3 Surprising Things That Happened After Healing My Anxiety
This year of healing anxiety brought surprises, comforts (and discomforts), and an entirely new way of being alive. If you’re someone who identifies with the experience of anxiety and is wondering if it will ever get better — it will. I promise. Your healing will surprise you. It happens in the spaces where you’re not paying attention. It’s unfolding already in front of you. This is how it happened to me.
Using the word ‘after’ in this headline feels odd. There isn’t really a day I can point to, or even a series of days, that feel like true after. Things are always lingering behind and popping back up like dandelions after I weeded the entire pea patch — oh, hey! I thought I got rid of you! Then, sighing, I kneel on the dirt and address that thing which is never solved quite perfectly. But! It remains equally true that things are so much better. I am so much better. There are only a few dandelions. They pop up rarely. I know how to get to the root of the thing. This is a miracle to me.
Nobody really told me what to expect when I ‘got better’. The team of people loving me were mostly focused on the actual process of getting me better. It was truly a boots-on-the-ground effort. Getting better was work. Even when I got on a plane to England to begin a master’s degree there, the work was not done. Moving to a new country meant I threw myself into uncharted waters, which served as a welcome relief from “life before” but generated overwhelming to-do lists. You can’t G.S.D if you can’t get out of bed. There were still practical realities to be managed, not least in terms of starting a new life with anxiety leftover from my last one. I knew I made the right choice to get on that plane. I didn’t know what would happen after making that right choice. Now I do.
There are several things that happened afterwards — indeed, some are still happening now. These are things to do with my body, my mind, and my life. I struggled to assign each of them into a higher schema of meaning. Giving a painful thing space to exist by making it a lesson was not always helpful (although I learned many lessons). However, most were not intrinsically painful. Some were simply unexpected — a surprise! Others felt as though they were delivered straight from Heaven into my pockets, a clear answer to a pleading prayer I made in the middle of the night. Most of those things, even the ones that hurt, I now interpret as blessings. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Here are three of them.
1. I GAINED WEIGHT.
My particular ‘brand’ of anxious meant I spent half a year pushing food around on a plate. I didn’t order at restaurants. If I did eat, it was only at home, and after 7 or 8PM when I had ‘made it through the day’. I was constantly nauseous. I was not hungry, ever. This meant I lost a lot of weight. I think I was twenty pounds below my average adult weight — at my lowest, I weighed the same I did when I was fourteen years old. I bought new clothes because my old ones were falling off of me. Some of my favorite parts of me disappeared before my eyes. I just watched helplessly in the mirror as my smile changed, my hair fell out, and my chest flattened. I didn’t think I was more beautiful this way. I felt hollow. The thinness felt like a sick victory in a war I didn’t care about winning. I wanted the nausea to stop. I wanted to look at my birthday cake, and I desperately wanted to want to eat it. But the nausea didn’t stop. And I didn’t want to eat.
People started noticing. I bumped into a neighbor who has known me for over ten years at a garage sale that summer. She gasped when she saw me and pulled me into a big hug. “Honey, you’re so thin! You look great! What have you been doing?” I drew back slightly and responded, halfway smiling, “Oh, I’ve just stopped eating.” She froze and stared at me. I could only wait wo or three beats in this awkward silence before hastily adding, “…Gluten, I mean. Stopped eating gluten.” I had, technically, stopped eating gluten. I quickly redirected the conversation, and shortly thereafter said my goodbyes. I got in the car with my mom and stared out the window, shaking. Thin was beautiful. But the truth was not.
The next month I started playing soccer in England. I don’t know how I managed to do this. I didn’t have the stamina for it. How could I? I wasn’t eating! I would step off the pitch in the middle of practice, dizzy and lightheaded. In games, I could barely make it to halftime. But! After about a month of this, I was hungry again. I had to start fueling my body. Oh, the joys of eating a whole chicken breast. A banana. Breakfast. Before long, I didn’t just have to eat, I wanted to! Slowly, food stopped being a threat and started being a necessary and comforting daily practice. I started cooking for myself again. If I had a game the next morning, I ate pasta the night before. Before long, I started baking. Come winter, I was baking a lot. I missed all those months of dessert. Every cookie felt like a victory. Every slice of cake a celebration.
I suppose I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally complex it would be to gain the weight back. I was stronger. But I stopped fitting in those new clothes I bought that summer. I carried weight in different parts of my body. My thighs are thick, strong, and squishy. Cellulite speckles up the back of my legs. I have a belly. I’m not hollow. This is not easy to love, not least because I haven’t really loved my body at any weight, ever. It requires an active, conscious, consistent effort to love what I look like. I’m not good at it yet. I’m trying. I had to buy new clothes (again) and give away the smaller ones. Nobody prepared me for the sorrow I felt tucking those tiny shorts and skirts into the donation bin. I felt like I was grieving someone who died, even though during all those months I would have sold my soul to eat with ease again. My metabolism is now strong, steady, and stable. I remember the weeks of praying to God to heal me. That prayer has been answered. Now, I’m praying to love this body and this weight, because it means I am alive again. And I do really love being alive.
2. I LOVED BEING ALONE.
When I wasn’t playing soccer, I spent the first three months in England doing things on my own. I didn’t really have the capacity to integrate another person’s experience alongside mine. The thought of being even partially responsible for anyone when I was just getting good at taking care of me was… unappealing. I only wanted my own company, especially because I had been relying so long on other people to carry me through. I walked a lot, thinking. My mind was finally quiet enough to hear my thoughts clearly. As I gained my own trust back, I needed to do all this by myself. I explored libraries tucked into various corners of the city, cycled to and from various stores to build out my kitchen spice rack, and read everything I could get my hands on. I understood very quickly that I had a lot to learn. Doing my undergraduate degree at Seattle University was the best experience of my life. And yet — it did not prepare me for the amount of work that would be demanded of me in those first few months. I didn’t know how to revise effectively. It had been several years since I was assessed in an exam. Even the format of lectures was unfamiliar to me — I had always learned Socratic-Seminar-style. Cambridge was proving to be a whole other beast. One that I had chosen to tackle on my own.
The university has quite a few traditions which every new student is encouraged, and sometimes required, to participate in. One of such is matriculation, where you are formally inducted into your college, which is one of thirty-one colleges (think Hogwarts’ Houses) which make up the university. Colleges are the institutional bodies where students live, eat, socialize, and study — my college is Clare Hall, a cozy, postgraduate-only college which is tucked among the brick-roads of West Cambridge. At Clare Hall and other colleges, there are formal dinners, lots of schmoozing over drinks and canapes, dozens of introductions, orientations, and other social events for students to meet each other. I was woefully unprepared for the academic elevator pitches that dazzled me throughout fall term. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do? What are your research interests? What are your goals? One has these conversations over and over, up to a dozen times in only an hour or two. I quickly realized I tired very quickly of talking about myself like this. I started asking a lot of questions instead (as a byproduct, this meant necessarily admitting things that I didn’t know — which proved to be very humbling). “Sorry, who is Clifford Geertz? And what is a Balinese cockfight?” I caught a few wary looks after I asked that. I was definitely supposed to know about one of the most eminent founders of cultural anthropology and his seminal text, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Alas, I didn’t. I’ll even admit I didn’t really fully understand what social anthropology was before I got to Cambridge. But now I do! I devoured the course material desperately, soaking up terms and knowledge in order to churn out essays, debates, and reflections which felt as though they came from nowhere. This didn’t eradicate the imposter syndrome… although I worked very hard, which helped.
Unfortunately, my mission to become an overnight anthropologist didn’t help me when I was speaking to those outside of my course. Cut to a few conversations where, bewildered but appearing calm, my brain paddled furiously to stay afloat. I would say things like, “That sounds so interesting! Can I ask quickly — what is backpropagation?” Turns out, machine learning is quite difficult to wrap your head around when you took your last computer science class nine years ago. “So why is Russian Formalism such an influential field of literary criticism? And while you’re at it… what is Russian Formalism?” I still don’t really know the answer to that one. I navigated those conversations cautiously for about three months before I began to settle into them — something that couldn’t have happened if I wasn’t healing my anxiety at the same time. Nobody could step in and save me from this heavy lifting. Afterwards, I rested and researched some of the terms I didn’t know. I’m happy to say I learned a lot.
When you’re in a room full of specialists who don’t specialize in the same thing, everyone is interesting and also difficult to understand. I found the only way to understand anything was to ask thoughtfully and listen carefully. I found most people shared easily and comfortably with me. My questions spurred other questions. I especially liked this because the tangle of nerves in my belly mostly stilled when I was listening. In some ways, I still felt quite alone, even in those conversations. Very few people asked me about myself beyond my work. We were at Cambridge to study, after all. But if we sparked enough curiosity together, we exchanged contact details, planned loosely to get coffee sometime and drifted apart to meet another person holding a glass of prosecco. Many of these coffee dates never happened, but the ones that did were mostly lovely, and I made some great friends that way. I did have an unfortunate lunch date with an elitist jackass who, upset when I turned down his smothering interest, execrated me in Latin! I didn’t catch the red flags when we first met (my bad). But mostly, even amidst all of this meeting and schmoozing and talking, I still spent most of my evenings alone in the quiet of my bedroom, reading, annotating, writing, and thinking. I loved it. I thought moving and living so far away from my life-jacket-people in Seattle would make me vulnerable, that I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself alone. Thankfully, I was more than able, and I enjoyed the entire experience thoroughly. I grew to relish my own mind and space.
3. I REVISED HOW I MAKE MY CHOICES.
Of the three, this one is perhaps the most tender to me. A very close friend helped me navigate my anxiety from afar — we could not see each other during the pandemic. From afar, I integrated their advice into my life as best as I could. It was always brutally honest and sometimes the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. They encouraged me to push myself and fail forward, constantly challenging those debilitating internal narratives which kept me paralyzed with fear. I’m not sure why I trusted them so implicitly. When I’m feeling courageous, I can get in touch with my shadow and admit that I valued their understanding of me higher than my own. Why? I suppose it’s complicated. Part of it is the illusory pathways we all follow in the hopes that someone or something will fix our pain for us. Part of it is self-denial. My anxiety eroded my ability to trust myself, unsure of what was real or deception. Their words were rooted in something outside of myself which that felt safer than the words which came from inside. Another part of it is love. I loved them deeply. This is not to say that they led me wrong, but it did cause complications.
Our conversations were like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a physical, sometimes painful rewiring of the way I thought and acted. We had great conversations and I am grateful to them for this — that their care of me was the kind that challenged and changed me, even though it wore me out and often gave me headaches. They were the sounding board for many of my choices, from trying challenging new sports to moving into a house with a new group of friends. Their role in my life was so critical to me during this time because I was so lost, constantly looking outwards for touchpoints into rational thinking — for someone who knew what to do with me. They certainly helped me regain my footing in the world. However, as I healed, the critical nature of their insights grew less helpful. We fought more. I grew more emotional when we talked. We don’t think about or process emotion in the same way, which started to make me feel crazy. Sometimes, I would mute myself on the phone and choke out a sob, before wiping my tears and steadying my voice in order to continue debating. I take responsibility for this because it was always me who kept coming to them, knowing their core would remain the same as it has always been, and it was me who kept hoping it would change. The infamous line, attributed to Albert Einstein, captures this precisely: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I was ready to meet myself again, to do something different.
My anxiety had made me very familiar with irrational thought patterns, but I was not without self-regard and ideas about what I valued in my friendships. Over time, I had to address the gnawing feeling in my stomach that I had to wean myself off of their life-support. This meant revising my ideas, on my own, about the love each of my friends could give me in this stage of my life and get serious about those relationship patterns which were no longer working for me. As I regained my internal sense of what’s real and true, my ways of relating changed. I really pulled back on the sounding-board calls, the ones where I polled my friends on my opportunities, ideas, or obstacles in front of me. Instead, I started turning inwards. I did not suffer less for this, at first. Learning to trust your intuition feels like flying by the seat of your pants, nearly always devoid of a coherent meaning to the madness you’re trying to order. I cried myself to sleep nearly every August evening, in deep, heavy anguish about where I would live after graduation, which job offer I would accept and which I would reject, and how I was going to finish my dissertation which sat dauntingly, unfinished, in front of me. How would I live a life on my own terms, feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of choosing ‘right’?
The person I turned to was my mentor and friend, Dr. Jennifer Schulz, who has always been a thoughtful and revealing compass into my own mind. She asked me poignant questions and offered guiding thoughts as I wrestled my way through my own. Afterwards, I cleared my mind as best I could and made some tough choices. I surrendered my vision for what I thought my life should be and trusted in a higher vision of what my life was meant to be. I don’t know what that will look like. I am simply taking the next right step with every choice I make. I still gladly share with my friends what I am doing and why I am doing it. They ask questions and I answer truthfully — detailing my hesitations, excitements, and insecurities. But the choices are made by me, for me. I found that I am a happier and better friend this way. I love that one friend more deeply and easily because I have revised my expectations of them and changed the way I integrate them into my life. Some nights, I put my head in my hands and dream wistfully about a life lived through someone else’s guidance. Even so, I keep choosing this hard thing because it feels right, and I have yet to be led astray by it.
I wrote this article because of an intimate desire to hold each of you close as you wonder if, how, and when it will ever get better. This pathway is lined with people who will love, lead, and lift you as you journey it. I believe in you.
Keep going. What you discover just may surprise you.
Read more of my work on my blog, The Olly Project.