For most of my life, I’ve considered myself a fairly content, well-adjusted person. Certainly not happy-go-lucky, but I’ve been pretty healthy and satisfied with my life as a whole. Which is why when my anxiety symptoms showed up this summer, they scared me so badly. I’ve never felt anything like it before. Or have I?
Sometimes a certain smell can bring back a long-forgotten memory. That’s the way it was when I started feeling unwell, only it was anxiety that brought old lost memories back to the surface. And it has given me perspective on certain “illnesses” experienced as a child, which in hindsight I suspect were anxiety-induced. Interestingly, they have all occurred in the summer.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to a new community. We moved a lot before that time, and I had always been fine with it. But that year was a difficult one. I couldn’t seem to make any friends. Toward the end of the school year, I started getting terrible stomach pains. I remember running to the bathroom and hiding in a stall, shaky and nauseous. This went on for several weeks. One day it was so bad I asked to go home. By the time my dad came to pick me up, I was feeling much better just knowing he was coming to get me. One of the teachers told my dad, “there’s nothing wrong with her, she just needs some TLC.” I was so angry, because there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t just in my head.
That summer, an acquaintance of my family’s drowned in a tragic accident. We went to the visitation and seeing his body terrified me. It was the first time I’d had any experience with death. All that summer, I was absolutely convinced I was going to die. I’d heard about kids who had developed leukemia, so that’s how I thought I was going to die. I spent the whole summer completely convinced of it. When school started I had a much better time and I forgot about my fear of dying.
The summer I turned 13, something similar happened. I had started junior high the year before and the transition was hard for me. I’d had an awful year, and most days I’d come home from school upset and worried. That summer, I started developing terrible pains in and around my chest. They would shoot around the area of my heart and down my left arm, and then disappear. A friend of the family was visiting and he described how he’d recently had angina attacks. After that, I was sure there was something wrong with my heart, and the pains became worse. I was terrified by what I was feeling, but I was also too scared to tell anyone. Once again, though, when the school year started and I got caught up in work and friends, the attacks disappeared.
The final “big one” happened the summer of 1999, the year I turned 17. Toward the end of the school year, my best friend stopped speaking to me. I started feeling incredibly lonely and anxious about what would happen after I graduated. In the weeks leading up to a trip I was going to take by myself to England to visit some family friends, I started feeling this sense of unreality, like I was living in a dream. The whole time I was there, I felt awful. To make matters worse, I started developing nosebleeds that were so bad they would make me throw up blood. All I wanted to do was go home. When I did get home, I felt just as terrible. No friends came to see me, and I barely left the house. I threw up all the time and could hardly eat anything and just lay on the couch. I lost so much weight and spiraled into a well of anxiety and depression. I continued to have a feeling of doom, like something was wrong and I was going to die.
This time, though, going back to school didn’t help. All that fall, I felt like I was living in a fog, going through the motions but not really existing. I guess I looked so sick one day that one of my teachers felt my forehead to make sure I wasn’t running a fever. In November one of my friends in England, who I had seen during my visit, committed suicide. This news devastated me, but also scared me. I didn’t want to die, but I also worried that I would become her.
It wasn’t until the following year that the fog started to lift. I got a boyfriend, and we started hanging out with other people and having fun. For the first time in ages, I felt like a normal teenager instead of a scared, sick outcast. Nobody had known me from before, so nobody thought I was weird or different. I also started seeing a therapist, and just talking about what I’d gone through was a relief. My family hadn’t understood, but she did.
Looking back, I can see a pattern of stress causing the anxiety attacks, which I couldn’t see at the time. I continue to cling to the hope that if I could escape them before, I can do it again. On Monday I’m going to speak to a psychologist for the first time in 17 years. Asking for help is so hard for me, but it’s the only way I can see the light getting in.