By Betsy Rabyor:
I never knew I was an anxious person. My father was in the military and we moved often in my early years. I think that was a big factor for me to develop anxiety as I never felt secure and my home life was dysfunctional. However, I do not blame my parents as they did the best they could.
I recall a traumatic event when I had eczema on my face and my mother sent me to school. I did not want to go because I knew the kids would make fun of me. They did and the teacher took me out of the class and said I had the infectious disease impetigo and sent me home. My mother was furious, took me to the doctor who confirmed it was eczema. The next day she sent me back to school with the note, which made my eczema spread even more. The kids on the playground said I was contagious and they taunted me and all kept their distance. I felt like a freak and that something was wrong with me according to outside opinions. However, I found my way to survive. I realized I could get validation and attention by getting A’s in school, from the teacher and from my father when the report card arrived at home. Being smart was my main way to gain validation for my self-image.
Eventually my family settled down when I was ten years old, bought a house, both worked at steady jobs full-time and I had some stability for a few years.
When I was 12 and entering middle school, I started to get into trouble. I started smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and sniffing glue. I did not do these things to ‘be cool’; I did them because they made me feel better. Each passing day I liked school less and my rebellion increased. I wore heavy makeup, frizzed my hair out like an afro and painted my nails different colours to make myself look different from anyone else. The truth was that I wanted attention but when I received it, I had no idea what to do with it and would reject it.
By age 15, I was doing drugs often, drinking on weekends, and was skipping school and my grades went down. Eventually, I was put into a foster home – but the truth was, it was my decision to do so. I wanted to leave this town, this family — anything would be better than this! Well, that was not how it turned out. I left a home where I had freedom to do whatever I wanted as there was little supervision and landed in a place in the middle of nowhere, where I knew nobody, living in a house with strangers like a ‘bad girl’ in a prison and access to drugs and alcohol was impossible. It was a hard adjustment but in the end, it was good for me, because my brain fog cleared and I saw how a normal family lived and I set a new goal to go to college. I was smart and wanted to be rich and not be poor like my family. I thought if I was rich all my problems would go away.
I graduated from high school, went to college, got married, had children, got a good job, bought a house in the suburbs, and had all the material things I wanted. I was feeling quite proud of my accomplishments, I felt secure and life was great. However, I still had the habit of getting drunk every weekend and had very little control. I always had to go to the point of inebriation. One day I realized I was not happy even though I had everything I had wanted. Thinking it over, I determined I would be happy if only I had the right person — my soul mate. Then followed the divorce, the shared custody and dating again to find my dream man.
I was listening intently to a discussion when suddenly I did not feel good, I did not know what was wrong. It felt like the floor was falling away beneath me and next it felt like I could not breathe. I quietly walked out of the room and went to my office. Sitting down, the feeling that I could not breathe got stronger and I felt my heart pounding. I thought I might be having a heart attack. I went outside to take a walk with the hope it would pass, but the symptoms got stronger and with it my fear, so I drove myself to the doctor’s office. When I arrived, I told the nurse what was wrong and that I needed to see someone as soon as possible. They told me to sit down and they would call me. Time was going by so slowly, I felt like I was dying and nobody was helping me. I got up four times to remind the nurse of this fact. Finally, the doctor saw me and when I sat down and told them what was wrong, the answer came back quick: You are having a panic attack. I had no idea what that was, they gave me some oxygen and indeed the symptoms subsided. Next, they prescribed Xanax pills for me and told me to take two per day. They also said if it happened again, I could breathe into a paper bag, as hyperventilating was part of the panic response and this would stop that reaction. I asked what caused the panic attack, but they did not have an answer.
Taking the pills, I felt better and went back to work. I noticed the panic was still there and felt I needed to take a pill to squash it down. But they had only given me a prescription of pills for about 2 weeks. When they ran out and I asked for more, they said that to get more I would need to see a psychologist. What? I am not crazy! I resisted that notion but went to see the psychiatrist because I wanted the pills. When I went, I filled out a form with all my history. I had no problem admitting that I liked to drink. I did not see it as a drinking problem; I was just a normal heavy weekend drinker. In the session, I felt I easily convinced him that I had no mental health problem (or so I thought). At the end of our session, he told me he could not refill my prescription to Xanax because it was highly addictive and given my drinking history, it would be better to try something else. I was fine with that recommendation and he gave me a prescription of Zoloft. After I took a few of them, it did something very strange to my brain, I could not focus and I felt very weird. I stayed in bed for 2 days and could not function. I called them up and reported how I felt and asked for the Xanax instead, but he just told me to give it some time to adjust. At this point, I became desperate, because I would not take the Zoloft and when I stopped everything the anxiety started climbing fast and I was in panic state again.
I did research on all the herbs that were possible to help with anxiety and decided that sage would be helpful. In one day, I drank many cups of strong sage tea and I overdosed on it. I actually got to the point where I felt worse than I did with the Zoloft and it took me three days to come down from that and feel normal. My next option was researching for alternative therapies for anxiety and I found some who had cured it with meditation. I established regular meditation habit, doing it twice a day for an hour. But I also chose alcohol as a medicine to help with the anxiety, which actually made it worse. Eventually I became a full-blown alcoholic.
Because I was not dealing with the root cause of the anxiety, paranoia was increasing and I was developing phobias. I found ways to avoid work meetings, eating food in public, public speaking, driving in snow and ice, etc. The fear and avoidance of situations was growing and I was gradually becoming a recluse in my house. I now had agoraphobia: “avoiding places or situations, which might cause one to panic and feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.”
As the fear grew, my alcohol consumption did as well. I was no longer a weekend drinker, now I drank every night and sometimes in the daytime. I started hiding my bottles, going to different liquor stores to buy it and calling in sick more at work. I was getting angry and irritated at people and lashing out at them. Each morning I would say I would not drink today and on my way home I was at the liquor store. I became paranoid of people’s behavior, feeling like they were talking about me or trying to attack or kill me. I bought a handgun and learned how to use it because I felt like I needed to protect myself. I was also getting physically sick now, my digestion was poor, my liver had been affected from the alcohol and I was getting rashes and pimples on my face and upper body. My face was puffy and I frequently had loose stools, which I always attributed it to the food I just ate, never once thinking it might be from the alcohol.
Then late one night in a drunk state, I happened to see myself in the mirror and I mean I really SAW myself. I saw that I was sick and was killing myself and then heard the thought, ‘go to AA’ (alcoholics anonymous). I was shocked to hear that and wondered where it came from. I did not know what AA was, but at that moment, I was receptive to anything, as I did not want to die.
Once I made a clear decision to stop the alcohol, it was not hard to do. What was hard was dealing with the inner darkness that started to rise up and having no way to escape from confronting myself. Now I was really in a bind as I still had intense anxiety and would not take medication nor go back to drinking. The only thing left was to go forward and face myself and that is when I became very serious about self-healing on all levels.
One thing that really struck me when I quit drinking was that emotionally I felt like I was an adult in the body of a teenager. I had no knowledge about how to read or feel emotions. And now with no way for me to suppress the repressed emotions of so many years, they surfaced into conscious awareness. Then I knew why I liked to drink alcohol. I wanted to die and was thinking of ways to kill myself, and was ready to jump in front of a speeding truck but then stopped myself. The truth was that I did not want to die, so the only choice I had left was to go through these feelings whatever they were.
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a three-part series on Betsy’s journey of dealing with anxiety disorder. Part I talks of coming to terms with her problem, Part II discusses her insights on the problem and how one can stop a panic attack. Part III will highlight key steps Betsy followed to overcome her anxiety.