In the 6th grade, my middle school had an acting company put on a musical called ‘Am I Normal?’. It was a remake of that (hilarious) film about puberty made back in the 70’s. Actors swung around from what looked like scaffolding as all of the kids slumped down in their seat, snickering about how lame it was.
The play related to physical changes a child goes through while transitioning into young adulthood. However, the production neglected to really focus on some other changes that might start or become magnified around this time. The mental changes that occur as we develop. I didn’t know it yet, but it would have been so needed.
Somewhere around this time, I began feeling very uncomfortable at school. I had a stomachache and felt faint all of the time. Whenever my mom drove me to school in the morning, the moment she turned the corner to the street my school was on, my stomach would start to churn. My heart would start pounding. I didn’t realize what I was experiencing was anxiety. I had never had any previous experience at school that had ever made me nervous. I liked my friends, and I had good grades. So why did I have such an upset stomach every morning we turned down that street? I ended up spending the majority of 7th grade in the nurses office, or staying home from school.
By high school, I knew I was nervous. Whereas my stomachache’s had once begun randomly and induced a state of panic in middle school, as a high schooler, I noticed the inverse occurred- now whenever I was put in situations that made me nervous, I instantly developed a stomachache. So now I was in a worse predicament — the chicken or the egg predicament. Was this public stomachache making me nervous, or was my public nervousness making my stomach upset?
This would begin my now 19 year long battle with anxiety. And, the interesting part about that last sentence is that it could have very easily been written ‘…my 12 year long battle with anxiety’. For many years in the ’90’s, doctor’s could not find the source of my ‘stomach pain’- which also included light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, and trembling- I just thought that was a side-effect of me trying hard not to throw up. So I was poked, prodded, x-rayed, endoscopied, put on special diets, and tested for everything. I had many hospital trips, and over the years was prescribed narcotics, birth control, homeopathic medicine, and eventually, anti-depressants. I could never seem to feel better.
Now here comes the kicker. By now, most people know that people who suffer from anxiety are also very highly likely to suffer from depression. Ding! Ding! Ding! Constantly feeling sick and nervous, was doing me in. I started falling behind in school, and eventually had to attend alternative high school. I missed the opportunity to go away to college, but I was determined not to let this issue keep me from higher education. After high school, I suddenly became forceful about needing to ‘fix’ myself. I went back on anti-depressants, and I’ll be the first to tell you- it did wonders getting me through college.
Until my mid-twenties, I never really told anyone what I was dealing with. I knew by then what I had was panic disorder, and I knew that when I was under stress, my stomach would sour. But other than that, what I “knew” was that this happened to only a “small subset” of the population, and most dealt with it privately to avoid stigma. I suddenly wished there was an embarrassing musical production again, in front of all of my adult colleagues in an office space, answering the question to my actual issue- Am I Normal??
Fast-forward. My 30th birthday last year brought about quite a change in attitude for me. In the past few years I have become a bit more open about this issue, but my 30th year in particular forced me to think about my life in many ways. I decided to really put my well-being first, and not let anyone make me feel bad or inferior for it. I suddenly realized that this was something I will not just “grow out of”, and I needed to be my authentic self. I decided to leave a stressful job, and changed my diet quite a bit. I started admitting to people when I was feeling anxious, and allowed myself to feel uncomfortable in front of others. If I ever hit my breaking point, I just excused myself. To my surprise, no one really seemed to think it was weird. And if they did, they didn’t say so. I felt relief, finally allowing myself to be me. And a little bit of anxiety’s grip, eased up on me. Other’s even found they were able to confide in me about their similar feelings and experiences, and I found comfort in being part of their support system.
I want to tell you all where I’m at today. Back in my final quarter at San Francisco State University, I had found a workbook in the student bookstore that really changed my attitude toward anxiety forever. I had read many self-help books throughout the years, and researched the internet far and wide, but this was by far the BEST. It’s called, “The Anti-Anxiety Workbook” by Martin Antony and Peter Norton, PhD. I read this book cover-to-cover, over-and-over, and picked up tips in between classes, on flights, before important meetings. I can’t say enough how much this book helped me- I brought it on every trip I had. Even camping.
Out of all the advice in the book, two pieces stuck out at me. I’ll paraphrase, but they were something like this:
“intentionally and repeatedly put yourself in situations that make you fearful or trigger anxiety”
as well as
“never carry ‘safeties’, or items that make you superstitiously feel safe”.
Welllll…. as great as that book is, I tried both, and I personally found I could not do them both, at least at first. I was like Bob Wiley- I needed Baby Steps. And so I chose to put myself in new, challenging, exciting, adventurous situations- situations that might trigger my fears or anxieties. And I put together a little kit to help me through it.
My personal kit always contained items that made my stomach feel better when it was in anxious knots. Mints when my mouth watered at the thought of going into my one-on-one’s at work. Saltine’s to coat an nervous acidic belly. Herbal tea for me to prepare before each team meeting. A camphor inhalant for when I felt I couldn’t breathe from stress and worry.
This little ‘survival’ kit has helped me attend my husband’s work Christmas parties, helped me give presentations to important clients, take my first trip to Europe, go camping year after year, ride in the backseat of a car. Things that, without my ‘safety items’, I might never do. I still carry it with me wherever I go, and pull certain items out of it and carry them in my pockets if I’m at the gym or the park. I notice I need it less and less these days, but I feel calmer knowing it’s close.
I want others that have suffered silently like me, to be able to get out and live the way I have been able to push myself to. So I made the ultimate panic pack, in hopes that it would help suffers of stress, anxiety, and common ailments, the way my bag has helped me. Because everybody’s got their something. Something that triggers fear, anxiety, uncertainty, stress. Stress that, if untreated manifests as illness. Muscle tension, back pain, headaches, stomachaches. Some might call this kit a “safety blanket”. Some might just call it a First-Aid Kit. I just call it PEACHY. And I would be nowhere without it.
I hope this entry was helpful for somebody out there, even if it just helps you feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you all on what steps you take to help yourself cope in times of stress!
P.S. — I’m totally feeling anxious pressing ‘publish’ on this. Good thing I have this cute little kit next to me…