I’ve shared with a few people about the mental health challenges I face. I’ve even told my story of living with depression and anxiety in front of a live audience back in 2015, for which I will always be indebted to This Is My Brave for the opportunity. That day was life-changing in that it made me feel free and unburdened. My secret was out to the world and I didn’t have to hide anymore. But truly, that story was a 5-minute summation of my most trying times. Five minutes is a snippet, a moment in time, just one story from many.
Over the past several weeks (which is not uncommon for me), I’ve faced my demons again. I’m sure the better I get at handling both depression and anxiety, the more it will continue to change and find new ways to challenge me. I guess I see it as a mutating virus - always lurking there, sometimes under control, in remission, playing possum. Other times that virus decides to have a party and invite millions of its little friends to invade my brain. Of the two mental illnesses (which do often go hand in hand for many people), I fear anxiety the most. Depression seems more like a sad buddy who tags along with me sometimes. Sometimes he’s lagging way behind and I can’t see him, but I still know he’s there. Sometimes he’s right next to me, bringing me down with him, although it almost feels as if he doesn’t mean to do it, whereas anxiety is psyched to rear its ugly head. I see depression looking at me and saying, “Hey buddy. Sorry, but I have to stick around for a while. Let’s just be here together.” And I see anxiety saying, “YES! We got her! We got into her head - PARTY!!!!!! We’re NEVER leaving.”
So, I wanted to really sort out what anxiety looks and feels like for me, especially for people who have never experienced it. It’s very hard to understand if you haven’t dealt with it yourself, and there are many accounts out there on the internet about dealing with it. However, each person’s story is personal, and very many people who I consider friends, acquaintances, and even family do not know this side of me. (Those of us who face these demons get very, very good at hiding them, by the way.) My hope is that by sharing, someone else will share their story, subsequently feeling free and not alone.
This season’s bout of anxiety began a few weeks ago, pretty much right on time with the the time change. I NEVER look forward to turning the clocks BACK, despite the extra hour of sleep. To me, it means darkness, cold mornings, cold evenings, and pretty much just wanting to stay in bed, or frankly hibernate, like a bear. I really think the bears have it right - sleep all the way through winter. I’m down with that.
I do have Seasonal Effectiveness Disorder, so the onset of the anxiety was not a surprise. However, its suddenness and rate of escalation this time was. My major anxiety triggers are the winter time/time change/loss of daylight, cold weather, and to be honest, germs. I consider myself a germophobe, and while I’m good at handling many illnesses life has thrown me by way of my kids, there still remains my very worst trigger - vomit. That’s at the heart of the matter, and my husband and I have had the stomach flu more times since we’ve had children than in all our two lives put together up to that point. I know this is a common phobia, and I know it’s a tough one to overcome. So what really gets me between October and April is the lack of sunlight and cold, the constant fear of the stomach flu (someone’s ALWAYS posting on FB about their sick kid, my kids come home from school and if someone threw up, it’s the first news I hear), and often times, holiday stress. Though we’ve maintained health in this household so far this season, all of this hit me like a ton of bricks. To compensate, I’ve been working hard on self-care - lots of extra rest, trying to eat right (although very difficult as seen below), extra time for myself, exercising, simple pleasures like hot baths, and time with friends. I’ve also had to add in an extra med that has always served me in emergencies only, but for now, it has to be a regular part of my day. I would be much worse without it.
So for me, right now, this is what anxiety is on a daily basis. Have to say, not really the most fun I’ve ever had.
My anxiety looks to others like:
I’m not smiling, but not because I’m angry or unhappy - simply because I’m so caught up in my own thoughts that I can’t see past the fear.
I’m not eating very much.
I’m sleeping more than normal - naps almost everyday, early to bed each night.
I’m faking a smile.
I’m trying to get home quickly or trying to stay home as much as possible - the couch under my weighted blanket is my safe place.
I’ve slacked off on communication with others - taking longer to return emails, texts, and calls until I have the energy.
I’ve been crying or could cry at the slightest inconvenience or change in my day.
My anxiety feels to me like:
I’m not able to fully relax. I’m in a constant hyper-vigilant state, stunned at the slightest movement or noise, even sometimes thinking I’ve heard something or seen something that’s not there.
My shoulders being up by my ears, tied in knots, unrelaxed. It’s where I hold most of my tension.
My stomach churning between nausea and emptiness, but never feeling normal. It’s not the weight loss plan I’d prefer.
Waking up wondering if I’m going to be sick because I gag on my toothbrush and the thought of eating or drinking anything is horrifying.
I’m jittery all the time, taking very shallow breaths.
My mind racing - unhelpful, negative, circular thoughts that always come back to different versions of ‘what if?’.
Crying spontaneously at all related and unrelated things - whatever makes me feel overwhelmed at the moment.
It’s never going to end. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, this virus will never be beat back into remission.
However, logically I know that those feelings, though they are true, are not forever. The closer we get to the 21st of December, the most excited I get because I consider it all up hill from there - soon after that, we’ll be recognizing the sun is setting later and later each day. The threat of germs never goes away, but sometimes are easier than others. This too shall pass, everything is temporary, whatever cliche you want to throw at it, I get it. It’s just something I go through, and maybe by reading this about me, you might have a better understanding of many people around you. Be kind - you never know what battle someone is facing.
Hillary Marotta is a wife, mother, mental health advocate, and musician. She writes grants for Someone To Tell It To in Harrisburg, PA, and has held many positions in multiple organizations over her 18-year nonprofit career. She has an M. Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing in Adult Education. She guest lectures, trains, and speaks about her experience in nonprofits and with depression and anxiety. Hillary produced and participated in This Is My Brave - The Show in Harrisburg in 2015, and continues to work on behalf of This Is My Brave as a volunteer speaker and consultant.