A few days ago, I had to go to the doctor. I was long overdue for my annual physical exam and it was time, but dread and apprehension coursed through my entire body at the thought of the whole thing. The appointment was absolutely one of those things that had me feeling like I wanted to throw a toddler-style, full-blown, kicking-and-screaming tantrum.
This anxiety and fear I was feeling, which had caused me to reschedule the appointment at least twice, had a lot more to do with my depression than it did with the actual appointment. I love my nurse practitioner and trust her implicitly. She saw me through rounds upon rounds of tests when we thought something physical was wrong before I was diagnosed with depression. She takes me seriously and is proactive, yet reassuring. I’ve never had a negative experience with her or with the aides or receptionists in the office. And while I often think that the physical symptoms of my depression could be markers of a more serious disease (you know, like the classic anxious person anthem: could these headaches be a brain tumor?), I really don’t fear some kind of awful, life-threatening diagnosis.
No, what I fear and dread, and even convince myself of, is that something will be wrong with my health that is my fault.
In the interest of transparency: over the past few years, as I have battled depression and put my body through a good number of different medications, I have gained a lot of weight. That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but I will say that I am decidedly an emotional eater, and when I’m depressed it’s my (unhealthy) habit to turn to food. It’s something I’m working on.
Anyway, between the weight gain and the knowledge that type two diabetes runs in my family on both sides, I had convinced myself that I had given myself the disease. This became an enormous source of anxiety for me. I would drink down a glass of water quickly and wonder, “Do I have excessive thirst?” At night if my eyes blurred for a second I would wonder if my vision was changing. I was sure that the junk food I had been turning to was going to catch up with me in a terrible new way, and that everyone I knew -- my doctor, my family, my friends, and most of all myself -- would blame and judge me for being sick. (They wouldn’t, nor do I blame anyone else for having medical problems. People get sick. It happens. They deserve love and care, not presumptions and judgment.)
I also have high blood pressure, another medical issue that runs in my family, and had used my remarkable skills of negative self-talk to force myself into believing that this is something I should feel guilty about and that is entirely my fault.
Cue the anxiety and dread about my visit to the doctor.
But the day came, and I found myself past the awful weigh-in (does anyone like that part?) and nodding to the aide who took my blood pressure that yes, I knew it was high. As I waited for the nurse practitioner to come in, my heart was pounding from anxiety and I felt the negative voices start to creep in. You’re so fat. You deserve health problems. They’re your fault. You’re not worthy of kind, adequate medical care. What do you think you’re doing here?
I realized that I needed to get this under control before the appointment started up again. I began taking deep breaths, trying to slow my pulse. “You are okay,” I started to think to myself. I’ve never been one for mantras, but this one was starting to form in my head almost independently of my own mind. I needed to back up. Before even thinking that I was okay, I needed to acknowledge that I was here, to ground myself, to congratulate myself on getting this far. “You are here,” I said to myself a few times. “You are okay.” The next part just came. “You are worthy.”
I spent the next several minutes breathing deeply, repeating over and over in my mind, “You are here. You are okay. You are worthy.”
I am worthy of quality medical care. I do deserve to be treated with respect, to take care of my body as it is right this second, to take the medication I need to control my blood pressure, to make sure the rest of me is healthy and to allow this wonderful nurse practitioner to take care of me. I am worthy.
The rest of the appointment went fine. I found out that my antidepressant could be causing the high blood pressure. My bloodwork came back, and I don’t have diabetes, or any other illness, now matter how hard my depression and anxiety had tried to convince me that I did and that it would be my own damn fault for gaining weight.
And you know what? If I did learn that I had a newfound health problem, I would still be worthy of respect, deserving of kindness, valuable enough to treat the disease and work to get healthier. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I have decided that self-blame has no place in how I care for and treat my body.
I am worthy.
I’m on an airplane. I just boarded with my husband after an amazing week in St. Croix, visiting his parents and soaking up the sun, sipping on fruity rum drinks, and enjoying a lot of happy family time. We had flown to San Juan and had a meal, browsed the duty-free store, and gotten on the plane. I’m excited to have the window seat since I took the middle on the way down; it’s my turn to have a wall to sleep against. I swallow my trusty Dramamine -- while I don't usually get nervous on flights, I prefer to sleep my way through them -- and try to settle in. I'm crossing and uncrossing my legs, propping myself up against the window, leaning on my husband’s shoulder. I can’t get comfortable. My neck and shoulders start to ache, my lower back too. We haven’t even taken off yet and I suddenly need air.
The flight attendants have begun their safety speech and I continue to squirm. I try tucking one leg underneath me, then the other. I ball up my hoodie and try to lean against the window using that. Everything hurts. It's not just aching anymore, it's a throbbing that courses throughout my body, my arms, my legs. I start to feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin -- anything to stop feeling so uncomfortable. I lean back in my chair so hard that it tilts back, the way airplane seats sometimes do, surprising the woman behind me. I turn around and smile apologetically, adjusting my seat so it’s upright again. She has no idea of the frantic flurry of thoughts in my head about trying to get my body to relax. We still haven’t taken off.
After what could only have been ten or fifteen minutes, I have become so restless I feel like I’m disturbing the entire plane (this is unlikely; it's a big plane). Finally my husband turns to me and asks, “Are you anxious?”
“Oh,” I said. Yes, I guess I am. Sometimes it feels so physical, and I don’t think I have anything to be worried about, so I forget that anxiety just does this sometimes (you’d think I’d start to get with the program one of these days). I have nothing to take to make it go away. This type of anxiety usually only overtakes me at bedtime at home, where I can take a sleep aid or get up and do something else to quiet my nerves, so I don’t have any actual anti-anxiety medication with me. I’ve never gotten this way on a plane before. Now that I’ve identified what’s going on, I start to feel worse instead of better. My heart gets a little racy. I want to jiggle my leg up and down but I know that will shake the whole row, so I settle for tapping my fingers frantically against my thigh. This is awful. How am I going to get through four hours of this without moving around or screaming or bursting into tears?
I count down backwards from 100 to give my mind something to focus on. When that doesn’t work, I try counting down by twos or threes to make it harder. It helps for maybe a few seconds at a time.
Drinks and snacks come. I can’t eat. I’m desperate to feel something, anything, other than this agonizing feeling that something is terribly wrong. My husband suggests I hold an ice cube. (He works with kids who have mental illnesses. He’s good at this.) He puts one cube on the back of my neck. Cold water drips down the back of my shirt and this makes me cringe, but holding the ice on the pulse points of my wrists seems to help briefly. I want to shriek. Everyone around me is reading, watching movies, sleeping. How can they be so relaxed? Usually I can read and then drift off to sleep, but not now. My husband holds my hand and tells me that everything is okay. He tells me I am his best friend. I smile because this usually comforts me, but the anxiety is like a thousand ants crawling over every inch of my skin. How could this possibly ever be okay?
I’m distraught, about to come completely unglued. Last resort: we have some nips in our carry-on. I drink one. It helps for about 20 minutes. I might doze for five or ten of them. I am miserable. I drink another one. Again, relief for a few precious moments. I think I have to pee, but the idea of disturbing the woman in the aisle seat makes me cringe and anxiety surges up inside of me. This becomes all I can think about. I know I’m perseverating but I can’t help it. As soon as I decide to make a move for the restroom, the seatbelt sign goes on. Now I am convinced that I cannot get up to pee (it’s against the rules!), but after several others do I muster up the willpower to ask the woman on the aisle to let me out. Just walking the aisle I feel a little better. It feels good to stand up. I’m not trapped against the wall of the plane any more. I’ve never felt claustrophobic in this way, but being up and about feels so much better than sitting that I wonder if that’s what this is.
After the bathroom, I sit in the middle seat because my husband has moved over. I am okay. Surprisingly, this feels better than my usually-preferred window seat. We are landing in less than an hour. I somehow manage to read a little bit and sit quietly without wriggling around and accidentally elbowing my seatmate in the face or slamming my seat back into someone's knees. Thank goodness for small favors.
We land in Boston and get off the plane. I have survived one of the worst flights of my life. I think I have decided that depression is way easier to deal with than anxiety. (Until, of course, the next time that sad, familiar pain creeps into the pit of my stomach in a few days, and I will change my mind again.) For now, though, I will breathe and thank God for the relief that comes when the ants crawl off my skin and scurry away, when I can breathe again, when the anxiety lifts from my cramped, tense shoulders.