Read this blog, and you will see that I have posted a lot already about day-to-day anxiety and how it affects me. Today, i’m gonna tell my anxiety story.
When I think about anxiety, it is hard for me to pinpoint when it began, but I know that I became aware of it being problematic when I was in my mid 20s. As I think back, I remember what I now know was anxiety, but which at the time I thought was just…normal? If I forgot things when I was out, I would obsess about the thing I forgot, at times to the complete exclusion of other things. my bf at the time would even go get things for me. It was insane. If I left home, I had to check the stove to make sure it wasn’t on, and if I didn’t, I could not enjoy being out and about. I had to go back and check, even if I hadn’t even used the stove since the prior night. I didn’t really think at the time about what this could be, or why I was all of a sudden feeling this way. I think I chalked it up to being overly cautious.
In 2007 I was out of law school, married, and working as a lowly doc reviewer to get the bills paid while waiting for the market to turn back up. You see, I graduated law school in May of 2007, took the bar exam in July of 2007. I learned that I passed the bar in October of 2007. Enter: WORST RECESSION SINCE THE GREAT DEPRESSION. AWESOME. Luckily, I had some contacts from law school that got me turned onto doc review as an option, and that was fine, and decently lucrative. At times, kind of interesting. But I digress.
During my marriage, I was rather unhappy. We met in 2003, and I was his first everything. he wasn’t mine, but I didn’t have an extensive resume of past lovers. We both came from families with complicated back stories, and neither of us had a healthy role model for how a healthy relationship should be. We were mismatched in a lot of ways, and we fought a lot. In fact, he proposed to me after a fight. There’s a red flag I should have seen! But that’s another post.
During that time, I was more and more keyed up, and finally, in 2009, I saw a doctor about it. Just a GP. She diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and she put me on Celexa. Decent enough drug, and my moods started to even out. However? I was no longer able to have orgasms during sex with my husband. Since we were already having intimacy issues, this did NOT help. The doctor offered suggestions, and even wanted to try to put me on Viagra to try to address the side effect. Looking back, I can see what she was trying to do, but I don’t think that she was well versed in dealing with SSRIs, so with what I know now, I don’t think this issue was well managed. I didn’t know any better, so I just stayed with it and endured the side effect. She did not push for me to have therapy for my anxiety alongside the medication. I wish she had. I think I would have had a lot less issues down the line had I started tackling it in therapy a lot earlier.
That marriage fizzled for a lot of reasons, but besides valid issues, I now know that my anxiety also made things worse. When things were bad, my pattern of intrusive thoughts and obsession on the problems made them a LOT worse. Because at the time I did not understand what was happening, I turned my fear and anxiety outward, and this made our fights worse and more frequent. The hubs was a withdraw-er, so that also aggravated the dynamic. If I had understood that partially I was just trying to offload anxiety, things could have gone differently.
At this time, I also started my pattern of turning anxiety inward as well, and engaging in a lot of self shame and blame. This pattern continues to this day, though I am a lot more aware of it.
After my marriage fizzled, I stayed on the medication for a while, but felt stronger once that storm had passed, and I decided to take myself off of it. This was a mistake for sure, and my symptoms and behaviors were unchecked medically for the next few years. During this time I got into another ill-advised marriage, which had a lot of conflict. I got pregnant and had my daughter in 2014. This, is where things took a definite turn….
After the birth of my daughter, in addition to the normal extreme hormonal volatility, which I was totally uninformed about, I developed PPD. Oh, and pneumonia! I was exhausted and overwhelmed from the birth process, and coping with the neediness of a new baby whilst still trying to heal myself, and then PPD came to visit and made me just a WRECK. I was anxious all the time, even when the baby was sleeping. I cried all the time, and my husband was ill equipped to help me in any way. I didn’t want to be alone, and people didn’t understand what was going on (nor did I at first), and I was treated like a burden by my husband. My dad was extremely uncomfortable with how fucked up I was (he does not emotion well-German stoic) So I went to my new doctor at about 6 weeks post partum, crying and completely verklempt, and he started to help me. We talked about medications and my past experiences, and fears and shame about medication. He listened and he empathized. Legit, this man saved my life. We decided to go with an SNRI rather than the SSRI family of drugs that Celexa was a part of, because SNRIs tend to have less sexual side effects.
I felt a lot of shame about the PPD and needing the medication at first. I basically had to be ordered to take it by the doc and my family. The first drug we tried was Wellbutrin. This one pushed me into full panic mode and was AWFUL. So now I was even more anxious than before! I kept in close contact with the doc, and we switched to Effexor, which I tolerated much better. Once I stabilized on this medication, I improved rapidly. It was magic. During this time, I also started going to therapy to process what was going on.
During my daughter’s first year, things went to shit in my marriage, and I ended up deciding to leave it when she was about 10 months old. I stayed on my medication through all of that process, and for a while after. After all of that resolved, my life felt calmer, and I thought that I didn’t need the medication anymore, and I weaned myself off of it. This, I would later learn, was a mistake.
During all of this, I was building up my law practice in Central Minnesota, a community that is not known for being welcoming to outsiders. I was not born and bred here, so people are very suspicious. It takes a very long time for outsiders to prove their bona fides and be accepted. I likely never will, but my daughter has a chance.
In addition, the law practice in general is stressful. A 2016 study found that 28 percent of attorneys suffer from depression, 19 percent from severe anxiety and 11.5 percent reported having suicidal thoughts during their early career. The same study found that about 21% of us have a substance abuse problem. Great career choice, self! I have found these things to be somewhat true in my life. People often come to lawyers with an expectation that we are some sort of magical sorcerers who have the power to say the magic latin words and poof! the problem will go away. Rarely is this the case. The crushing weight of the expectations of clients alongside the perfectionism that is part and parcel of the practice of law creates a situation where mental illness and dubious coping mechanisms seem to come with the license. We should get some sort of discounts on therapy, methinks.
About 8 months after I weaned myself off my medication, I was struggling with single motherhood, in a new relationship that had its ups and downs, and was in the midst of representing a client who was a convicted murderer on an unrelated civil matter. Said client was in a level 5 (maximum security) prison in the twin cities. Getting access as an attorney to visit a level 5 offender is not easy. The day I went to visit said client, I was lead into the bowels of the facility, and was lead into the mental health unit, where my client was placed at the time. I was lead to a conference room with a non-locking door in the midst of the population. Then I was left there. The room was miked up and had cctv, but otherwise I was unprotected. I proceeded to meet with my client, who had recently murdered two persons, to discuss civil matters. When I got back to the office later that day, I began to shake, the pressure of life in general, and the visit that day set my thoughts racing, my body went into total revolt, and I was bawling. I was having the first panic attack that I was aware of. I thought I was going to die. I went to my doctor, who thankfully was available, and he talked me through what was happening. I was also directed to take time off work, and we proceeded to get me back on the effexor, and started an aggressive regimen of klonopin. I take both of these drugs to this day.
Once I was stabilized on the medications, I had a talk with my doctor where I had to face the reality that there was likely not ever going to be a time again in my life where I am not taking medications to manage my anxiety and depression. And that I have a panic disorder as well which requires additional medication. I had to face head-on the shame that I felt at such a realization, and the resignation that this would be a foe I would fight for the rest of my life.
Since that time, I still have panic attacks from time to time. I have had to increase my effexor more than once, and I use meditation to help manage symptoms as well. Exercise helps, but I am lazier than I should be, so I don’t get as much benefit from this as I could.
I am passively suicidal on a somewhat regular basis, meaning that my mental illness makes me feel indifferent as to whether and when I will die, but not feeling any need to take steps to hasten that process. At times where my panic disorder is flaring, or I am under high stress, these thoughts get darker and more persistent, and I have a safety plan in place just in case. That’s a scary reality I have had to cope with as a part of my mental illness.
I have begun to accept my mental illness as a part of my identity, and I am gentler with myself than I used to be. I am more aware of my triggers, and the shame has faded (mostly). I try to be an advocate as much as my spoons will allow. I believe it has given me the power to see struggles in others in a more compassionate way, and to put myself out there to connect in ways that a neuro-typical person could not. I believe this makes me a better professional and a better person.
I have no idea what the future holds. The days often feel long. I worry that the illness will someday disable me. I fear that I have passed it on to me daughter. But I still get up, and I try my best. And you can too.