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‘My life changed as a 41-year-old, after a lifetime of anxiety’

I think I’m a self-actualizing person. My mother is a therapist, and from the moment I could talk, it was to discuss and dissect emotions what we were doing at dinner. I have also spent most of my life in therapy. But somehow it was not until six years ago, at the age of 41, that I finally recognized my clinical anxiety disorder.

It is likely that my anxiety grew over the years, exacerbated by the hormonal shifts of being born. Still, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been a person who anticipates things and considers worst case scenarios. I have sometimes been called an obsessed planner. When I travel, I make a packing list weeks in advance, leave for the airport at least three hours before departure time and check the terminal card to see what food will be available; despite the fact that I always pack snacks.

Somewhere inside me, I knew that other people were not considering every little detail in every aspect of their lives, as I did. Still, I did not consider it a problem. It was just like I was wired. And it tended to serve me well. I foresaw everything, so I was rarely surprised. I’ve always had a plan. And a backup plan if it did not succeed. And a backup to backup.

My childhood probably helped normalize my excessive anxiety. When I was a kid, my dad would not take me to the playground because he got too nervous watching other kids climb in jungle gyms and swing from monkey bars. What if they fell and broke their heads up? My mother, who always claimed she was cool and soft, did not let me talk about anything I felt lucky for, without wildly waving my hands and shouting “kinehora” – a Yiddish version of “bank on wood”. None of this was ever branded as anxiety.

I have had several moments of life that could have led me to a clinical diagnosis of my worries, the migraine that mysteriously started in college after my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; after September 11, 2001, when, after seeing the first flaming hole in one of the Twin Towers when I got on the subway to go to work, I refused to take any public transportation in Manhattan for several months; and after I had an abortion my first pregnancy when I was 33. So the panicked approach I took to conceive meant the timing of sex to ovulation, and to be so insistent that my husband lost interest in getting pregnant for almost a year .

I was in therapy during these events and it is possible that the idea of ​​an actual anxiety disorder that might require medication was mentioned. But in that case, I rejected it. For me, medicine was fine for other people, but I did not need it. I did yoga. I meditated. That should be enough. Other than that, it was not.

In the late 30s, I had two children, both of whom had food allergies, which became a major source of anxiety. I lived in the suburbs and had given up my business job in Manhattan. I never intended to become a stay-at-home mom, but my husband had a more demanding job and I wanted one of us to be available for the kids. I had an MBA and a good resume, but nothing but family life to structure my days. I sprouted. I put all my excess energy into exercising and seeing what I ate. On the plus side, I fulfilled a decades-long desire to become a certified yoga teacher. On the downside, I got way too thin and was often nervous and exhausted. Even with an almost daily yoga and meditation practice, my brain was in a constant eddy current around every little detail of my life. I could not relax.

If I, along with a friend, were planning to go to town for dinner, I would spend every quiet moment the week before preoccupied with doomsday questions: Should I take the train in and risk dying of a bomb at Grand Central station? Or take a car service where I could die in an accident? Typically, I would end up canceling, too scared to play the odds. I had always been a trusted friend, but everyone outside the 10 mile radius of my house began to see me as a flag.

Yet it somehow never occurred to my mind that the way my brain dealt with worries might not be healthy, and moreover could be a disease that medication could help.
I was on family vacation in 2016 when I hit rock bottom. We had just finished eating the breakfast buffet. Everyone was happy. Except me; I was completely overwhelmed. We were going to the pool to get chairs in both sun and shade so the kids didn’t get sunburned. And was there anything on the menu for lunch that the kids could or would actually eat? And what time should we book to make sure they were fed before they got stuck? And what should we do when my son needed a nap?

Stock image.
Getty / iStock

Here I was lucky enough to be on a beautiful Caribbean island with my husband, my kids, my mom and stepfather. My biggest concern could have been choosing between a daiquiri and a pina colada. Instead, I was eternally tense. In fact, I was apoplexy. Why did no one else share my concerns? How could they read their books in the shadows when something was sure to go wrong soon?

I do not know what made me open to observe how debilitating my anxiety was on this particular trip, but I remember my mother saying, “This is not healthy. You let life pass you by and forget to enjoy that.” I decided to seek help.

When I came back from vacation, I admitted to my regular therapist, whom I no longer saw personally because she was in town, that I thought it was time to consider medication. Since she was not a psychiatrist and could not prescribe it, she referred me to a local.

As a 41-year-old, Samantha treated her anxiety disorder
Samantha Greene Woodruff experienced disabling anxiety throughout her life. She finally tackled it with professional help at the age of 41.
Samantha Greene Woodruff

This psychiatrist was thoughtful and empathetic and asked questions that made me feel like she already knew me. Despite the completely generic sounding diagnosis she gave me – “anxiety disorder NOS (nothing else specified)” – her approach was quite specific, tailored to my individual experience. She was not looking to write a recipe for me and send me on my happy path, instead she offered lots of cognitive behavioral techniques and insights into how the way I thought was driven by anxiety. I remember her saying something so simple: “part of anxiety is believing that by thinking of something, you will make it true.” For me, this statement was life-changing. It turns out that we anxious people can trick ourselves into thinking we can control things that are completely out of our control. It’s a bit of a catch-22; we want to control to keep our anxiety at bay, but often it is the need to control that creates the anxiety in the first place.

My new psychiatrist was also a strong advocate of medication, and even though that was why I went to her in the first place, I was still on guard against the medications. What if they wiped me out? What if I became addicted to them to get better? What if they did not work?

Fortunately, my fears faded at the time compared to what I now understood as the obstacle in my brain that short-circuited my happiness. She helped me see that a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant for an anxious person is no different than e.g. insulin to a diabetic. It’s something that helps me work better. I struggled to find the right medication and the right dose, but when I did, I suddenly felt like myself, only calmer. My mind was like an old manually tuned radio that had found the sweet spot where the statics disappeared and the sound was clear. Everything in me became soft and bright.

It did not happen all at once, but in small steps I began to expand my world again. I saw friends in town. I traveled more with my husband. We went to Japan and Hong Kong for three weeks without our kids and I even told him when I was afraid we would die in a plane crash, instead of thinking it was a dirty secret I had to to hide.

Recognizing and treating my anxiety enabled me to make time for myself and prioritize my needs instead of always worrying about everyone else. It paved the way for me to become a better mother and wife. And to sit down and write a novel.

Everyone is unique, but for me, medication was necessary to find my baseline. I am not “healed”. I still see the same psychiatrist. and I’m still worried. Sometimes I even chew. But now I can pause and break the cycle, observing myself long enough to separate the thought and feeling from reality. I remember that “just because I think something does not mean it is true.” And to accept that even though I’m not always quite ok, I’m ok enough.

Samantha Greene Woodruff holds a degree in history from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business. She is the author of The Lobotomist’s Wife, her first historical fiction novel. She lives in Connecticut with her family. You can find out more about her at samanthawoodruff.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

If you identify with the themes in this article, confidential help is available free of charge from the National Eating Disorders Association. Call (800) 931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741. The line is available 24 hours a day. You can also chat with them online here.
Specialists from the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation are also available via email. You can contact them here.

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