Anxiety Is The Monster Under My Bed
Originally Published on Femsplain, January 2017
TW: Anxiety, Panic Attack Mentions
When I opened my eyes, the light was on. I could tell it was still dark outside, but I couldn’t recognize the room around me. There was a man standing in the corner. He was featureless and completely black, like a shadow. He didn’t move. I couldn’t move. My eyes were searching around the room. I looked down and saw blood all over my hands, but I couldn’t work out where it was from. I became aware of my body being filled with an unshakeable certainty that I was going to die.
To most people who have suffered from panic attacks before, this feeling of life-threatening dread will be all too familiar. Yet it remains impossible to describe to those on the outside. Sometimes it can creep up on you, swelling and swelling until you can no longer hold it in. Or it can hit you fast and hard, like a car crash. It could happen anywhere: in an elevator, in a crowded supermarket aisle, walking down the street. Every little fiber in your body is screaming, telling you to run.
And sometimes, the episodes can visit you in your dreams. I’d had nightmares before, but nothing had filled me with the primal fear I had experienced in that room. Half awake, half asleep. Nothing was real. My bedroom was unfamiliar. But I experienced every little emotion, every rise and fall in terror like I was still awake. I couldn’t breathe. I was convinced something was trying to kill me.
I was living by myself at the time, so I awoke crying from my panic attack at 4 A.M., alone in a cold, dark room and 200 miles away from my family. I went about the rest of my day, but I couldn’t shake the night terror from my mind.
I’m not “crazy,” I have severe anxiety.
I was always a creative child. Even today, I can conjure up worlds, people and situations so easily in my mind that they almost dance before my eyes. But, like a deal made with a strange witch in a fairytale wood, there’s a cost that comes with having such an overactive and often out-of-control imagination.
Just as my mind can create stories full of fairies, elves and whatever else my pre-teen self was occupied with, it can also create monsters. The shadow creeping out from under my bed was a sharp-toothed clown. That noise coming from the boiler in the cupboard was a vengeful robot made of rusty tin cans with knives for hands. Some of the thoughts were understandably upsetting, like the anxiety I dealt with when my parents separated, for example. Others were so overtly ridiculous that I can’t help but laugh at them now.
As a kid, I used to panic every time an ambulance drove past me on the street. I’ve heard from other people that they also jump to scary conclusions such as, “maybe it’s my loved one,” but my second thought was always “but what if I got run over by a car and I’m dead, and I just don’t know it yet?”
As I grew into adulthood, the elves became lofty aspirations and the frightening clowns became an overwhelming fear of failure, amongst many other things.
The anxiety has always been there, but it wasn’t until I moved into the busy metropolis of London that it became unbearable. Walking past any group of people was an impossible task. Any sound of laughter must have been at my expense. I loved my lectures, but seminars were my special idea of hell. It felt like my mind had been enveloped in one thick, grey cloud.
There are always lots of thoughts constantly rushing through my mind, but I can never pick out a single one. The possibilities and opportunities that my imagination gave me were being destroyed by this dark illness, and no one seemed to understand how serious it was.
One of the biggest issues about growing up with anxiety without knowing you have it is that it begins to blur the line between what is normal and what is unhealthy. It wasn’t until seeing a therapist did I realize my need to constantly present myself well was yet another physical symptom. Small quirks that have always been there, like walking with my eyes on the floor, biting my nails, and not being able to sit still meant that anxiety has partly shaped who I am as a person.
But that was just the beginning. After a year in London with money troubles, arguments and difficulty adjusting, we found out that one of the most important people in my world had cancer. When I opened up to my therapist about it, he told me I was describing my trauma to him as if I was describing a chair. Anxiety had taught me to be obsessed with self-managing and hiding my emotions so well that I had literally forgotten how to feel them around other people.
Looking back, I see that was the point where I began to spiral too far. The anxiety became overtly physical. It felt like I had been staring at a bright, glaring computer screen for too long, and my eyes couldn’t concentrate on one thing. I was having multiple anxiety episodes pretty much every day.
For me, a panic attack begins when my neck, wrist and arms feel tingly. There are pins and needles in my legs. My whole body suddenly gets hot and I start sweating. This can happen because I got a call from an unknown number, because someone keeps sending me messages when I am already busy, or because there are suddenly too many people in an elevator.
It feels like always being on the brink of tears. I can’t sit still in a meeting, my feet are constantly moving and I start picking at the skin on my finger. It feels like being sat in a restaurant, and tearing a napkin into a thousand, tiny white pieces. Like scratches on my wrist where nails have dug in too hard. Like I’ve forgotten how to take long, deep breaths.
When it’s really bad, I can’t move my hands or arms without shaking. My heart is burning a hole in my chest. Heartbreak feels physically painful. Insults bite like bullets and hurt crawls along my skin in prickly goosebumps. I feel lightheaded and nauseous. I want to run but I can’t move, and I don’t have anywhere to go anyway. My back aches, but I haven’t left the house in three days.
It feels like a desperate need to be safe but not knowing where to find that safety since an anxiety attack can come from anywhere; in the middle of my seminar in front of 10 complete strangers, alone in my room or out for drinks with my closest friends. It feels like not knowing if I want to be alone or surrounded by people I love the most, and suddenly doubting that those people love me back. It feels like everything in the world is wrong and alien, and I feel numb.
It was at the climax of all of this that those childhood monsters came to visit me again. There were nights when I was so sleep deprived that they appeared as hundreds of spiders crawling across my walls, jolting me back awake just as I was about to drift off.
If anyone ever tells you that anxiety is just a problem of the mind, it’s impossible to explain just how wrong they are. Anxiety isn’t just a mental illness. For some like me, it can become so out of control that it takes on its own physical form.
After a year of crippling, wildly uncontrollable anxiety, it became clear that the best thing I could do was go home. Over the next few months, my anxiety simmered down to a manageable temperature. With each walk through my familiar hometown, another spider began to crawl away. My nails began to grow back. The dark bags under my eyes softened, and I ate real food. I wrote real essays and started numerous new projects. The tin-can robot retired back to his cupboard and the shadow man disappeared.
There is no clown under my bed, just the resolute remains of an anxiety-monster that made my life unliveable for two long years. I don’t think it will ever go away, but neither will the lessons I learned about fighting, survival and resilience.