The Daily Chaos of an Anxious Life
Rockebah C Stewart
Sometimes, I look back at my life at eighteen and wonder: if I knew the struggles that were ahead, would I have made the same decisions? Would I have remained in Grenada, satisfied with only an Associate Degree? Would my life have the same outcome?
I often wonder if my sufferings would have been less severe if I found the courage to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish my dreams. At that point, life was telling me it was time to sever the umbilical cord and strive for my true potential. However, I allowed fear and self-doubt to persevere. Little did I know that 10 years later, those two emotions would be the biggest roadblocks in my life.
Dreams of becoming a psychologist occupied my teenage mind. The empathic impulse within me wanted nothing more than to comfort and support those with crippling mental illnesses. Ironically, I am now one of those people struggling through daily panic attacks.
I do not intend to bore you with the haves and have-nots of my past. My intent is to enlighten you on the chaos of an anxious life.
As far as I can remember, my mother and I have always been inseparable. Our relationship resembled that of best friends instead of mother and daughter. We did everything together.
Well, almost everything.
My mother was my fashion advisor, motivator, confidant and consultant. I did nothing without passing it through her first. When I needed to complain about the young man who was assertively pursuing me (my now husband) she was the one I griped to. Keep in mind that my mother betrayed me the moment she saw him. She immediately fawned over ‘her boy’ as she had put it and took him under her wing.
I can understand now how her death was the traumatic event that sent me over the edge. For it was then that my life fell apart. Only after my mother’s passing did I accept death as a reality and paranoia about my health became the basis of all my problems.
I was never a very healthy child, being diagnosed with asthma at a young age along with periodic colds and sinus flare-ups. Every few months warranted a doctor’s visit. I became such a frequent patient that the physician could pick me out in a crowd. It was because of this reason I always believed I would die young, and according to my father, so did my mother. She died at 53 from an unforeseen pulmonary embolism, evidence enough to prove my hypothesis true.
Sadly, I developed a fear of sudden death. Not surviving to the end of the day was a burdensome apprehension. Every asthma attack became my last and every pain in my calf developed into a blood clot, waiting to enter my lungs and kill me as it did her. I lived in constant fear and my insecurities slowly manifested themselves physically.
About seven months after my mother’s death, I experienced the first physical symptom of anxiety. I thought little of it then. Fainting on the job after being lightheaded for days was blamed on fatigue and overexertion. After my test results returned normal, the doctor suggested I had a mild case of anxiety resulting from the strain of trying to fill my mother’s shoes. He assured me that there was nothing to concern myself about, bestowing a treatment of seven days’ lightened workload.
After that week, I was back to my usual self and simply tossed the entire ordeal as a circumstance of the past. In my mind, the problem was resolved, but in actuality, it wasn’t. I was only graced with a couple of months’ reprieve before it began the torture.
My mother was gifted with a twin. Not biological, but in ways it mattered the most. They were almost as inseparable as my mother and me. Personality-wise; they were identical. Both gave exceptional advice. Boost that with their affectionate nature and angels were formed.
Countless times I resorted to investigating my mother’s whereabouts until I accepted she could never spend less than three hours with her twin, who also lived in the neighbourhood. Even if she announced she was only visiting for five minutes, I learned to expect her return after dusk. As a result, I grew accustomed to calling out to my second mother on my way home, asking her if my first mother was there. The answer was usually yes, and after a while, the situation became our banter. Joining the women in their chats was a pleasurable pastime I adopted after learning to never accept when my mother told me to wait by the road. It usually took her half an hour to start her journey to me.
I wasn’t jealous of my mother and her friend’s relationship. In fact, I enjoyed my other mother’s company as much as my actual mother. She was a seamstress and sometimes allowed me to fiddle around with the equipment in her shop, including the antique typewriter that was stored at the back. After discovering it, I spent as many hours typing away as the women did talking. It was on that typewriter I wrote my first story.
After my mother died, I naturally turned to her friend who more than willingly gave support. For about 17 months, she comforted me and treated me as one of her daughters until she fell ill and my mother reclaimed her best friend. Ironically, her death occurred the same month as my mother’s birth.
That was when my life changed, forever.
I was in bed one night after a very eventful and hard day at work, not too long after my substitute mother’s funeral when a pain rattled me. It was enough to jolt me out of sleep. The pain situated itself at the back of my calf and knowing the warning signs of a blood clot; I panicked. An immediate visit to the bathroom followed along with an upset stomach so severe it led to vomiting until I had nothing left. My heart rate increased drastically, and I was fearful to close my eyes. Sleep was no longer an option. I spent hours in that state until my airway contracted and breathing became difficult.
I believed I was about to die. Not only was I having difficulty breathing, but I was also experiencing a choking sensation that made death appear imminent. Later I learned I was suffering from a panic attack.
I woke my husband and coerced him into driving me to the hospital, but on the thirty-minute ride, my breathing significantly improved. That should have been my first clue that nothing was physically wrong with me. From that day on, my fears feasted on the physical symptoms that were originally caused by the fears themselves. They were feeding each other, and the banquet was bountiful.
From that night, my life’s normalcy was affected. Things I did with ease, like climbing hills, became taxing. My symptoms grew worse, and a new one revealed itself almost every day.
I will never wish my anxiety experience on anyone. Maybe except my husband so that he can comprehend the mental burden. Though it may seem villainous, my husband has yet to learn that controlling thoughts is not as easy as it may appear. He sometimes comes across as uncaring and insensitive by dismissing what he regards as unimportant and uneventful. My husband just does not understand how a stranger that insulted me in the morning could still linger in my thoughts in the afternoon.
I am certain that other anxiety sufferers have at least one of these people in their lives.
The months that followed that first panic attack were chaotic, frustrating, and arduous on the body. Anxiety symptoms disrupted my everyday life and caused several trips to the Emergency Room. My naturally challenging job as Air Traffic Controller became even more demanding on days that I could attend work. The other days were usually spent at a doctor’s office praying that some kind of diagnosis would be found.
With my husband now living thousands of miles away, and my mother – my confidant and advisor, whose death seemed to have triggered my anxiety in the first place – now gone, I felt completely alone. In my attempt to suppress that feeling of loneliness, I focused on the relationship with my best friend but was forced to accept that I was abandoned. She was knee-deep in drama concerning her melodramatic, insecure boyfriend and could not grant me the attention that I was desperate for. It took multiple therapy sessions for me to accept the way she lived at that point in her life, but that happened later on.
Eventually, I turned to an on-again, off-again friend, and for a while, happiness presented itself. The symptoms that tortured me disappeared without my awareness. I’m guessing it was because I had someone to confide in, someone to vent to, someone to take my mind off everything I was experiencing.
True to our on-again, off-again relationship, our friendship eventually concluded, and I was lonesome once more.
It was then I decided not to allow anyone else entry into my life. I was convinced that every one that came into my ‘little bubble’ would eventually leave, not necessarily voluntarily. I did not want to lose any more people than I had to, so I avoided social interactions like it was the plague.
Refusing to let anyone else in reduced my life to routine events. I went to work, returned home, and took care of my son. It was no surprise that my anxiety surfaced again. I wasn’t happy after all.
The dizziness returned first. Then the destructive thoughts built on it. Somehow I got the idea I was damaged goods, defective and worthless. I saw myself carrying less value than everyone else around me, both in my personal and work life. Insignificant, pathetic, and unproductive were three of the terms I used to describe myself. More often than not, I spent my sleepless nights crying into my pillow.
The most destructive of them all was the feeling of being doomed to a life of suffering. I felt trapped in my hardship and longed to end it all. Serving out the rest of my life in misfortune was not a very appealing future.
From my vantage point, death seemed like the most favourable option. The only drawback was abandoning my three-year-old son. I felt guilty for even considering the option of being absent at his future birthdays, graduations and wedding. When he was in my company, I would look into those wide brown eyes and scold myself for putting such blasphemous thoughts into my head. However, when I was alone, my mind wandered. That inner conflict worsened my anxiety.
Every day was a raging war, and doctors were the last people I wanted to see. I was tired of the x-rays and scans and constant probing for blood. If I was getting results, I wouldn’t have been so hysterical, but the inconclusive diagnosis was torturous.
I was tired of the despairing feeling and willing to try something that was rarely discussed in my society.
I needed a psychologist.
Knowing that my best friend would have a contact for one, I once again put my faith in her, but after waiting an entire week for a name, I accepted it wasn’t coming.
‘If you want something done, do it yourself.’
I started looking for one myself.
Those of us who are aware of the functionality of Caribbean society know that searching for a psychologist is like searching for a needle in a haystack. You have to lose your mind before their whereabouts become known and their function accepted, but I was determined in my task.
Seventy-two hours with sleepless nights had set me on a path that was close to a mental breakdown on the day of my assessment. When the psychologist listening to my struggles, she immediately contacted my general practitioner, for it was obvious I needed more than just the therapist she assigned me. I must admit if I was the psychologist analysing, nothing would have been done differently.
To celebrate my diagnosis and the end of my struggles, I treated myself to a relaxing afternoon with a massage and pedicure. And for a couple of hours, all my troubles drifted away. That was until the anti-depressant the doctor had given took effect.
I have seen movies where the mentally ill patient screams that they rather die than to consume their meds. Well, I now understand why, and frankly, I do not blame them. In fact, I have refused medication several times for that same reason.
When I first felt it, I believed I had finally lost my sanity, so I did what anyone would do, I hid it. Though I was in great turmoil, I did not mention this agony to the in-laws. However, by the third brain zap, I was moaning and groaning on the floor. At intervals, I held my breath in anticipation of the next one.
When I could not repress myself any longer, I contacted my father, who suspected that the zaps were an effect of the medication.
I should have thought about that.
Then again, it is hard to think when your brain is being electrocuted. My doctor’s office was already closed, and I refused to return to the Emergency Room. There was no other option but to ‘tough it out.’
I was the first one at the general practitioner’s office the next morning listening to him explain how antidepressants function. No doubt, there were tears in my eyes. Imagining a week under those conditions gave rise to a fresh wave of panic.
Now, why didn’t he tell me this the day before?
I am confident he saw the terror in my eyes because the doctor opted to lessen my dosage for the week. This meant that the side effects of the tablet were less severe, but it also meant that it took longer for the tablet to become effective.
As promised, after the medication took effect, I felt unbelievably wholesome. It opened my eyes to a side of life I never experienced before. The birds sang louder and even more beautifully, the sun was brighter and the world was at peace. My physical symptoms stopped, and I was normal again, but as the saying goes, all good things must end.
I knew I had to forgo my miracle medicine after three months, but at the time it appeared a distant future. Focusing only on the present, when the time came, I was unprepared for the backlash of withdrawal and thrown into utter chaos.
One thing went wrong in my life and vertigo set up camp again. At least it wasn’t short breaths. I was always relieved whenever that symptom decided not to show up for the party. With my asthma, short breaths got a little complicated. I struggled to decipher which one of my illnesses was affecting me. If the anxiety plagued me, then I had to calm myself and focus my thoughts. However, if asthma was the reason for my laboured breath, a Ventolin inhaler was necessary. The repercussion in the latter case could be death.
On holiday, thousands of miles away from my doctor and therapist forced me to endure on my own. Believe me, trying to gladden yourself when the weight of the universe is pressing down on your shoulders, is no effortless task. That was the real challenge: putting everything I had learned into practice. My therapist had given me tools to combat destructive thoughts. Now I had to put them into use.
Ever since anxiety overwhelmed me, I dropped off the radar. I blamed it on being a mother when in actuality I was missing mine terribly. No one questioned me. After all, my husband had just moved out of the country and although he was still in our lives, he was physically absent. My role as a parent had just doubled, and my work hours were an additional complication.
Rejoining society was a conscious decision, essential in regaining control of my life. I was positive others were wondering why I suddenly appeared at events and functions. Only a chosen few knew my situation.
Coupling my alternative way of thinking was a fresh and unique style. I simply couldn’t reemerge into society with my old wardrobe. Conquering my anxiety made me feel in control, powerful, and I needed a look to express that. Outfits that caused discomfort because of my post-delivery bump were modeled with confidence. I felt like a new person and I was relishing it.
In the first six months of the pandemic, I had not only deteriorated my mental state but the state of mind of those around me as well. Maybe the coronavirus ravaged me to that crippled extent because I was not mentally prepared for it.
Then again, who was?
The end of 2019 was the beginning of my new life. To facilitate this, I migrated to the United States from the country of my birth, Grenada. Though it was entirely coincidental that I received my immigration documents at the end of 2019, I interpreted the schedule as a sign that 2020 would be the year I fulfilled all my dreams. After all, new years were a symbol of hope and new beginnings.
What else could it be but fate?
February 2020 brought not only my birthday festivities but the realisation that my new life was in jeopardy. The spread of the coronavirus was getting rather hard to ignore, bestowing me chronic unsettling thoughts. I comforted myself with the idea that the virus was not in my immediate vicinity. It was my intention to hold on to that thought for as long as I could.
From the time they diagnosed the first person with coronavirus in New York City, I lost all rational thoughts. My husband became the target of my paranoia. Having to commute to New York for work did not help his case. I became his warden, demanding to be aware of every possible exposure and what he did to protect himself. This was mostly because of his laid-back personality.
In mid-March, my worst nightmare became a reality. My son began having flu-like symptoms, and my husband adopted them, then added a few of his own.
Imagine the panicked state I was in.
Day after day, I struggled to stifle anxious behaviours and thoughts while taking care of my family, who had potentially contracted the coronavirus. With my asthma, I needed to adhere to all safety measures, and I nursed my family back to health with only moderate asthma attacks.
Almost a year after and we have yet to confirm whether we contracted the virus. The state was only testing persons with all the symptoms at the time, so we all failed to meet the criteria.
I still worry about the coronavirus daily. No matter how safe I try to be, there is still a possibility that I can contract the virus. If I do, it would not be because of carelessness or lack of effort.
Though the past few years have been terrifying and nerve-racking, they have not been without their morals. I have finally accepted that my life will not return to its previous state, and that is not necessarily a dreadful thing. Anxiety has made me more aware, not only about mental illnesses but life.
Life is chaotic. It’s filled with trials and complications, and there’s no such thing as the perfect time. I have accepted that insecurities are always going to plague my thoughts. The difference now is that I will not allow them to be the deciding factor in my life decisions. Until my last breath, I will never submit to anxiety.
Rockebah C Stewart was born on the small Caribbean island, Grenada, where she displayed a passion for writing. She is diverse and skilled in both poetry and prose, producing a self-published poetry collection, Reflections. Other writings including short stories, poetry, and weekly blogs can be found on her website, rockebahcstewart.com.
*Image by Federica Campanaro on Unsplash