Anxiety and depression are commonplace in our society. There’s at least 100 reasons for that. Those of us in recovery are seeking ways to cope without drugs and alcohol. Our fears run deeper than most and our willingness to struggle and suffer remain high. We have found that having a high tolerance for pain does not in any way mean that one should tolerate it. Philo said, “be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The stories below are of women living with anxiety and depression and they hide their battles well.
Feeling Safe Her anxiety is building and she’s got nothing to hold onto. She’s very much alone and she’s stuck. She’s 19 going on 45 and she feels like a lost child who’s pretending to be a grown up. She’s trying to feel something – something like safety. There were a lot of sad things that happened to her, but nothing we’d call abuse. “I wasn’t molested, beaten, or deliberately hurt in any way!” Right. You just spent too much time scared and alone as a child. No big deal. Except it taught you to hide your fears and you got so good at it that you hide them from you. “Ignoring it doesn’t work anymore. I’m obsessing over little things that I know don’t matter but I can’t stop myself.” Right. If you stop focusing on insignificant things you’ll start thinking about what hurts. She starts to cry and reflexively her right fist slams into her thigh.
She’s depressed. She has days when getting out of bed just doesn’t feel possible. She’s all of a hundred and twenty pounds but her body feels so heavy and everything feels hopeless. “It pisses me off so bad to know that lying there will make it worse but feeling like I can’t move. The worst part is people. I can’t face them. They’re fake and they say stupid things and everyone is pretending that they’re fine and they’re not.”
“There are others like us that aren’t fake”, I tell her. She nods. I point out that she has a family friend who is a genuinely good woman and suggest that they talk. She says she’s not sure about that and I ask what’s the worst that can happen.”I’ll start crying and I’ll never stop.” At 19 she has ulcers, acid reflux, and she’s sleeping 12 hours a day. I suggest that compared to that maybe crying isn’t so bad?
The sound of broken glass She’s ashamed and won’t look at me. There’s anger though… something here doesn’t fit. “It’s been a rough 24 hours.” I ask her why. “Because I really went off and I was horrible. I said mean things and I really hurt him.” She’s describing the feelings of a man who engages in domestic violence. I ask her if she said anything that wasn’t true? She reflects, “No, but I was wrong to say those things the way I did.” I ask if he ever feels bad for hurting her? She’s annoyed. She’s doing her best to condemn herself and I’m doing my best to fuck that up.
I ask if she was in control of herself. She looks sad and says she wasn’t even close. I ask if she scared herself? She looks surprised but agrees. She is ruthless with herself “I was being a bitch.” I ask her who taught her that assertively speaking the truth is being a bitch? She’s shutting down. I tell her that “Bitch” is an acronym. It stands for Being In Total Control of Herself. “I’m angry at the men who hurt me but I am also angry with my mother. She taught me that women don’t get angry. She made fun of women who showed small amounts of anger. She never got angry but every once in a while she’d rage and then afterwards she would pretend like nothing happened. I hate pretending” I push her really hard and challenge her to say out loud what it is that she needs. “I need a pretty way to get angry.” I read her face and tell her that there’s a trash can in the corner. She’s not going to puke but she clearly wants to.
She knows what grooming is and she knows that what she was taught as a child continues to cost her a great deal today. She’s angry now and I’m trying to throw kerosene on the fire. I ask her whose rules she is living her life by. She names her abuser and points to her parents as coconspirators. “Will you continue to live by their rules?” She’s tensed up – her shoulders are trying to go over her head. She says, “no” but it’s just above a whisper. “What do you really want to say to them?” “I want to say bad things to them.” She’s a 50 year old woman and she’s eight years old.
“I want to scream at them and I can’t. I want to get angry and I can’t.” I urge her to break the rules. She’s frustrated and she’s turning the anger back on herself. I tell her that her anger is natural but that it is also inevitable – it’s only a matter of whether she expresses it on purpose or continues a cycle of stuffing, imploding, and all too rarely exploding. She starts to cry. She’s a little girl and she cries out, “I can’t.” Time for plan B. Wish I had one.
Do you ever just want to break things? She nods. “But instead of destroying things you destroy yourself?” She’s looking lost and discouraged. I ask her if she’d be willing to break something. She’s caught off guard and agrees. I hand her a worthless glass globe. “This is worthless and you are precious. Please feel some small part of your anger and break this.” She’s paralyzed. This is a defining moment. She’s either going to break the rules or fail herself. She stands there for a long time. She knows that what she’s really choosing is herself. She winds back and hurls it at the wall. It makes a beautiful sound. She smiles and her shoulders are back where they belong. She’s dropped some weight off them. It’s only the beginning but it’s a great start.
I’m just tired
No one could blame her for giving up. She’s done more tours in Hell than most of us. She’s afraid to ask for the reassurance she needs so she tells me how it isn’t – knowing that I’m predictable and I’ll tell her how it is. Standing between her and those she serves would get you run over. Getting in her own way is what she does when she’s scared. She smiles sadly and says she just needs a “kick in the ass” but we both know that a hug would do her more good. There’s an unspoken agreement between us – I would gladly give her a hug, but that can’t happen because I’m a man and she’s sober. Some lessons run painfully deep – what men do is they hurt you.
She punishes herself for being powerless and she’s horribly good at it. She will not sleep, or eat, or take care of her diabetes when she is hurting. Her anxiety is debilitating on the best of days. She’s a tough woman. She gets up, does what she believes must be done, and knocks herself back down. Shame is her constant companion and everything is her fault. If I wanted to blame her for the lousy lunch I had today she’d just assume she fucked it up somehow.
She’s getting near the edge and she knows it. The thing about surviving years and years of abuse is that for whatever you may or may not know, you know when the wheels are about to come off the bus. When she gets scared enough there is a little girl deep within her that takes control and what that child does is she hides. She hates that child because she blames her – just as her family taught her to. There is a part of her that knows damn well that it was never her fault – but accepting that means that everything changes – everything. What’s more terrifying than having to change everything?
She’s met some women who are just like her and they scare her, but in a very good way. They are women with long term recovery and they are living proof that changing one’s life is not only possible, but desirable. It will take her a long time – she will go into this better life kicking and screaming because that is how she has lived her life. Suffering and fighting is what she knows. Suggesting that surrender is key will earn you a look that could kill if she really wanted it to. She’s come to see that she’s worth more and she can have it. AA will fuck up your drinking. Good people in recovery will fuck up your anxiety and depression.