It’s a recurring nightmare and makes for a restless night’s sleep close to once a week. I have to use the bathroom and I’m not at home to enjoy the luxury of my own clean, personal space. I walk into the public bathroom and the scene before me is always the same, dark and filthy. I make my way down the row of stalls and peer into each one, growing more and more horrified and anxious at the sight of my choices. My stomach is literally in knots as I choose the least of the evils before me and carefully make my way in and shut the door, being ever so careful as to not allow my clothing to even brush against the germs I can feel swarming around me. The walls close in tighter and tighter and I feel completely helpless in my fight to get through this without being utterly contaminated by the unknown. I am gripped with fear and my only escape is to wake from the nightmare, at which point I thank God that this nightmare is no longer alive for me in the form of what once was a long walk with anxiety.
Over the past year, I’ve shared a lot through my posts. I’ve mentioned several times how valuable I find the gift of understanding and find great healing in being able to relate and empathize with others. As the weeks come and go, I do my best to remain faithful to listening to what it is God wants me to share and it never fails to amaze me at what length He will go to in affirming a certain idea or in encouraging me down a specific path. For the past few weeks, I’ve been standing at the head of a path I am fairly reluctant to take you down, but remembering how alone I felt during the worst of my anxiety, I realize I have within me too valuable a gift to keep to myself. In essence, that gift is simply experience. I’ve lived it and I can help others living it to feel less alone, less confused, less afraid and less ashamed. My expertise on the subject is not based on any sort of medical truths, only in the reality of understanding that each person’s walk with anxiety comes in its’ own unique form, takes on its’ own life and finds its’ own personal resolution. I’ll share my story and let God do the rest. And because it’s a rather lengthy one, I’ll spread it over three different posts; a mini-series if you will, the beginning, in the depths, walking out.
Looking back to my childhood, I have to admit there were some glaring (like neon-fluorescent) signs that I had a personality perfectly suited for eventual inclusion in the obsessive-compulsive category. When I was young, I remember getting masking tape and creating labels for pants, shirts and skirts, clearly designating each section of my closet. I never went to sleep without first perfectly lining up all my stuffed animals along the side of my bed. I loved going grocery shopping with my mom, not so I could pick out what I wanted, but rather because I got a total thrill out of perfectly packing the groceries in the cart. Every item my mom picked up had its place I made sure it fit in a way that was neat and organized. My room was always clean and tidy and I was the girl who was always “put together”, hair perfect and sporting an “outfit”. I have the “best dressed” award from high school to prove my dedication to the outfit with a picture of me in a blazer, blouse and matching skirt (did I mention I went to public school?). I stressed my way through school, always striving for the A and felt happiest when things were orderly and controlled.
Fortunately for me and my compulsive tendencies, my childhood was blessed. My parents were selfless, loving and dedicated to their children. They kept my world neat and my heart full. My memories are joyful and my path was straight. I was raised knowing and loving God and was given the gift of faith. My world never felt out of control and by God’s grace alone, I was never faced with any sort of traumatic event that may otherwise have led the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms to surface at a much earlier age.
Fast forward to my early twenties and I was met with the trigger that would serve as an open invitation to welcome the anxiety in. At twenty-four years of age, my husband and I lost our first baby to miscarriage. My world fell apart as I realized I wasn’t in control and everything in my life was not guaranteed to work out accordingly to my carefully constructed plans. The vulnerability I had miraculously dodged for the better part of my young life had entered stage left and would soon take center stage in my struggle to maintain control.
Several months after our miscarriage, we were blessed with the news that I was once again expecting and my need to control each and every part of my pregnancy became all-consuming. I remember a co-worker of mine at the time describing my feelings perfectly. He equated being pregnant to carrying around a hot cup of tea. You walk around careful not to bump into anything, keeping everyone at a safe distance and constantly wishing you were surrounded by a protective bubble so as not to spill a drop.
The birth of our healthy baby boy was surrounded with indescribable joy. We snuggled him up and left the hospital accompanied by all the so-called “normal” nerves new parents have. As the weeks came and went however, my new-mother concerns slowly but surely morphed into obsessive worry and compulsive actions in an attempt to ensure the world this little miracle of ours lived in was perfect, clean and safe. The more independent he became in exploring his space, the more my protection over him increased. When he started to crawl, all I could think about were the germs he was being exposed to on the floors. I soon enacted the “no shoes in the house” law and made sure every person who set foot in our home abided by it, regardless of how unwelcome and/or uncomfortable it may have made them feel. No one could pick my child up without first being instructed to wash their hands and my trips outside of the house became more and more limited as I became less and less able to fight the worry about the germs that were lurking in all the public places.
I remember story hour at the library (one of our few outings) was a particularly stressful event each week. The adults and children would sit in a circle on the floor while the librarian read a few stories. My kid was the only one made to stay neatly on my lap. All the other children rolled around on the carpet, while I sat horrified at the negligence of their mothers. I just couldn’t understand how they could let their kids play on the rug that we had all been walking over. The risk associated with it just overwhelmed me and my logic grew to be more and more misconstrued. I increasingly felt like an outsider, as I just had such a hard time relating to the other mothers. On the outside, I smiled and did my best to project a relaxed mother who had it all under control. On the inside, I felt as though I was always tied in knots.
In my quiet moments, I began to wonder what was going on. I knew in my heart that my fears were illogical and unfounded, yet I was driven by this desperation to do everything I could think of to keep my son’s world clean and safe. The “looks” I started to get from my family were becoming more obvious every time I wiped my son’s hands, furiously washed his pacifier that had fallen to the ground or became impatient with someone who wasn’t conceding to my strict rules. My husband’s confusion with my behavior began to turn into frustration as he simply could never do anything quite right, at least not by my unrealistic standards. I was stripping him of enjoying special moments and outings with our son by bringing along my obsessive worry everywhere we went. I continued to justify my behavior by believing that what I was doing was best for my son.
Twenty-three months after TJ was born, Noah came into the world and blessed our lives beyond measure. I was overjoyed, overtired and falling deeper into the throes of anxiety. Now I had two precious lives to protect and the most exhausting part was not the late-night feedings or the early mornings, but the constant, ever-present worry. It was draining me of the person I once was and I hated it. I tried so hard to hide it all and keep things neatly concealed behind my smile, but I know my unhealthy state of mind was glaringly obvious to those closest to me.
One of the hardest things to deal with was the way my anxiety was affecting my relationships. As far as I was concerned, no one could do anything quite right and I constantly felt annoyed and angry that others wouldn’t take the same precautions that I found to be obvious.
I was impatient. I was frightened. I was embarrassed. I felt completely alone in my struggle to protect my children. I knew my fears were illogical but had no idea how to put an end to the worry. Why were these thoughts creeping in? I never used to be this way. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of in my husband and children and I can’t seem to get past the worry to enjoy these amazing gifts. My God, where are you in all of this?