- I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a kid.
- Until the pandemic started last year, I had no idea how bad it could be.
- It finally began to feel like exactly what it is — a serious and life-affecting mental illness.
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I was a toddler the first time I felt too afraid to fall asleep. I screamed and cried until my parents let me sleep in bed with them. It became an almost nightly routine.
When I was 8 years old, I started to understand what I was feeling. I felt butterflies in my stomach, but each butterfly grew larger and fluttered faster with every breath I took. I squeezed my “special blankie,” the tattered covering I’d slept with ever since I was born, and tied knots into it, an involuntary self-soothing measure.
I had a visceral fear of nothing. I later learned to describe it as an overwhelming fear of impending doom, but at 8 years old, without the vocabulary at my disposal, I simply yelled for my mom. She sat at the end of my bed and asked what was wrong. “I have a worry feeling,” I said.
I laid there, my white walls and pink window-curtains surrounding me, as my mom “banished” my “worry feeling” into a dream catcher hanging above my bed. She told me to picture the worry feeling disappearing into the dream catcher, leaving only her and me, safe in my bed, with no doom in sight.
For a while, that trick and others worked. But soon, the worry feeling evolved into something worse: incessant anxiety. I pulled all-nighters as a 10-year-old because I couldn’t get my brain to shut off.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, a mental illness that affects roughly 6.8 million adults in the US annually, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and talked to a therapist. I learned, albeit subconsciously, to assuage my amorphous anxiety with specific, real-life issues: school, friends, boys, boys, boys, family, my body. For more than a decade, I mostly felt like my anxiety was under control — nothing more than an annoying health challenge I knew how to handle.
And then came the pandemic.
That fear of impending doom in my shadow carved out a new home in my chest. It grew legs and took over. It became something I could no longer control.
The irrational fear from my childhood latched onto something tangible
My anxiety has never been connected to anything real before. It’s always been entirely irrational, or a wild overreaction to a regular stressor. Panic attacks caused by something relatively mundane began in high school. I’d sometimes pass out on the bathroom floor after answering a question wrong in class, consciously aware that I was laying on the dirty tile staring at the ceiling, but unable to move or control my breathing.
But in acutely stressful situations, like a break up or my parents’ divorce, my reactions were similar to those of my peers. And so, one year ago, when COVID-19 began to spread around the US, I wasn’t so scared. My therapist told me it made sense that I felt okay. After all, I already spent every day feeling like the world was going to end.
But a few months in, as people started to ignore social distancing guidelines and government messaging remained confusing and unclear, my anxiety began to cripple me. It was no longer a looming, amorphous cloud. The pandemic had turned it into something tangible, a real cataclysm that I could identify and describe.
One Saturday afternoon in January, I met up with my friend for a walk. I was so excited to see her that I was almost giddy — after months spent by myself, it felt like the Met Gala. As we walked toward each other with our masks on, I threw my arms around her for a moment.
As she told me a story about work, something shifted in my mind and body. At first it was gradual. I shouldn’t have hugged her, I thought. I could have gotten COVID. We kept walking. The intrusive thoughts continued. I shouldn’t have hugged her. I could have gotten COVID.
My stomach felt like a team of tiny soccer players was pulling and kicking at my organs from the inside out. My breathing sped up. My chest tightened. The walk felt like an infliction of trauma. I was terrified.
Through blurred eyes, everyone in my line of vision looked close enough to give me COVID-19. The world looked foggy, and I felt paranoid — terrified of nothing, just as I first felt all those years ago when my worry feeling made sleep impossible.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a mental illness
Anxiety has always made me second-guess, worry, over-think. But I’ve never known it to be as monstrous, constant, evil, and vindictive as it is now. A deadly pandemic threatens my life any time I leave the house, and usual outlets for stress — going out with friends, meeting new people, and having fun — only increase my fear.
That I’ve been incredibly lucky during this pandemic makes me feel guilty for even thinking this way. Thousands of families are losing loved ones every single day; parents are struggling to feed their children; unemployed workers are slipping between the cracks without a steady paycheck or government help.
I’m extremely fortunate to have a therapist and a psychiatrist who listen to me and give me the help I need, and the most supportive family and friends in the world. I have a steady job I enjoy and enough income to support myself.
And yet, for me and millions of others, this isn’t enough of a buffer against extreme anxiety. The fear of impending doom I once only felt at night before bed has begun to feel like it’s here to stay. I’ve been afraid that it will never again just be a worrying feeling, but that it will forever feel like a real disability that inhibits my daily life.
A decision over whether or not to visit my dad and step-mom for a long weekend — my dad planned to drive me each way, and I would quarantine before and after the trip — left me immobile on the floor, leading to a panic attack that stretched out for days.
In explaining to my parents what I was going through, I kept saying I felt mentally ill for the first time in my life. I wanted to see my family, I wanted to hug my sister. I knew that the risk was low, given that no public transportation was involved and I don’t have roommates.
But every time I tried to reason with myself, the panicking would start all over again. Eventually, I laid on the floor, crying, staring at the ceiling, just as I did in the high school bathroom nearly a decade ago.
‘Nothing bad is happening’
I’m working on developing better coping skills to make it through the rest of this pandemic, and my support system and anti-anxiety medication is helping.
And then I remember that I agreed to go on a first date this week. How safe has he been? How safe have his roommates been? New York City has a 7% positive rate right now; what’s the chance of me contracting the virus from sitting across the table from this random guy outside?
I feel that familiar worry feeling making its way from my stomach to my chest. My heart rate increases as I imagine all the outcomes of this possible first date. We could have a great time and I could avoid contracting a deadly illness. Maybe, one day, we’ll fall in love and get married, move to the suburbs of New York, raise two perfect babies whom I love more than anything in the world, and live happily ever after.
Or maybe the COVID-19 particles in his air droplets land in my mouth as I sip on cabernet and laugh at his jokes. Days later, I’m hospitalized, put on a ventilator, and die.
In moments like these, I’m comforted by sticky-notes with positive messages that I’ve placed around my desk.
“Nothing bad is happening.”
“Everything is fine.”
“You got this.”
For a moment, they help.
I remember that there are infinite possible outcomes from getting a drink with someone outdoors. He’s probably not my husband, and I probably won’t die as a direct result of the date.
I imagine my mom lifting the worry feeling from my chest, tossing it into the dream catcher I still have hanging on my wall.
I know that I’ll get through the day, and then I’ll get through tomorrow, and then I’ll get through the day after that.
Right now, at this moment, nothing bad is happening.
Everything is fine.