Helpers Need Help, Too: I’m A Therapist Battling Anxiety
When your profession puts you in a position of perceived perpetual strength, power, and “togetherness,” it’s difficult for people to suspect or even believe that you endure the same stressors and emotions that they do. As a therapist, I put on my superwoman invincibility cloak every weekday morning to provide the empathy, hope, validation, support, and problem-solving my clients need in their lives for our hour or two sessions. But about three months ago, my own “stuff” tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to sit in the other chair.
I am a wounded healer, a survivor of depression. I am still surviving. My interest in the mental health field stemmed from my upbringing, being immersed in situations and people battling illnesses and addictions that sprouted from seeds of trauma. I had never seen what healing looked like. I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to do it. People would assume that I was fine because I looked fine in my pictures. For the past couple of years, most of my time has been consumed by working and being a full-time student, so what most people think they know about me comes from their interpretations of the glimpses into my life they are provided on social media. Maybe I wanted people to think my life was perfect, or maybe I am actually so private that I was embarrassed to share the lows. Nobody is entitled to knowing everything that happens to us. However, the moment I started being a little more transparent about the hardships I was experiencing, a miraculous thing happened: I felt freer. I literally felt the pedestal that my family, friends, and acquaintances had put me on being lowered. A pedestal I had kind of wanted to be put on, but not really. Not when it meant people were constantly craving a sip from my chalice of strength without any knowledge that I was down to the last scant drops.
A few months ago I was informally diagnosed with Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The way it was described to me was the way I describe anxiety to my clients. Although I had never experienced anxiety to this degree before, my body’s “fight or flight” was response was jacked. Normally, this response serves as a useful survival tool, increasing our awareness of perceived threats. For example, when we lived in caves, hunters would sense that a bear was in their vicinity, and the fight or flight response would give them a heads up to flee or target the bear first. The issue here was there was no bear in my vicinity. I was not even consciously aware of fearing or sensing a bear, yet my body was reacting as if I was about to be Winnie The Vicious Pooh’s snack.
Anxiety means I have thought about writing this article for weeks, but could not physically get to it. My mind was cluttered and overwhelmed, forcing me to into paralysis: wanting to do everything but instead doing nothing. Or only completing the tasks that I absolutely could not postpone any longer without the risk of jeopardizing my employment. As I type, I resist the urge to pop an Ativan, telling myself that the stimulation and nervousness I feel making time for my often neglected but forever pondered about love, writing, is positive. Even the act of taking a prescription medication for anxiety is a huge breakthrough.
A few months ago, I was sobbing in a hospital gown in the emergency department, utterly opposed to taking any medication even though my anxiety had finally exploded into a severely disabling state. Years of “being strong,” “pushing through,” and “carrying on,” despite the traumas and emotions that remained unprocessed, had finally caught up to me. The years of suppression and repression, consciously and unconsciously forcing negative, unpleasant, and threatening feelings out of my mind in order to function had become too much. In my mind, I believed unleashing these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors would have completely disrupted whatever my present goal or survival circumstances were to the point that I would have become a completely unwound puddle of tears and pain. I convinced myself that the admission of my humanity and mortality were weaknesses, perhaps because I had not experienced the privilege of feeling emotionally (and oftentimes physically) safe growing up. It was a maladaptive coping strategy that had now stopped working. I had lost control. Surrendering to this realization has probably been the hardest pill to swallow to date, pun intended.
Outside of my studies, I had never grasped what it meant to live with anxiety and thought “panic attacks” were just humorous hyperbole for very nervous or antsy personality types. I did not know they felt like death. I did not know anybody who looked like me who had them. Prior to becoming a therapist, I had never heard them talked about or described in detail. I did not know years of suppression and repression would cause panic and anxiety to sneak up on me. What I had seen and heard of was self-medication and depression which had left me with an inability to comprehend why people chose to ruin their lives by becoming dependent on substances. I now know that becoming an addict is not a simple process and I actively fight against the stigma that it is.
There is power in softness. When we share our experiences, we free ourselves and others. After reading this, someone will no longer postpone addressing their traumas. Someone will stop self-medicating and seek professional services and resources. Someone will know they are not alone. Please do not put taking care of everyone else above taking care of yourself. You need you; your body, your mind, they both need to be strong for all of the great things waiting to be accomplished. Everyone needs support and safe spaces to vent. Everyone needs to process their emotions. Everyone needs help, and that includes the helpers.