As Longfellow said, “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.” It took me seven years to realize that the reason I was not getting a handle on my anxiety disorder was because I did not recognise there was a part of my life I needed to grieve and let go of. I never thought of grief being in any way applicable to my diagnosis and the tsunami of secondary problems it caused. I was so focused on solving the problem that I never stopped to think my way through the moment.
I needed to go through all the stages of grief, and often revisit some, to get to a happy place of coexistence with my anxiety. It was important to grieve the person I thought I was pre and post diagnosis. It was important to grieve the denial about my sensitive nature pre-diagnosis and to grieve certain aspects of my life I still have not been able to quite regain in full. This acknowledgment of the moment is what turned the tides for me.
Stage 1: Denial
“I didn’t need to accept anything because nothing was happening to me. I was only tired and overworked.”
I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder seven years ago although, looking back on it, this was present for most of my life. In the beginning even the thought of acceptance of this diagnosis was a no-no to me. Enter my good friend: Denial. I didn’t need to accept anything because nothing was happening to me. If I didn’t acknowledge anything, I didn’t have an anxiety disorder. I was only tired and overworked.
The confusion, fear, and utter despair of the moment of my diagnosis is something I still struggle to find the words to describe. You must understand that my entire purpose at that stage of my life was to inspire others, teach, mentor, and coach. I co-created leadership programs for women lawyers, often spoke on empowerment, and authored articles to this effect. I worked in human rights, and my main goal was to fight against injustices and motivate those trying to change the world to keep trying and believing that change could happen.
And here I was. Not physically ill or medically challenged (I didn’t believe the myriad of additional symptoms qualified as such) but stressed. Burnt out. How could I inspire or motivate anyone if I could not deal with my stress? Was I a big fraud? Hello imposter-syndrome; welcome to my Denial Party.
Just a quick side note: Of course, this is how I defined my anxiety disorder at the time: It’s just stress. If you also live with this disguised gift, you will understand how invalidating it is when people tell you that you’re just “stressed” or “worry too much.” Anxiety Disorders are much, much more than that.
Since I was in complete denial about my diagnosis, I started rushing from one specialist to the next for “a cure.” Maybe I had a stroke, or there was something wrong with my thyroid. The possibilities I drummed up were endless. I was almost willing to accept any alternative diagnosis if the outcome was not anxiety. This severe denial of what was happening to my mind and body led me straight into stage 2: Anger.
Stage 2: Anger
I entered the Anger stage with rage, impatience, and a sense of urgency. I felt like I was running out of time, and I needed to be fixed – fast. I had to get back to work, so whatever was wrong with me needed to be diagnosed and treated. Of course, I had already been diagnosed, but I denied the accuracy of the diagnosis.
As I was sent from doctor to doctor, poked, prodded, and completed one test after the other my frustration quickly morphed into pure Anger. Why were the doctors so incompetent? Why was I not getting better? Most importantly, why were they all telling me the same thing? Couldn’t they see I almost denied the night of my first attack? Their solution for debilitating physical symptoms combined with the inability to breathe at times was…rest?
I felt like no one wanted to help me and that I was utterly alone in a place of real desperation. I started to feel like I was going insane and that I was imaging symptoms and how it manifested in my body. I needed a unique way of dealing with this and I thought that I had to do it alone. There was no way that the symptoms I were experiencing could only be related to anxiety. The effect it had on me was too debilitating, too real, and too devastating. Anxiety, or “just stress,” could not do this!
Stage 3: Bargaining
“The more I tried to bargain my way out of my predicament, the more it backfired on me, and the more I relapsed.”
Out of pure desperation I began making bargains with “it” (my loathe-filled reference to anxiety disorder at the time). I convinced myself that this was a phase. I conceded that I was “over-stressed,” and this was really “just” burnout. I told myself that with the right medicine and lifestyle changes, it would soon pass and be a distant memory. Problem = solved! Wow, to be so clueless and out of touch with yourself – it’s almost comical to me now.
The more I tried to bargain my way out of my predicament, the more it backfired on me, and the more I relapsed. Even though I was doing all the right things, i.e., taking the medication (which I did kicking and screaming), going to therapy, dealing with the past, and making lifestyle changes – I was getting worse. I was also reading about anxiety disorders non-stop and working overtime to hide this embarrassing affliction. Denial + Bargaining = Disaster.
I spent so much energy fighting against “it” on some level, always thinking this would still go away and was temporary. Looking back on it now, this caused most of my relapses. It also perpetuated the vicious circle of the begrudging tolerance of “it,” the belief that I was making progress and that the phase was ending, only to be sideswiped by another episode. Afterward, the self-loathing, intense anger, and disappointment in myself for not being better or not being strong enough to prevent it from happening would follow. Which led right back to denial and anger.
This cycle completed itself over and over for the better part of three years. I then entered a new phase. A phase of trying to negotiate. It went something like this:
Okay, “it,” I’m going to run at 200 km/h for the next few months, and you’re going to behave yourself! When I inevitably reach the finish line all out of steam, you can take over and do with me as you please.
This approach was great in theory because I got to pretend nothing had changed, that my body was not speaking to me and sending me signals. I could be bright, shining, and “on” for extended periods. Then the crash would inevitably come, and the relief I thought I would feel because of the deal I had made with “it” never followed. Instead, the smothering self-loathing for not holding “it” off would follow with the usual narrative: Why was I not able to prevent it? I drowned in the “what did I do wrong” mindset so often that I could have donated a river to the Sahara. The literal definition of a vicious circle.
I slowly began to learn more about myself, taking time to know myself and examine myself. I was and always have been a sensitive person. I felt everything so keenly, noticed other emotions, got severely distressed when there were atmospheres in the room, and loud noises scared the life out of me. Enter Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person. This book was the first revolutionary step I took in better understanding Myself and how I am wired. I started asking myself important questions: What if I’ve always done so well in tasks of service because I was able to be so intuitive to people’s emotions? What if my business successes and relationships were born from my ability to keenly assess others and notice small nuances that sent my intuition soaring? Was this possible? Was this the explanation for “It”?
While this did not answer all the questions in my always-on mind, it helped me see things from a unique perspective. I started shifting my focus in a way that allowed me to start seeing the possibility that there could be another way to look at “It.” I slowly started making an uneasy peace with my medication and therapy, and I could go into severe fight-or-flight arousal with no warning. I slowly started making peace with other triggers: Loud crowds distress me, loud noises overwhelm me, and I need a calming aid before traveling on the enclosed, claustrophobic death trap that is an airplane. These were important things to realize because this was my life – large crowds, noise, busy airports, hopping from one flight to the next, etc.
Stage 4: Depression
The continuous ebb and flow of this bargaining cycle led me into a depression like none other I had ever experienced. I was exhausted. I saw the toll it was taking on my husband, my life, and my health. Everything that previously inspired me or brought me joy lost its spark. I had no passion for music anymore, I didn’t eat or leave the house. Some days I wandered through my corridor like a ghost. I spent hours just staring into space and afterward wondered how the day could have passed me by.
I had nothing to converse about, my creativity dried up and my will to help others slowly diminished. Exercising was a source of fear to me. As soon as the blood started pumping and I started to breathe a little faster, I would get some form of PTSD and be right back in the lonely hotel room where my first attack took place.
It was clear to me, at this point that something had to change. I needed to take a drastic step forward, but where to start? The only thing missing from my arsenal at that point was the one thing I adamantly refused to try: Acceptance.
Things changed for me when we moved to Portugal from my native South Africa. COVID quarantine began one week after we landed in our new home. Gone were the consistent and consecutive days of rushing, traveling, catching up, and being “on.” I was in a scarier place: Alone with myself and “it.” For the first time since my diagnosis five years ago, at this point, I had to confront the elephant locked into my personal space with me. I began the immediate task of finding healthcare professionals that could take over my care in my new home. I was blessed to find both an excellent psychiatrist and a psychologist. My life and perspective of “it” changed night and day once I met these two individuals.
My psychologist introduced me to my body. Yes, my body. The signals my body sends to me, how to recognize them, how to listen to them, and how to give them space to roam. I learned about meditation, not just the idea of it as we see in books, but the practical action of doing it in a way that worked for me. It wasn’t easy initially, but I am proud to say that this is now the favourite part of my day.
My eyes started opening to new possibilities, and I became increasingly curious about “it.” My contempt toward “it” slowly morphed into a willingness to coexist with “it.” I made immense progress. I devoured books on meditation, spiritual awareness, manifestation, positive thinking, and affirmations; you name it. So began the most prolonged period of peace and equilibrium I have ever experienced since my diagnosis. I had four months without incident, which was huge to me!
Something shifted inside me as I grew further into this and leaned into my curiosities. The immense help and guidance I felt when I started this part of my journey slowly began to feel suffocating. All the talking, revisiting the past, recommendations, and pointers on what I could improve. The noise started to drown out my progress, which inevitably led to a period of relapse. Enter vicious cycle and loathing self-talk: “Why did this happen? I am doing everything right; I am doing the work and being good,” Why? I had to take a break.
Stage 5: Acceptance
“Even though this was incredibly difficult, something about this time felt different: the absence of self-judgment.”
I had to find a quiet space in my mind and drown out all the other voices participating in my inner conversations. I had never really been alone with Me since my diagnosis. I always relied on therapy sessions, books, practices, and quick fixes. I needed silence. I consulted with my healthcare professionals and asked for a break from my therapy sessions. It was the right time for me. I was in a space where I needed to find myself as I was at that moment. And this was something I needed in the safety and quietness of my uninterrupted thoughts.
I lived and breathed an entire year of progress without incident. It was wonderful. I felt on top of the world. I had conquered “it!” I. had. This. Down! I started seeking more meaningful answers to more profound questions. I kept reading, exploring, and learning, feeling amazing and freed. I felt light and happy and at peace. Then suddenly and without warning, a series of debilitating attacks overcame me. I would wake up from deep sleep already in the worst stages of panic. Even though this was incredibly difficult, something about this time felt different: the absence of self-judgment. When I retraced my steps, I could identify the signals my body had been sending to me before these attacks. I could remember the triggers and tell-tale signs before these attacks, which made me feel strangely comforted.
Upon closer introspection, I realized that I had learned to read signals from my body. I had shifted my perspective to lean into my natural tendencies of being “sensitive” or “overly anxious.” I had begun celebrating the good things that accompanied my “blessing.” Yes, I now refer to anxiety disorder as “my blessing.”
My blessing meant I was keenly intuitive under challenging situations. I could read people and rooms and be deeply perceptive to my child’s emotional needs. I could celebrate the softness in me that the world often coaches you to disregard and even dislike. These were all highly positive changes for me. Did this mean I accepted my blessing? If I was at the acceptance stage, why was my body still fighting it and sending me into these spirals of bone-chilling episodes?
It was happening because, at the end of it all, this is how I am wired. Some people are great athletes, others great problem solvers. We are all wired differently, and this is just my unique blueprint. Being aware of my body and the signals it was sending me, taught me this. I also realized that to be at peace with my journey, I needed to accept it, but to do that, I needed to find out what acceptance meant to me.
My idea of acceptance was not the version touted by many inspirational speakers trending on social media or authors of some of the best books on self-growth, positive thinking, and the like. These all speak about and advocate acceptance in some form or another. But this is always presented as a single all-encompassing entity, thought pattern, or way of thinking. Once you accept, you surrender, and once you surrender you are cured. Much less eloquent than explained in most books I’m thinking of here, but you get the general idea.
The pressure of living up to this definition painful to me because whenever I had a relapse or a dreadful day, my obsessive nature to do everything perfectly would take over. I would feel like I was once again but to square one.
I had to approach all I’d learnt in a way that worked for me, which allowed me to acknowledge the “secret-formula” approach to life did not work for me. I turned to using what did hold true for me: the new keen awareness of my body. I was aware of its signals. I was aware of when I needed to do more of something and less of the other, and I was more aware of when I would be close to the edge and needed to change course. This awareness meant that I was trying, and continuous trying, to me, meant acceptance. Why would I want to keep trying if I did not accept that this is my journey?
In A Nutshell
I try to accept that anxiety disorder is a part of my life that can be debilitating but also strangely rewarding. I try to remember that acceptance is not a destination but a journey. This realization changed my life because I now know that when I inevitably have an episode, there is nothing to torture myself over. If I was aware and still committed to trying, it meant I was still practicing daily awareness.
As with all things however, trying does not always equate to succeeding. Which is a key realization I needed to have in this stage of my journey. Sometimes I am just going to have bad days. They don’t define me; they do not invalidate my journey or my progress. It’s Just A Bad Day. Months of good days often precede an episode, so should I disregard all of that? Absolutely not! Because every day is a day I opened my eyes to a new dawn, keenly practicing awareness, trying, and reminding myself of the path I am walking. I remembered to try, to be aware; I remembered to keep walking the path to acceptance.
I hope this created some light in your day.