#MHYALit: Accepting Anxiety, a guest post by Jessica Spotswood
Today we’re honored to have Jessica Spotswood sharing her lifelong experiences with anxiety with us. See all of the posts in the #MHYALit series here.
I was twenty-seven when I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and prescribed Lexapro to help manage it. It gave name to something that I’ve struggled with since I was a little girl.
After my grandmother had a stroke while babysitting me, and subsequently died of a brain tumor when I was seven, I had a visceral reaction to hospitals and an unrelenting fear of doctors. I once overheard my parents talking about a girl at church whose appendix had almost ruptured, and for years afterward I had rampant stomaches and panic attacks that I too had appendicitis. I was at odds with my own body – not the usual awkwardness of being a teenager, but constantly monitoring signs and potential symptoms that I might be secretly dying, that my body might betray me at any moment. I remember lying awake at night worrying that something would happen to my parents and anxiously watching the clock if they were even a few minutes late picking us up. I remember being so anxious I couldn’t eat whenever there was any substantial deviation from my routine (school trips, vacations, etc). Despite all this, I remember being a a sunny, bouncy, endlessly positive girl – everyone’s best friend and confidante. I didn’t talk about my worries. When I tried to, my parents told me to find something to do (the devil makes work for idle hands, I guess?), or suggested that I was worrying about nothing.
So I tried to keep busy. During the school year, I was mostly successful – AP and advanced classes, marching band, concert band, jazz band, fall play, spring musical, editing the school newspaper, copyediting the yearbook. During the summers, I was miserable and anxious. This continued during college and grad school. I was so busy that I was perpetually stressed, but that seemed normal, until it came to a crisis point my last semester of grad school. I was working full-time, doing comp essays, planning my wedding, and looking for a new apartment, while also dealing with my father’s acrimonious divorce from my stepmom and an estrangement from my half-brother. I started getting so furious with myself over small silly things that I’d hit myself or knock my head into a wall. And I knew that wasn’t healthy. But it wasn’t until a friend was diagnosed with lymphoma and I became obsessively worried about a bump on my neck that I went to see my doctor. It turned out the bump was perfectly normal, but when I couldn’t accept that, my primary care physician realized that my anxiety over it wasn’t normal. She prescribed me Lexapro.
And the medication helped. I fought against the idea of needing it, felt shamed that I couldn’t just work it out on my own. I’d grown up in a very practical central Pennsylvania Protestant family with a fantastic work ethic. When, as an adult, I tried to explain my anxiety to them, they still suggested that I had too much time to think, that I wasn’t busy enough if I had this much time to worry. What did I have to worry about anyway, they asked? When I first told my mom about the medication, she was quiet and then relayed that medication like that had made my cousin gain weight. As much as I love my family, it became something I couldn’t talk about with them for my own wellbeing. It showed me that even the most loving people can minimize and dismiss and judge mental health issues.
I was embarrassed about having anxiety, but I thought, Okay, I’ll take this medication for a while. Surely not forever. I’ll get better. I made a point of blogging about it, of talking openly about therapy and anxiety and meds with my friends. But in my heart of hearts, I was not reconciled to anxiety being part of me, just like my curly hair and blue eyes and love of words. I’d feel better for weeks or months and think hopefully that it had gone away, that I was cured! Then I’d feel crushingly disappointed in myself when it popped up again.
The more I chatted with my therapist, the more I realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in anxiety: my need to please, my fierce avoidance of conflict, my fear of the unknown. For a long time, I believed without question that I had to be sunny and perfect and likable to be loved, and that I had to worry obsessively about all the bad things that might happen in order to prevent them. It was a sort of black magical thinking that still lingers with me, though at least I recognize it now. (As I write this, four days away from the release of my newest book, A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS, I am both delighted by all the positive reviews and buzz, and waiting for the universe to turn on me in some fashion.)
The medication helps quiet the worries that circle my brain like vultures. I’m still prey to them sometimes but they fly at enough of a distance that I can use the tools from therapy to ask myself: what is this feeling telling me? Is that true? Do I want to do something about it? If not, can I let it go? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few months after I started taking medication, I also began writing fiction again for the first time in years. Without that incessant anxious chatter, there was so much space in my mind – space for stories to grow.
And, for a while, things were okay. I still had anxious days. I panicked unnecessarily about regular doctors’ appointments. I sold my first trilogy in a major deal and my dream and my hobby became my job. It was a mixed blessing. For a girl who loves knowing what to expect, publishing is in some ways not the ideal job. (I never know what to expect.) There is so much beyond my control – sales, reviews, the publisher’s publicity, the ever-elusive market. And this business breeds perfectionism. It’s easy to feel never-enough, to compare my behind-the-scenes journey to everyone else’s highlight reels on social media. It’s easy to stay busy-busy-busy, jumping from deadline to deadline, from book release to book release. It’s easy for it to become your everything, your whole identity, in a way that is maybe not healthy. That’s where I was two winters ago, when my husband and I started thinking about trying to have a baby (a discussion that’s since been tabled) and I went off my anti-anxiety medication. I thought I could. I thought I should, even though I was in a strange place job-wise, writing full-time but with no new book under contract.
It was fine until it wasn’t. I woke up one sunny morning in March in a total panic. I was home in my own bed, safe, but my brain and body started sending signals that something was really wrong. My thoughts started to loop uncontrollably. What if, what if, what if? What if I never sold another book? What if my husband couldn’t find another teaching job after his adjunct contract was up? What if I had secret cancer? My brain was determined to find a reason for how terrified I felt. The feeling of it had come first, then the thoughts. But anxiety isn’t rational.
I started seeing my therapist again, and that helped. But I was miserable. I cried every day. I was hardly eating. I wasn’t writing. Sometimes I didn’t get out of bed until dark. I was determined to figure it out without medication, though. I don’t know why. It felt like if I just worked hard enough, I could do it. I hadn’t been able to make my books a success – at least not by my publisher’s outsize expectations – but surely I could do this. I was desperate to control my own brain. To control something.
It didn’t work, no matter how hard I tried. After two months, I got to the point where I was feeling – while not actively suicidal – like I didn’t want to live anymore. And that scared me enough that I – who still have a fairly major phobia about doctors – made an appointment. I asked my doctor to put me back on Lexapro.
Like before, it’s not magic. I still feel anxious sometimes, I still get irrationally angry with myself for not being perfect, for not doing enough. But those feelings are muted enough that I can use the tools I’ve learned from therapy. And I decided that writing full-time, letting it be my everything, wasn’t healthy for me. I got a part-time job working as a children’s library associate and I edited my anthology and eventually I sold another book and I got into a new routine. And that includes taking anti-anxiety medication every day.
Only now I’m not embarrassed at all.
Now I’m proud. I saved myself. I wasn’t too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help when I needed it. I work really hard to take care of myself – to not fall into the traps of perfectionism and busybusybusy and self-blame. When your brain is an asshole sometimes, it is really easy to feel ugly and broken and not enough. That’s when I take a step back and remember that a lot of my thoughts about myself are not objectively true. They are not rational. Would I talk that way about a friend? Would I judge them as harshly as I judge myself? (The answer is almost always a resounding no.) I am finally in a place where I – almost always – believe that anxiety is not my fault. That it’s a combination of learned habits that I can change and brain chemistry that I cannot. It’s not about being stronger or better or, Good Lord, busier. When my brain tells me that, it’s being a bully, because that is not true.
And if your brain tells you that? Don’t believe it. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, in whatever form that takes. You aren’t broken, either. You are exactly enough. I promise.
Meet Jessica Spotswood
Jessica Spotswood is the editor of the historical anthology A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS and the author of The Cahill Witch Chronicles and the upcoming WILD SWANS. She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now she lives in Washington, DC where she can be found working as a children’s library associate for DC Public Library, seeing theatre with her playwright husband, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change. Website / Twitter / Facebook / Instagram
About A Tyranny of Petticoats
Criss-cross America—on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains—from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.
With stories by:
J. Anderson Coats
Y. S. Lee
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 03/08/2016
About Wild Swans
The summer before Ivy’s senior year is going to be golden-all bonfires, barbeques, and spending time with her best friends. For once, she will just get to be. No summer classes, none of Granddad’s intense expectations to live up to the family name. For generations, the Milbourn women have lead extraordinary lives-and died young and tragically. Granddad calls it a legacy, but Ivy considers it a curse. Why else would her mother have run off and abandoned her as a child?
But when her mother unexpectedly returns home with two young daughters in tow, all of the stories Ivy wove to protect her heart start to unravel. The very people she once trusted now speak in lies. And all of Ivy’s ambition and determination cannot defend her against the secrets of the Milbourn past…
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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