Before I had a complete nervous breakdown, I was a completely different person, and I realised recently, I keep waiting for that person to come back. For better or for worse, I don’t think she ever will.
There are moments – hours, days – when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety. Not nervousness. Not stress. Not worry. Not even depression. Just anxiety, with all its accompanying physical misery. Five years ago I didn’t have anxiety at all – so I believed. I certainly didn’t seem to experience the effects of anxiety. In fact I didn’t really experience emotions at all. Which is why, I realise, that girl is never coming back.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been stripping away maladaptive coping mechanisms – with many ups and downs, successes and slips – but slowly I find myself recovering. For the most part, I have more good days than bad. When I do sink low, I’ve learned to drag myself out more quickly. More willingly. But those destructive strategies I’d previously used to inadvertently numb every emotion on that pesky wheel, served a purpose. They hid the anxiety from me, and I hid it from the world. I didn’t even know it existed. Sure, my mother and sister were highly anxious, but not me. I was competent, capable, busy, optimistic, reliable, self-contained, practical, energetic, loyal, determined, efficient. I didn’t complain about stuff. I saw the bright side and the glass was half full. I looked forward to the future and all the exciting things it entailed. I had hopes and dreams and plans. When one thing crumbled to dust, I moved onto the next.
But I was also living a lie. So afraid of being sad or angry, afraid or regretful, and utterly terrified of any kind of conflict, that I didn’t know feelings had a place in my life. Instead I used an obsessive and compulsive nature to pour my energies into each new project that came along, and when I wasn’t knee-deep in projects, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. Because food is my addiction of choice.
When sadness, anger, fear and regrets finally overwhelmed me, the numbing effect of food was no longer enough, and I cracked. Inside was a little girl filled with emotions, and no capacity to understand or process them. Depression reared its ugly head and I came tumbling down.
Now I look back on my life and see signs of anxiety I never previously recognised. People pleasing, fear of conflict, social withdrawal, solitary tears, moving interstate when things got tough. Even panic attacks that didn’t register as such at the time. And the facade of perpetual happiness was my way of ignoring a constant low level of depression – of knowing I wasn’t good enough, but pretending otherwise.
Now the emotional armour I’d plastered around myself is gone, it’s difficult to accept that depression and anxiety will be with me forever. That they are intrinsically part of who I am – and who I have always been. Whether they’re there by nature or nurture is a moot point, they are part of who I am. Waiting for depression and anxiety to disappear from my life is just a way of putting my life on hold. Part of my continuing recovery means accepting some days I’ll shake like a leaf and my heart will pound – for no recognisable reason. Some days I’ll wake up and just feel sad – filled with melancholy and remorse and a sense the future holds nothing for me. But knowing the next day I will wake with the energy and will to keep searching for new tomorrows.
The girl who fearlessly filled her life with every opportunity that came her way is no longer here. The girl who effortlessly gave everything she had to teach and care for others to the detriment of her own wellbeing is no longer here. The girl who ate herself stupid when nobody was looking is no longer here. Instead, there’s a girl seeking to become the best version of herself, opening herself to emotions that terrify her, becoming vulnerable, and learning to become whole.