From Harper's Bazaar
By Chrissy Rutherford
May 21, 2014
With or without drugs, battling anxiety can be nerve-racking.
Suffering from anxiety is so common now (or at least openly discussed) that I don’t feel a hint of embarrassment when it comes to talking about it, whether it’s with friends, strangers or our BAZAAR.com readers.
Who doesn’t feel anxious about some life events? A first date, a big test, an important meeting—it’s just as common as any other emotion we feel. However, at 13 years old when my chronic anxiety began, it didn’t feel so normal at all—it turned what I believed to be my "normal" life completely upside down.
As a child I was very outgoing—I studied ballet and tap dance, I sang in my school chorus, I performed in school plays—I simply loved being on stage. I always thought it was silly when kids complained of pre-show jitters. What was there to be nervous about? It wasn’t a feeling that I experienced a lot. But one day, like the flip of a switch, everything changed. Suddenly, I was completely frightened to even speak in front of my 20-person classroom, let alone get on stage in front of hundreds of people.
While people can experience anxiety at any point in their life, not all experience a definitive moment-in-time trigger as I did. Art Markman, the professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Change, explains that, "when there is a key triggering event, then the anxiety is often associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). However, there are plenty of people who suffer from long-term anxiety that do not have a clear source."
I fell into the latter—and I remember the trigger of my chronic anxiety like it was yesterday. It happened one morning in January 2001, a classmate vomited on my school bus. Like any other child present, I was grossed out, but didn’t think much of it, until the next day when I was frightened to go to school. I stayed home for the next 3 days, convincing myself that I might get sick if I went to school.
When I finally returned to school, I began to see my school guidance counselor, and by "see" I mean I would avoid any situations that made me nervous by heading to her office, after I had exhausted my nurse visits.
When my situation wasn’t improving, I was sent to the school psychologist, who threw around the idea of putting me on medication to alleviate my anxiety. Markman explains,
"...it’s not clear what tips the balance between the normal responses to anxiety, which is triggered by aspects of the environment, and more general anxiety and depression. For people really suffering, though, medication can be an important part of the treatment process. It’s hard to work on changing thought patterns and responses to the environment when suffering from extreme anxiety.”
If given the chance, I probably would’ve chosen to go on medication as my anxiety was truly affecting my day-to-day life, but my parents were convinced I could work throughout it on my own.
I experienced a slight setback when my guidance counselor, whom I had begun to really trust and rely on, left the school. So, I began to see a therapist outside of school, who got me to start meditating to help keep my anxiety at bay. With time, it helped to keep me in my classes—but I still couldn’t help feeling confused and depressed about what was going on inside my body, when all my friends were going on to do normal teenage things.
With time, my parents and my therapist helped me to develop coping mechanisms to get me through my everyday life as an anxiety-ridden teenager. I always kept a pack of Altoid mints close to me when I was convinced I felt sick to my stomach.
When I had to deliver a presentation in front of the class, I would ask my teacher if I could go first, which was daunting on its own but gave me less time to sit through class with my heart pounding out of my chest. I meditated at night, and visualized doing whatever was causing me stress. My mother was also a constant reminder that I was capable of being stronger than the bad thoughts inside my head. I really relied on these “safety behaviors” as Markman describes them.
"Carrying Xanax is one kind of safety behavior," the doctor explains, "In its most extreme form, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) involves elaborate safety-behavior routines that someone performs to help them reduce their anxiety. The potential problem with safety behaviors is that people learn that the behavior is the thing that gets them through the fear, rather than facing the anxiety-provoking situation itself."
However, my mother really pushed me to face my fears. By my freshman year of high school, after several years of avoiding the school bus, my mother made a deal that if I could get on the school bus, she would continue to drive me every morning—and I got on it.
I spent many years avoiding any situations that would involve traveling by plane—I never studied abroad in college or went on spring break with my friends. I only got on a plane when absolutely necessary, i.e. my brother’s wedding and the birth of his first child—to which I spent most of the flights with my head in my mother’s lap, in tears.
It wasn’t until I got the opportunity to fly to Miami for Art Basel in 2012 for a work assignment that I realized I needed to make an honest effort to kick my anxiety. I hadn’t been on a plane in almost 3 years, and the week leading up to the flight was completely agonizing. I would lay awake in the middle of the night thinking about my impending trip.
Eventually, I got to the airport—with my mother along for the ride because, at 25, I had still never been on a plane by myself. I secured a prescription to the benzodiazepines from my physician, and it really helped. It didn’t change the negative thoughts in my head that something terrible would happen to my airplane, but it sedated me. I felt a little more calm and my heart wasn’t racing during the entire journey.
I realized, like my other fears that I had conquered, it would only get better with practice. So, I made a conscious effort to face my fears with small steps. I traveled with friends that I felt comfortable with, across country, eventually working my way up to an international flight, all with the help of Xanax.
A year after my first trip to Art Basel, I was set to return again for work, but this time I would fly alone, and when I got to the airport, I was anxious but I didn’t feel the need to take my Xanax. I knew at that point I could survive a two and a half hour flight chemical-free.
I’m finishing this story as I am embarking on my second cross-Atlantic journey sans Xanax (but I still keep it in my bag just in case, of course—safety behaviors can work). I would never say that I’ve "conquered" my flying-induced anxiety, I believe that I will have it for as long as I live, planes are just unsettling. However, I know that I have a handle on my chronic anxiety, and I don’t let it stop me from doing the things I need and want to do.
Looking back on the past 14 years as an anxiety sufferer, I’m amazed at the progress I’ve made, and thankful that I had the support of family, several therapists, and very understanding friends to get me through very challenging times.