I am a woman, still in my fertile years, so I experience everything that goes along with that every month. I also live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. This may sound horrible, and sometimes it is; but as I have learned, these perceived afflictions also come with some “super powers.” It’s all a matter of balance and the cyclic nature of women’s bodies and these mental illnesses.
I have said in my “about” page that I am relentlessly optimistic. How can this be if I also live with anxiety and depression, you ask? Well, I’m not completely sure, to be honest. I’m just wired for optimism. My aunt tells me I, like my mother before me, have always had a sunny personality. I don’t tend toward cynicism, revenge or impatience. Thinking about it now, that’s probably why I’m still alive. Because when things get out of balance – I am stressed out for some reason, I’m not sleeping well, etc. – the depression, now usually preceded by anxiety, rears its ugly head. When I was young I didn’t understand the cycle, I just thought I was a useless mess and what was the point? Maybe it would be better if I weren’t here? Even then though, as I brainstormed ways to commit suicide, I was searching for a “sunny” way to do it. I didn’t want to leave a mess, I didn’t want to traumatize whoever found me (or myself), and I wanted to be sure I didn’t just gravely injure myself so that I was a living burden on someone if I survived. See? Sunny…
That time helped me though. It helped me put a name to this thing that had been torturing me, and it gave me a way to fight it. I got my meds, I was forced to take care of myself, and I made it through. I learned in therapy that this was likely a lifelong struggle, likely genetic, and that there were useful coping mechanisms I could use aside from medication. Through the years I’ve learned that, like my period, this disorder comes and goes, and it’s different each time. Now that I’m older, I know the bad times will pass, so there’s no reason to give up. See? Sunny.
Sometimes I just can’t, and I accept that. Those times are meant for rest and “hibernation.” If I can’t deal with other people (except at work) for a few days, that’s okay. I give myself permission to take care of myself, just as during certain parts of my menstrual cycle I know that my temper is short, so it’s better for everyone if I just hide out at home. It will pass, it always does. Plus, if I don’t honor this early warning system, it can and does get worse. If I push myself to “suck it up” and plaster a smile on my face for too long, I’ll have physical symptoms that slow me down: anxiety attacks, diarrhea, disturbed sleep, inappetance, headaches. Pretty soon I’m curled in a fetal position and I literally just can’t – can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t do dishes, can’t go to the grocery store, can’t go to work. So, having been through this before, I pay attention to my early warning system, I give myself time to reset. I take my medication, I lay off the caffeine, I don’t answer the phone, I sleep. When I start to feel better, I exercise, which really helps everything. What I don’t do anymore is beat myself up because I need a time out. That’s how the downward spiral begins, and that’s not good.
So, what about these super powers I mentioned? Well, when I’m in a good place, in balance, I have all the usual super powers of women: sensitivity to others and the environment, a strong maternal instinct which helps us care for others and imbues us with mama bear strength when needed, the ability to intuit the words unsaid, the energy in the room, to read between the lines. I think, sometimes, that anxiety and depression are extensions of or extreme forms of empathic ability. It’s like all those nerve endings that feel so raw and exposed when things are bad are just extra sensitive all the time. If I’m around people who are super stressed, I literally feel it invading my body. I feel shaky, worried, nervous. Similarly, depression usually creeps up on me when I feel overwhelmed – by my own worries for myself or others, by my responsibilities to others, by my responsibilities to myself, by my failure to get things done and the possibility of letting others down.
Empathetically, when I’m helping someone through their own stuff or I’m witness to a horrible fight or extreme sadness, I may get sick (which is unusual for me) or I may just need to retreat, to hide out for a few days to recover. The super power is that extreme sensitivity. It can be useful, even if it is draining.
For example, we all know how easily a text message or email can be misunderstood, right? The words say one thing, but the intention behind them is something else entirely. This sensitivity helps me to understand the actual meaning of the message, not just the words. It can feel like a punch in the guy or a surge of adrenaline (as when you narrowly escape a car accident, not as in when you choose to go skydiving like a maniac). I think this sensitivity is responsible for the potential that I may have a panic attack or need to sleep for 24 hours straight.
Knowing this about myself gives me control of the situation (usually). Sure, sometimes I need to pop half a Xanax and do some deep breathing before the panic gets overwhelming. It’s not unlike when I wake up one morning and try on everything in my closet, decide it all looks terrible so it doesn’t matter, throw something on, have road rage on the way to work, come home and yell at the cat for being underfoot, and drop everything I pick up all day long. I know now, after 30+ years, that these are signs that my period is coming. It feels like I’m losing my mind and becoming a monster, but it’s just PMS and I’ll be back to normal in a few days. Meanwhile, best not to let everything that comes into my head come out my mouth! I mean, I am not normally impatient with other drivers or my pets, really, it’s just the way the hormone shift makes me feel. So, too, do I sometimes feel like I might die or the sky is falling or what’s the point of it all. That’s just my brain chemistry flip-flopping, and this, too, shall pass.
So, if there are days when I can’t write for my blog, so be it. I’ll come back better, I promise!