A lot of our contributors have talked about growth and identity. Stories about identity often turn moments of difficulty into personal resolutions of joy or self-discovery. But few of our writers have incorporated their particular traumas or challenges so intimately into their sense of character and self as has Shannon in this week’s Issue.
Shannon embraces her anxiety and all its baggage with humor, intelligence, and a kindness that I found genuinely inspiring. Her words are filled with self-love and real triumph; she freely admits that her mental health is an ongoing struggle, but reiterates time and again how she and her anxiety have grown together. I was first surprised, and later impressed, to learn that she has developed such a strong sense of appreciation for the things her anxiety has taught her.
I found myself considering these lessons as I read, and thinking more closely about the positive values and skills that my own particular challenges have taught me. After reading Shannon’s story, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to consider the ways in which you could be a little kinder, and a little more understanding to yourself.
THIS IS WHAT ANXIETY LOOKS LIKE - Shannon Barry
I’m one of the most nervous people that I know, and I mean that in a couple different ways. Cautious, concerned, anxious, shaken, worried… depending on the day. I’m like a walking thesaurus for the word “afraid.” This has been deeply entrenched in my character for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent equally as long trying to cope; the way I’ve chosen to confront the anxiety has ebbed and flowed with each stage of growing up.
Storms were the first trigger for what my Mom would call for years my “fear of the unknown.” When I was in first grade, a tornado almost hit my neighborhood. My neighborhood, which was right on the edge of “Tornado Alley” in Northern Missouri, was accustomed to storms like these. But at only seven years old, I wasn’t. My family sat on the concrete floor of our underground basement between the wall and the washing machine, a pile of flashlights in the middle of us as we held hands, prayed, and counted down the last remaining minutes of the tornado warning for our county.
One of the tornado sirens was only a block away from our house, and I can still hear it in the back of my mind today: a distant wail that sounded just as scared as I was. I can still hear myself telling my eleven-year-old sister that I loved her because I thought we were going to die and her not saying it back because she knew that we wouldn’t.
I was so traumatized by that day that every time that it rained, every time that the sky darkened, every time that the tornado sirens were tested on the first Wednesday of the month, I would panic, cry, and beg my parents to make it all stop. No one could watch the Weather Channel if I was in the same room. The word “severe” was dangerous and triggering and could send my anxiety into a tailspin because the first time I’d ever heard that word, it was referring to a storm that was barreling our way. If there was a chance of severe weather, I would refuse to leave the house, imploring the rest of my family to do the same. If certain counties were mentioned on the news for any reason, I’d react the same way. Jackson, Ray, Leavenworth, Douglas, Shawnee. I’d learned of them for the first time when the weatherman was telling them to seek shelter immediately that day.
The only word I can think of to accurately describe the fear is paralyzing. I couldn’t do anything; I couldn’t think of anything except unstoppable, untethered destruction all around me. But somewhere, somehow, someway, I got over it. My Mom still asks me how I managed it. I don’t have an answer for her. I don’t remember the first storm that didn’t stop me in my tracks and glue me to the couch in our basement. I just wasn’t as afraid anymore.
Now I’m an elementary school teacher in Oklahoma where tornado-producing storms are even more common. Every other Wednesday, like clockwork, the tornado sirens are tested right outside our classroom window at noon. Without fail, everyone starts screaming. Even if it’s a beautiful day outside, it’s my job to calm everyone down. It’s my job to say: “Guys, this happens literally all the time. You know it’s not real; let’s go to lunch.” Then we silently line up and I can’t help but fact-check myself:
Is it actually Wednesday?
Is it actually noon?
Is there actually any chance of storms today?
To my eight-year-old self, this would’ve been an impossible task. Talking myself down while also talking a room full of twenty-three fifth-graders down. To me, this is what anxiety looks like now.
During that period of time when all forms of weather terrified me, I developed another irrational fear of throwing up. For years, I developed and lived by a proven system that would enable me to never, ever throw up. I would sleep on my side because I read in a book somewhere that it was supposed to help. I wouldn’t drink soda before swim practice because there was one time that my sister did, and she threw up afterwards. I became addicted to Tums antacids, eating them like placebo candy. I wouldn’t watch or listen to anything that I’d watched or listened to before I’d thrown up previously, which included the movie Shark Tale and the Radio Disney CD I’d gotten for my ninth birthday. I couldn’t even wear clothes that I threw up in again. I would talk to myself and to God until I fell asleep because the absolute worst-case scenario was waking up in the middle of the night to throw up by myself in my silent house. And I would never, under any circumstances, go into the bathroom whenever I felt sick because that meant that I was surrendering to the possibility of throwing up, and that was just as bad as the actual thing.
This fear paralyzed me in the same way that a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado watch did. This extended far into my teenage and adult years, exceeding my fear of storms by almost a decade. I still carry Tums with me everywhere I go.
My fear of throwing up is still very much with me when stomach flu season approaches at school. Earlier this school year, a student in my class thought it was hilarious to make himself cough very deeply from within his chest, making him sound like a donkey almost. After pleading with him to stop because I knew for a fact that it would make him throw up, he proceeded to do just that. He coughed up his lunch all over his desk and, after acknowledging how long it would take a custodian to come up to my room to clean it up, I took a handful of very deep breaths, envisioned the Tums I would get to eat afterward to calm myself down, and grabbed the Clorox Wipes to clean it myself.
This is what my anxiety has to look like now. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve experienced multiple nights of paralyzing fear with the full understanding of the little snippet of control that I have over the situation. When I was younger and heard a bad storm was coming, a way that I always tried to cope was to sleep through the whole thing in the hopes that I’d wake up back in a world where everything made sense and was safe again. I’ve found myself back in that mentality countless times since this epidemic became a pandemic. But this is different. The news is changing every hour and I know the world I’ll wake up in tomorrow might be much different from the one today. It seems much more worthwhile to stay awake, to witness what is going on around me rather than run from it.
Our schools will be closed indefinitely, creating a whole new layer of anxiety, a sense of worry that extends to those outside my immediate circle. This concern is something that I was never capable of until my anxiety grew up with me, taking steps into adulthood the same way that I was. I am still that thesaurus of worry, but now my anxiety serves to figure out what virtual schooling looks like for fifth graders, find all the edge-pieces in a puzzle to occupy a few of the endless quarantined hours, and maintain sanity through friendships at a distance. My anxiety hasn’t gone anywhere, but now it’s working for me.
MORE TO THE STORY
Everyone experiences mental health differently. For another take on living with anxiety, check out Carly McRae's essay in our sixth Issue.
Contact the Panic Attack Hotline at 1-800-64-PANIC.
Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to learn more about mental health, donate and volunteer, or access free resources and counseling in your area.
In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report stating that 1 in 4 people worldwide are affected by mental or neurological disorders. Due to the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, only about one third of those people will seek help from a mental health professional. Read more here.