Screaming Internally: Anxiety and Trauma

Inside my own head is one of the most frightening places for me. I do everything to run away from it. I’ve dealt with severe anxiety since I was at least 10 years old. Everything from OCD to panic disorder to generalised anxiety. I can manage it better now, but still I can still have a panic attack by merely taking a shower occasionally.

I think my earliest memory of anything approaching anxiety was grade school. I was out sick for a bit, but when I got to school i got panicked and overwhelmed by emotion, and had to go home crying. I returned to school the next day and was fine. Spontaneous separation anxiety? Panic attack? Hard to say. I wish that was all the anxiety I’d ever have to deal with. That mild panic occasionally would be manageable with simple talk therapy. No behaviour modification needed.

I remember taking a trip to South Carolina with my grandfather when I was around ten years old shortly after my grandmother died. I loved visiting the beach with my grandparents – It was a simpler time for me. I hadn’t yet realised how bad school would become and how bad anxiety could become. This trip should’ve been a treat – sadly, we had to leave early because I couldn’t stop panicking over intrusive thoughts. Mild thoughts, but terrifying nonetheless to a ten year old with little understanding of the world or what was happening. I couldn’t get the thoughts to stop – I had difficulty getting to sleep due to the anxiety of being alone with my thoughts. So began a journey of being afraid of a place I couldn’t escape: my own mind.

This would continue for years off and on until I eventually just … got used to the thoughts. They still frighten me, but I can quiet the fear now.

Weirdly, things that would make most people anxious don’t bother me as much – I can perform music in front of people or can do a job interview calmly. Yet now I get nervous about leaving the house alone, or interviewing a candidate for a position at work. Maybe because they’re tasks that relate to a hyperfixation and strong interest for me? Hard to say.

Around 11th grade I started to experience dissociation and depersonalisation, which led to some of the worst anxiety of my life. Nothing would feel real – or it would feel too real. I would come home from school so frightened by everything being different I would immediately need a nap to avoid a severe panic attack. Objects at home would feel smaller or larger than normal or … generally different – this was not something I could walk away from, or avoid. It was internal to my mind. There was nothing I could do to avoid it. I was having panic attacks at school requiring me to leave/miss class and just hide in the office away from people and stress. My heart rate would spike – I would have the sensation of difficulty breathing…a feeling of needing to escape. There was nowhere to escape from fear in my own mind. I had medication at the time which helped.

Once I moved out on my own I was fine for the first several months – I could travel independently. I could care for myself, I could be me. Eventually, the panic attacks would come back. I would end up in the ER several times due to panic attacks until eventually I found a psychiatrist who prescribed me new antidepressants which worked for awhile and helped the anxiety.

Today I still deal with anxiety – I have difficulty leaving the house alone and the depersonalisation isn’t gone either. It often crops up (partially caused by my meds). After The Night the World Ended my anxiety spiked to a baseline high and has yet to drop. I attempt to expose myself to anxiety-inducing situations with a safe fallback plan, which helps but I just wish the baseline anxiety would go away. I’ve dealt with anxiety for at least 17 years now. It’s here to stay for life but can be managed.

Now – let’s discuss an important interconnected topic; the trauma of public school while low vision and being on the autism spectrum (that nobody noticed). I have minimal memory of my school life. Bits and pieces but not enough for a truly coherent sense of self.

In 5th grade I had very few true friendships – maybe 2 i’d say were true and genuine – I was a weird kid. I’d say silly things I thought were funny/cool – perhaps repeatedly. This would annoy those around me and I would be forced to change how I acted to avoid disapproval/annoyance from them. This is when I say my true identity shattered – I became what I had to be, not what I wanted to be. It would take about a decade to truly re-develop a sense of self – to be who I am now. As the years went on my friendships dwindled and people started to treat me terribly – hiding my books/supplies in an attempt to make me angry or generally gain a reaction. I picked up responding with anger from my dad – he would get mad about a sports game and throw objects/scream – I learned it from him. Internalised it. Became like what I knew.

In 6th grade my group and I were working on a project: making a children’s book for social studies class as a team effort. My team worked on a book and eventually it was time to present it to younger kids: I would try to act silly and generally have fun. My “friends” tried to get me to calm down/stop…by hitting me in the heads with the musical instruments props we had. My response to this was shock and anger – I would yell and scream at them as I think anyone being hit in the head with musical instruments would. The teacher eventually intervened and cancelled my team’s end-of-year party privileges. My “friends” would be mad at me for the rest of the year as a result – they seemed to believe they did nothing wrong. I am still mad at them to this day. I could’ve handled it better, but what’s even a reasonable response to getting hit in the head with instruments?

Continue on to through to high school and my memory fractures. I would hang out with 1 or 2 friends maybe – didn’t have many and people at school didn’t like me. I was Different…disabled, annoying, “weird”, “easy to provoke”. My depression would get really bad – isolation and forced loss of identity would eventually lead to depersonalisation. It’s all connected.

I thought I was “cool” or “mysterious” or “funny”. I wasn’t. Nobody liked me. Nobody wanted to work on projects with me.

Around this time I discovered IRC and would meet some long-term friends there: finally – I wouldn’t have to be alone! However not everyone was genuine. I had a “friend” who would with his other friends order boxes and boxes of empty shipping boxes to my house…or taxis…or diaper samples…or call my home phone number and play annoying harassing music. I just didn’t realise it was him. It was awful. I couldn’t even be me or genuine or have friends online. I lost trust in those close to me. It all led to anxiety around people and distrust of friends.

I have vague memory of attending high school classes, but not much. I had a few friends but few close. I was largely alone. People just liked messing with me – or mocking me – or generally being mean. I hated attending school.

As high school went on I would try to make new friends but I would just dump emotions on them – not realising I shouldn’t. Nobody taught me how to live in this world so I did what I understood: trying to not be alone and be relaxed. I tried to get close to someone but everyone misunderstood my goals: they thought I wanted to date them. When I said I wanted ‘something i’d never had before’ I didn’t want a romantic relationship. I just wanted a genuine friendship. I wanted to not be alone. Finally a teacher realised I wasn’t like others and intervened but the misunderstanding stayed. This was a bad year and many things went wrong.The depersonalisation cropped up: can you really feel yourself when you haven’t known what that was like for 6 years? I would make the same mistake later in the year again: all I wanted was comfort but didn’t know how to express that. I didn’t know how to develop it genuinely. I didn’t know that I needed to learn how to live in this world and should’ve sought therapy. Being low vision and miserable my grades began to slip. I didn’t have a large-print math book by the end of the first quarter so I gave up with that class. I would end up retaking Algebra 2 and dropping pre-calc. I have no memory of completing the final exam for that class, but I passed.

The final year of high school was a complete disaster. I didn’t know anybody in my classes…the schedule was completely unfamiliar. I had to start an internship too. I was failing classes…I was miserable. I didn’t know what to do. Then the stress and depersonalisation and anxiety got to me and the panic attacks started. I had to drop the STEM programme and take online classes. It was the only way I could manage to graduate. I would arrive early and hide around the corner attempting to surprise a friend of mine. I was just trying to be silly…to be genuine…to be me. This would all fall apart one day. I would hear one sentence and I would leave for the day and would never return to school. I would do all my classes online from home. One day a kid says to me “like half the school hates you”. Did people think I was harassing/harming people? Is it rumours from last year? Was it because of trying to surprise my friend? Did he do that just to make me feel bad? I will never know, and I never intend to visit any reunions. I want nothing to do with these people and they want nothing to do with me.

I have no memory of graduation but I know I graduated. on time..albeit barely and with lots of setbacks. Now I was alone at home. Solely online friends…constant arguments between my dad and grandfather. So I crowdfunded a trip to the SF Bay Area and never booked a return leg. My life moved on. I moved on. I would continue to make mistakes along the way but eventually I would reach a point of emotional regulation, confidence, and a true sense of self. I could finally truly be me! I could live as me!

All the groups I’m in now…do they actually like me? Am I just an annoyance? Am I a bother? I will never know. I can’t know.

I will never know if I am truly accepted. Am I still alone? I can never know. Growing up as I did ruined my ability to gauge that.

I am who I am because of these experiences and there is nothing I can do to change that but to learn, grow, and improve. I’ve made many mistakes along the way to where I am now but I am trying to do better.

I wish I’d had a different school life. It’s all connected – my anxiety, depression, mental health…and my experiences growing up. I don’t view the world the same as everyone else and I don’t understand how all I should act, either. If school had accommodated me or if I had started therapy early enough my life would be completely different.

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