Casualties of Life

“Pierre sometimes felt like an emergency room physician. People streamed through his door, casualties of city life, lugging a heavy World behind them. Broken by too many demands, too little time, too many bills, emails, meetings, calls to return, too little thanks and too much, way too much, pressure… It wasn’t servile work they did at Manoir Bellechasse, Pierre knew. It was noble and crucial. They put people back together. Though some, he knew, were more broken than others.”Louise Penny, The Murder Stone

This is not going to be an easy post to write but part of me feels like I have been waiting most of my adult life to do just that. I promised an explanation for why I had been so absent from this blog, so here goes.

I suffer from anxiety. Not as crippling as it could be perhaps, but disruptive and intrusive nonetheless. There, I said it. I tend to refer to my anxiety with the more generic title of “emotions” to make it seem more manageable but it’s time I call it by its real name.

At the risk of sounding conceited, I think those who know me have often looked up to me as someone who seemed to have a happy, positive, ebullient outlook on life in general. Someone who has everything figured out and, when they didn’t, who is content enough to go with the flow and see where life takes them. And I have indeed lived a wonderful and full life so far filled with incredible people, amazing opportunities and so much love, and for all this I am beyond grateful.

And yet, there is a side of me I have hidden from the world for a very long time. To be fair to those I have known the longest who may feel duped, I think this side of me was hidden even from me until I struck out on my own in second year university. My childhood was a happy and a healthy one, and it is almost as if because of this, the anxious part of my personality never felt the need to make its presence known. But once I was out on my own, making a myriad of adult decisions I never even knew were a requirement of an independent grown-up lifestyle, the anxiety that had lain dormant for the majority of my life suddenly stretched its wings, bared its teeth, and marked its proper territory in my brain.

Even still, I was able to mostly limit its domain to the periphery of my thoughts by keeping myself as occupied, mentally and physically, as possible. Every day was filled to the brim with exercise, socializing, homework and at least one part time job. As long as I was busy, by the time the my anxiety started to fuss in its isolation, I was far too tired to indulge its insistent intrusion into my happiness. Shutting the gate firmly, I would fall into a fitful sleep, only to start the whole process over again the next day.

Throughout the years my anxiety would occasionally break through my defenses, but would always give up the struggle and go back into hiding again after much coaxing, usually in the form of The Princess Bride and potato chips.

This all changed a few years ago when I finally finished my schooling. Five years of undergraduate and two years of graduate school under my belt, I had officially joined the world of the 9-5. At first, everything was great. I was kept busy enough with a daily 12 km walking commute, plans almost every night after work, and a job that was both insanely busy and mentally challenging. Though I had left school and my whole lifestyle had changed, I still clung to the tried and true defenses that had served me so well for so long.

Even the most comprehensive defenses, however, fail at the end of a long enough siege. After making yet another change by opening myself up to the first romantic relationship in 26 years on this earth, I reached another milestone in the form of my first full panic attack. It happened on such an innocuous occasion.  My boyfriend was driving me home after a stressful and full day of work and I was thinking of the list of things I wanted to get done that evening. All of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My to-do list, small as it was, seemed to have grown to a monstrous size and was now sitting heavily on my chest, pushing down on my lungs. I told my boyfriend I was fine and scurried into my apartment alone, making straight for my bedroom. That night, after a therapeutic chat with my sister, I lay in my bed, curled up, reminding myself to breathe until I fell asleep. The to-do list remained unfinished.

After that dangerously metamorphic night, my life counter-intuitively continued to change in the most amazingly positive and exciting ways.  I traveled to new destinations, babies were born, loved ones got married, I got a permanent job, my boyfriend and I moved in together and soon got engaged… And yet, in the midst of all this overwhelming happiness, in the back of my mind there remained a pulsing threat that at any moment my happiness could come crashing down around me. Any minute I could feel that crushing weight again, that need to flee, to escape, to crawl into my bed and never leave. I never allowed myself to relax and enjoy it all because all I could think is the second I let my defenses down, I would have no protection from the destructive proclivities of my own mind.

In my fear, I picked unimportant arguments with people I loved, allowed myself to stress enough about work that it adversely affected my physical health, stepped away from all the hobbies I had cultivated over two decades filled with curiosity and wonder. Every time I reminded myself  how happy I was, there was a cruel voice that echoed this thought back with the caveat “but will you always be?” I couldn’t see a way out of this cycle and, as a result, I felt more and more of my precious mental territory succumbing to the reign of that never-satisfied, clawing anxiety.

This is why I stopped writing. This is why I have been hiding. This is why I have been so distant.

And yet, despite the despair in this post, there was always a glimmer of hope. I am lucky to be surrounded by wonderful, loving, incredible people who never let me fall too far. As much as I may have wallowed in this constant feeling of the inadequacy and transitory nature of my happiness, the people in my life did not let me drown.

And so, I clawed my way back to that happier version of myself. I knew she existed, knew she was there, but I knew she would appear different from the me I once knew. Gone were the oh-so-dependable defenses that relied on a busy schedule to keep myself sane. They had been swept away upon the breaking of the siege. I knew I could still be happy, truly happy, but it had to be a happiness based on living with my anxiety, not trying desperately to keep it out. With each good book, deep conversation, relaxing yoga session and time spent in nature, I felt myself being pieced back together. In going back to basics, back to the individual experiences I knew made me happy, I began to rebuild my fortifications. But this time, my fortifications included a safe place for my anxiety to be acknowledged and accepted. Not a prison, but a rehabilitation. 

Today, I am happy to report, I am doing much better. I still have days when life just feels too hard. Work too stressful. The future too uncertain. But the overall happiness no longer feels fleeting, the anxiety does.

I have made it through the fog of war. I can breathe the free air again. As with any war, there have been casualties, and there was certainly damage done. But I now feel I have the energy to rebuild. Not the old me perhaps, but a one that at least resembles her.

Part of this rebuild includes a return to my writing. I can’t promise everything I write will be brilliant, but I can promise my posts will be consistent and honest.

Modern life may sometimes feel like too much, may seem to seek to break us down. But I am determined to put myself back together, as noble and crucial a task as I have ever undertaken. And I hope you will all stick with me while I do.

Remember, Life is beautiful

-Erin

 

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