To the doctor that looked at my 14 year old body that was starving and malnourished and deemed me anorexic, regardless of how much I, or my family, tried to argue otherwise… I have anxiety now.
To the male nurse that violated my boundaries at age 15, after surgery, when I was most vulnerable by exposing my naked and battered body to a room full of doctors, nurses, family and strangers… I have anxiety now.
To the same nurse, who prematurely stole me from recovery and caused me to hyperventilate after major abdominal surgery on the way to my pediatric room because you rambled on about the extreme pain I was going to face… I have anxiety now.
To my freshman year professor that received an email regarding my specified medical accommodations established by the university, and simply asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” loudly and amidst a room of my peers… I have anxiety now.
Although anxiety, to a certain capacity, can be healthy for humans, it can easily overstay its welcome and manifest itself into a harmful darkness; rather than priming our problem-solving/critical thinking skills, it overtakes the brain and controls our every move like a marionette and his puppet.
For years, I moved through life with limbs tethered to these strings; I doubted whom I was, lost my voice and questioned every aspect of my existence.
Although I’ve tried, no magnifying glass can spot the start of my anxiety on my life’s timeline. Not only do I believe I was genetically predisposed to this mental illness, but I also believe my health (or lack thereof) caused it to escalate immensely.
No length of therapy can help me solve the source that so viciously fed my inner monster; from a young age I always needed to have the best grades, be the best athlete, have the best clothes, etc; I held myself to impossible standards.
Though present, I could shove this monster to the darkest corner of my brain to hide it from the outside world. After receiving my first diagnosis after striving for a life of perfection, this monster painfully clawed itself to my surface and took over my body, leaving only my physical appearance for the planet to see.
While my physical health spiraled down and down, so did my mental health; I was constantly worried about the next day, my next dose of meds, my next wave of pain, my next appointment, my next meal that my stomach would allow me to eat; would I need surgery? Different meds? Would I live?
For years, my brain has functioned in fight or flight mode. It hasn’t been until recently, that I’ve started to defeat this monster. After many trial and errors with anti-anxiety medication, I am now taking Cymbalta. I have found success with this drug, and I’ve finally found some relief from this constant, lingering, dark cloud. I am also working with a lovely therapist who has her own past with chronic illness. While our main focus is my anxiety, she has helped me with nutrition tips, sleeping tips, travel tips, etc.
Her methods of coping with anxiety are truly the first to work for me; her main focus is on emotional processing. Whenever my mind starts to spiral, I am supposed to sit with this feeling of anxiety or panic; I acknowledge its presence. I sit in silence and identify where the anxiety is manifesting itself in my body. What does it look like? Color? Texture?
I then start to talk to my anxiety; I recognize it and kindly explain that it doesn’t serve me. I then let it go.
I also use visualization and old memories to distract my brain; after acknowledging the anxiety, I ask myself what feeling I’d like to replace it with (i.e. strength, comfort, safety, happiness, peace, etc). Then I bring up a memory that triggers these emotions. For example, I imagine Hawaiian beaches from my trip to Maui if I desire peace; I visualize myself sitting on top of Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park when I seek strength.
This works wonders for me.
The last piece of my approach is meditation. Meditation and I have had a frustrating relationship, and we still sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye. Some days she embraces me with open, warm arms and other days, she slams her front door right in my face. My therapist has taught me so many useful hacks that I want to share with other wanna-be Zen masters.
- You don’t have to be in an upright, seated position to meditate. I have joint and spinal problems + I have weak connective tissues due to hEDS that cause my muscles to feel weak and fatigued; there is no hope in finding peace and stillness when your body is screaming “WTF!” I like to lie down, in bed, with pillows supporting my lower back; I also cover myself in a weighted blanket.
- You don’t have to meditate for an hour or even five minutes for it to be meditation. Meditation can be as simple as a 30 second breathing practice in the grocery store checkout line.
- If you stress too much about your mind wandering during this time, I recommend using a guided mediation app! I do this often still, but it’s also a great hack if you’re new to the practice.
- You can’t be “wrong” or “bad” at meditation; I am still working on accepting this because I’ve struggled with this practice for many years.
- I do a “Four Lights” meditation first thing in the morning. To put it briefly, you sit in a meditative state and close your eyes. You first visualize a light coming from above; step into this light. Feel its comfort, warmth, color and energy. I find this light comforting. Then, turn this light off, and visualize a beam of light coming up and out of the earth and step into it; what is this light like? I personally find this light to be energizing. The third light is sunlight. Think of the sensations felt on a hot summer day; I envision myself at the beach. This light makes me happy. The last light is your inner light; where is it in your body? What does it look/feel like? Visualize it at its start and then let it spread through your body until it seeps from your extremities and surrounds you. You are now in a safe bubble. The idea is this light is always within you and you can bring it forward at anytime you need to.
Although I have found a trusting alliance in these practices, I still battle this inner monster daily. I’m slowly escaping this darkness, and I feel more like myself than I have in years. For me, this would have never happened without the help of my medication and therapist.
The emotional trauma that accompanies illness is not talked about enough. This is a gentle reminder that it is okay to seek help. It’s okay to go to therapy. It’s okay to take medication.
“When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.” – Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)
I am always here as a listening ear if you have no one else to turn to.
Hi Ashley, we have meet each other once, you were probably about eight. I am your Grandpa Carnduffs brother.
I just read your post and want you to know that this is going to mean so much to so many.
You are such a strong and brave woman for putting this out there, I am so sorry for all the pain and hurt you have had to endure at such a young age a wish I could give you a big hug.
I have suffered from depression and anxiety for decades and have a very ugly inner monster of my own I call Harry. I have learned through therapy as well, I have learned I can tell him I know he is there and to get the fuck out. This often works, but not always.
I have been told by therapists and others, how powerful and helpfully meditation can be. I have tried it many times, but just can’t relax enough to let things go. I keep thinking I must not be smart enough to do this because people tell me how easy it is. Of course this kind of thinking brings Harry to the forefront.
I can’t wait to try some of what you do. Thank you Ashley for being such a great inspiration to me and many others.
I wish you all the health and happiness you can handle, you truly deserve all the best.
Aw thank you so much for such a sweet message. I know the power of this monster, and I’m sorry you battle him too. Meditation can be so incredibly difficult; I love yoga and am learning to become an instructor, and I still can’t quite crack it! Thank you again for the comment and for sharing your battle with me. I appreciate it so much. Sending love and good thoughts your way.