Last year, my doctor prescribed me sertraline after diagnosing me with anxiety. I was a little skeptical, but I was also badly in need of a better way to live. I went off my meds several weeks ago, and I hope that the way I am aware of and deal with my anxiety now will prove my decision to be a good one.
Anxiety is a coercive thief. I was codependent for years, taking on other people’s problems – problems I couldn’t do anything about – and living their anxieties as if they were my own. For example, when a family member’s divorce turned ugly, I imagined people were eternally trying to break into my house. I covered my head with blankets one night, wide awake in the wee hours, imagining that I heard breathing on the other side of the shut bedroom door. From then on, we slept with the bedroom door slight cracked, wedged open enough to let the animals come and go as they pleased, closed enough so that I had a measure of protection against the people who were coming to get me. I regularly got up and did one or two laps around the house with a 2×4 at 3am. I slept with my cell phone by the bed in case we were trapped in the bedroom and I needed to call the police. Any time my boyfriend left town while I was off work, I stayed awake until dawn, hypervigilant, then slept during the day.
Anxiety held my hand and told me I didn’t need to go to the doctor when I stepped off the bed funny in the middle of the night and possibly broke a bone in my foot. I say possibly because I never got it fully checked out. Not even staying home the next day in bed, unable to walk, was enough of an alarm of “something is WRONG here” to penetrate the fog. “It’ll get better on its own,” I said. I’d like to get a time machine and go slap that version of me in the face, because now I experience foot pain anytime I try to ride a bicycle. I rode a bike around my college campus, then around the city of Memphis during the summer after graduation, as my main mode of transport. I bought a bike on Craigslist several weeks before my foot problems began. I then had to sell it after riding it perhaps a handful of times. I rode it in the summer in Texas, too. You know that’s devotion. My boyfriend bought an exercise bike, which we also sold when I found putting pressure on the middle of my foot was too painful. “But no, I can’t get my foot looked at, even if it has robbed me of the ability to ride a bike. What if something is horribly wrong, and I have to have surgery and spend a lot of money? Nope, it will get fine on its own!”
Anxiety was the one telling me my frozen shoulder would get better, there was no need to go to the doctor for that, even after two years of increasing pain and the inability to wear bras that put strain on my shoulder. It told me it was OK to internalize all slight criticisms as blanket condemnations of my character, all offhand remarks as set-in-stone rules by which to live my life. I was convinced I was responsible for the bad moods of others. I was subsumed by the drama of other people’s lives. I was empty of myself.
It all started to turn around when my gallbladder tried to kill me in late 2010.
Suddenly, I had a health crisis of my own. I was the one who was having surgery, in pain, recovering, waited on hand and foot by an amazing man, the topic of conversation instead of assuming the role of blank conduit.
My gallbladder surgery was the first in a long line of events affecting me and the people I love that are probably familiar to a lot of people in the U.S.: foreclosures, job loss, serious illness, death.
When I went to my doctor last year with my little list of bodily ailments I hoped he’d help me with, I broke down crying in his office while telling him about what was happening around me, what I put myself through worrying about them. He screened me for anxiety, then sent me home with a prescription for sertraline.
I endured just a few side effects as I eased into dosage and quickly found that the drugs were effective in curbing my anxiety. My friends said I was more “myself” than I had been for a while. I felt much better, too.
I also did some reading on codependency. It’s a way of wanting to control the situations around you by putting yourself in charge and making yourself responsible for everyone else’s feelings, the outcome of everyone else’s lives, etc. And it’s both selfish and unproductive, and it robs you of wholeness of personhood.
There are many things in this world we can control, but there are so many more that we can’t do anything about. It’s important to come to terms with this and realize where the boundaries lie, and how to judge those boundaries when they aren’t clearly outlined. But for the most part, the only thing you can control is your actions and reactions, not the actions or reactions of others. You can feel guilt for things that you genuinely are responsible for, empathy for bad things that aren’t your fault and you couldn’t have prevented. But another important aspect of wrangling anxiety is forgiveness. You have to forgive yourself, especially for things you’re not responsible for or you couldn’t change. Even the things you’ve done wrong, you have to start to let them go if there’s no lasting harm, if you’ve made it right with the harmed party. Guilt and anger only hurt the person who holds onto them long after they are useful.
This last year has been, in many ways, both better and worse than any previously experienced. My life has changed dramatically; I moved across the country, lost a family member, changed jobs, lost a beloved pet unexpectedly, regained range of motion in my left arm, endured a health crisis. I’m stronger in some ways. I’m sure I’m weaker in other ways. But I think that I’ve found enough avenues through which to channel negative feelings and ways to work through, work around, or negate anxiety before it starts to be a problem.
A little anxiety before jumping into something with both feet is normal, and I was anxious before the move. But everything turned out fine. And if things hadn’t turned out fine, I don’t think my anxiety would have prepared me to deal with them in any useful way. Things will happen, for better or worse, regardless of how you feel about them. I’m not saying you must be blase, uncaring, some kind of robot. You can still have feelings, and you will still have feelings, because that’s the way most humans are built.
It can be hard to control your anxiety, and not everyone will have the same success with just over a year of medications, productive reading, exercising self-care, embracing forgiveness, and a firm support system. I’m only a few weeks out from going off SSRIs, and I may relapse into a state of uncontrollable anxiety as things get even busier for me when my job starts to get more labor intensive.
For now, I feel in control of my feelings. I know I can’t control the feelings or actions of others. Letting go of that self-imposed responsibility is wonderfully freeing.