I’m sure all of my fellow anxious brains can relate to a question I often found myself asking during some of my darkest anxiety-filled days, How did I get here? Of course, this question stems from the obvious realization that we weren’t always like this. Granted many of us were wired from conception with a tendency toward an anxious brain, and many of us dealt with anxious episodes as children, but, at least for me, paralyzing fear every time I attempted to leave my house, a brain set on catastrophe mode that would never shut off and seemingly nearly dying (read: having panic attacks) every other day absolutely did not used to be a part of my life, so, how did I get here?
The long answer has to do with biology, the way I was raised, events that happened throughout my life and my own brain turning against me and learning over time how it could benefit from its panic response. I often compare this to my brain behaving as a toddler. Anytime I would try to go anywhere or do anything, it would throw a fit, making me quite literally get frustrated, want to hide from the curious eyes of others witnessing my breakdown (I’m sure they actually had no idea what was going on, but I always felt like people could tell just by looking at me everything that was going through my mind), and drag myself out of the store, restaurant or wherever, mumbling to my own brain that I just can’t take it anywhere.
A wide variety of factors, internal and external, led to my then 20-something year old brain going through the terrible twos, but the short answer to “how did I get here?” is…I have no idea. I can look back and find roughly the point in my life where the debilitating panic began, I can reflect on occurrences that were happening around that time and try to analyze why this shift in my brain occurred, but the overall answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know why I was able to go on my honeymoon at age 22 (yes, I was a baby) and not think twice about taking an hours long flight to Mexico and by age 25 be unable to go to the grocery store before yelling “Abort!!” halfway there and turning back home. How did so much change in those three short years?
I didn’t even look up how long our flight would be. I didn’t look up where exactly in Mexico our destination was located, I didn’t know anything about the restaurants at the resort, I signed up for excursions without a second thought, I didn’t consider transportation once we got there and I never gave a thought to whether or not my high school Spanish would suffice in the event of an emergency.
And yet, I found myself just three years later so terrified of flying that I wouldn’t even entertain the idea (I’m actually now closing in on a decade since I last set foot on a plane). As I write this, my brain is actually running in the background thinking through all the things I would have thought about had I been in this anxious state at that time. Of course, the trip just wouldn’t have happened. It’s as simple and as devastatingly complicated as that. I spent many days, especially when I was feeling particularly frustrated with myself, thinking back to just 2-3 years prior, at the things I was able to do, and wondered not only how I had gotten to where I was but also why I couldn’t just go back.
Ultimately, for me, the “how did I get here” question just became another unanswerable waste of my time. It frustrated me that I could remember what it was like to not feel this way but I couldn’t make myself not feel this way anymore. I was finally able to dismiss the question completely when I started to occasionally see myself take a step forward after several years of battling severe panic and agoraphobia. I concluded, and I hope you can too, that I didn’t want to go back.
It may have seemed like the ‘before’ me had it all together but in reality, all of the pieces needed to build the bomb that is an anxiety disorder were there when I went on my honeymoon, they just hadn’t been properly assembled or were still missing one or two key pieces. To go back is to start over, to slowly construct the bomb until it eventually explodes. To go forward means I can look back on where I was just after the bomb went off, reflect on the roller coaster ride that has been the past seven years, and be proud of myself for where I am now. Forward meant dismantling the bomb and safely disposing of all the pieces, a process I’m still very much working towards.
I’m not where I want to be, but I’m far from where I was, and I know exactly how I got here.