About a year ago I was sitting in the car. I had been sitting there for nearly an hour. It was 9 o’clock at night. My phone was buzzing again and I forced myself to look down and see that it was my husband calling again. I looked away, frozen in my seat, arms feeling too heavy to move. Though I was immobile, it felt as though I was running a marathon. My heart raced and I was gasping for breath. I had been coming in and out of this state since we had parked the car in the driveway, my husband and children retreating into the house, leaving me in the car as I tried to sort through what exactly was happening to me.
We had gone to an open house for a charter school we were interested in sending E., too, should her name be drawn in a lottery. It had been a hell of a school year so far, the worst we’d ever experienced, which is saying a lot since E. didn’t even like preschool that much where it was only two hours of playing and lots of one one one attention. We were desperate for options that would put her in a better learning environment. But this was a long shot. And even if her name was drawn in the lottery, the school was an hour away and my husband and I would be responsible for getting her there. It just seemed impossible, but keeping her in school felt impossible, too.
So, there was that, the reality of not knowing what we could do to help our miserable child, our one escape so totally unpromised. That, and then there was everything else. My second semester of grad classes, my husband’s first of undergrad. Work. So much work, and stress to go with it. And I simply didn’t know how to cope with it all, except to have what I thought might be a heart attack or stroke or spontaneous combustion in my husband’s jeep when I should really be inside helping to put my children to bed.
Eventually I was able to pry myself from the car, drag myself to my bed, and sob for a good long time into a pillow. I was not dying, not going to be rushed to the hospital while going into cardiac arrest. No, my heart was perfectly healthy, but my spirit was not. When I was finally calm enough to form words, my husband came to me and lay down beside me, holding me close and rubbing my back. “We need to do something about this,” he told me.
Because this wasn’t the first time. Perhaps it was the worst time, but it wasn’t the first. I had experienced attacks of anxiety periodically, starting when I was 11. But that honestly wasn’t the worst of it. Yes, I would (often am) wracked with anxiety that sometimes becomes immobilizing, but I am prone to fits of uncontrollable, almost always inexplicable anger and have been since I was young. My childhood bedroom bears just some of the scars of my rage, the horsehair plaster completely gone is spots along my walls were things were thrown or beaten with a shoe or hairbrush. Twice my dad oversaw my replacement of glass window panes in my bedroom because I had thrown something out of it.
As I grew older, the rage did not go away and I did not get any better at controlling it. Instead, I grew more anxious and cultivated a deep sense of guilt and shame. Yet I did very little to change anything. I think this was because when I would get angry, I would fill up, and it felt so good to be filled with that hot and righteous anger. I felt powerful and in control, something I rarely felt at any other time. I would get a little bit of a high, my adrenaline giving me the go ahead to let my fury loose. I was a dragon, breathing fire and burning anyone who crossed me (on purpose or by accident) into a crisp.
If you met me on the street, or worked with me, or were even a good friend of mine, you might not suspect I could be like this. My work face, friend face, meeting a stranger face, is one of happiness and enthusiasm. Bubbly. I would present this part of myself to the outer world and save my anger for those closest to me, and feel the deepest darkest shame, ashamed that I was such a fake and ashamed that I could not be good for my family.
So, I did as my husband asked that night I had sat frozen in our car and we did something about this. I had tried things before. Read books, tried breathing exercises, attempted diet changes, saw therapists, prayed, meditated, self-harmed, and considered suicide. I went to my doctor and went to a therapist. My doctor gave me a prescription for pills, my therapist said I should take them, and my husband made me fill it.
Medication is for the weak, I had always told myself. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to rely on a chemical to make me normal. I want to do it myself. I don’t want to be weak.
But, right now you are weak, and you need help, and it’s okay to accept help. A voice that was not my own told me this. And I let that bottle of pills sit on our kitchen counter for a few days, where I would look at it, trying to decide if that voice was right. When I realized it was right, I still wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know if I deserved help. But I did, the voice told me, and also, my children deserved a mother who was completely healthy, and my husband deserved a wife who took care of herself.
This past year has been a difficult one, for so many reasons, but not because my anger is out of control or that I’m experiencing more and more panic attacks. It is not that my anxiety is gone or that I’m constantly blissed out, but I feel engaged once more, that inexplicable fury shaken off, sent packing. When I get angry, there’s a reason and it’s controllable. When I am anxious I am able to hear that voice that tells me to stay calm, to take breaths. The medication doesn’t dull my emotions, but allows me to full the full range in moderation, rather than just a couple at full blast.
I am still learning to cope with negative events and emotions in healthy ways. I am still learning how to be tender with others and myself. I am still learning that I am not a bad person for feeling anger and not a weak person for feeling anxious. I am still learning how to forgive myself for past transgressions and how to rebuild from them at the same time.