having a seizure, to escape dark thoughts, and to push an anxiety attack away before it becomes too much. Granted, I have an 80% success rate- there are moments that the list still doesn’t stop the darkness from overtaking my body, but it has definitely improved my life.
I start with a reality check, and then I recognize what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that thing, and then I get out my papermate pen and any piece of paper I can find. There’s something about writing it physically that makes it all the more real. I write “I am good, I am smart, I am beautiful” at the top of the paper. Then I continue with the “I am’s” writing things like: I am talented, I am enough, I am capable, I am lovable, etc. Then I write what is okay: It is okay that I am having anxiety, it’s okay that I’m scared, it’s okay to shake, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to go home early, etc. Basically, it’s a list of things I would usually view as imperfections that are actually okay. Then comes the “not okay list”: it’s not okay to stop trying, it’s not okay to take medication if you don’t have to, it’s not okay to go home and quit, it’s not okay to not ask for help, etc. I write for as long as it takes, and I write every thought in my brain and place it in one of those lists. Sometimes I write half a page, and sometimes I write eight pages. But I write until I escape my hell, or my head is clear enough to know it isn’t going to work.
Anxiety and depression are a monster that consume the human soul, and the demons that make home in our bodies are filthy and cruel. But I don’t want to sit passively by and submit my life to the darkness that it brings anymore, and I encourage you to do the same. Fight! It is completely possible to find a way to conquer our own minds, to be in control again. I can testify and promise that it is worth the trial and error, it is worth the tears, the sleepless nights, and the prayers where all we do is scream at God. It doesn’t take the pain away, nor does it diminish the extremity of our thoughts, but it does increase our capacity to carry the load; and when that happens, we have the wondrous opportunity to help others carry theirs. But, it is so completely worth it; because in the end we will stand on the mountain of our defeat and breathe a sigh of relief.