The first time it happened, I was talking in front of a group of people. I was no stranger to public speaking, and had performed similar tasks hundreds of times. However, something was different this time. I was sweating profusely, my heart raced, my ears were ringing, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was disoriented and felt helpless. What was going on? I stumbled through my presentation and tried to gather myself.
I eventually went to the doctor, and submitted myself to several medical exams. My mind feared the worst, but the news I received was the unknown. I had an anxiety attack. A what? I was familiar with the term, but honestly, I doubted the legitimacy. I mean, what mature and confident person can’t handle a bout of nervousness? I quickly received a crash course in the legitimacy of anxiety attacks.
I decided to visit an anxiety specialist to better understand and manage this condition. “Specialist” is code for therapist. I didn’t want to type that word because there is a stigma associated with attending therapy. Judge me if you want, but talking to my therapist was incredibly helpful. During my first visit, he asked me, “How does this (anxiety) make you feel?” I struggled to convey my feelings, and eventually settled for, “Frustrated. Confused. Pissed”. He laughed and said, “It sucks.” I exhaled , laughed, and agreed. It sucks. Therapy gave me an outlet, and helped me understand the origins of my anxiety. Simply stated, my lifestyle choices were to blame.
Prior to my battle with anxiety, I worked… a lot. I didn’t have any real hobbies, and I sacrificed my personal health and well-being to boost job performance. I drank copious amounts of coffee. Let me rephrase, copious sounds reasonable. I drank ridiculous amounts of coffee. I would begin most days at 5:00 a.m. to catch up on email. I then worked a full day before returning home to spend a little time with my family. I routinely stayed up past midnight to work on graduate coursework. I did this for years and I took pride in my work habits. When I was 16, I put in 60 hour work weeks during the summertime. In college I worked at a trucking terminal from 4:00 p.m. until 12:00 a.m. while taking a minimum of 15 college hours each semester. When I began my career in education, I poured myself into my work.
Little did I know that this lifestyle came with undesirable side-effects. I juggled a ridiculous schedule for over 15 years, and excelled during this time. To me, this reaffirmed the value of good work habits and the belief that I was indefatigable. I can work 14 hour workdays and get 4-5 hours of sleep. I would scoff at people who “only” worked 40 hours a week. Leisure was a waste of time; activities should be productive, not relaxing. My work habits were at their zenith when I had my first attack. I can vividly remember sitting at my daughter’s dance competition that spring. Between performances, I worked on my dissertation, answered email, and prepared my schedule for the week. I remember thinking, “How are you doing this? This schedule is ridiculous!” Mentally and physically I was exhausted, but I ignored the warning signs. Later that same week I had my first attack. I had 3-4 other attacks over the course of a month. Fortunately, I have only had 3-4 anxiety attacks during the last 16 months, but I think about them daily.
I hate writing this because I hate being vulnerable. I used to excel at presentations and have always been at ease in social situations. They are now anxiety producing. I still work very hard. I love my job and find it very rewarding. However, I learned over the last 16 months that there is more to life than work. Life is meant to be lived and enjoyed. It’s great to appreciate your job, but we are infinitely more complex than our roles at work. I now take time to enjoy being a husband and a father. I’ve taken on new hobbies, and I take time for myself. I sleep at least 7 hours each night and exercise 6 days a week.
Battling anxiety sucks. It’s maybe the most difficult thing I have ever done. I am aware of the stigma that comes with the admission of anxiety. I just want to share this because I know other people are experiencing this too. If you are, know you are not alone and it will get better. There will be good days and bad days. For me, life is on the upswing and the good days far outnumber the bad. I’ll close with a quote by Ernest Hemingway that encapsulates my experience with anxiety. While frustrating and humbling, it has made me a stronger person.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
– Ernest Hemingway