The simplest tasks can be near impossible when you have anxiety. It’s a life of its own. It can determine your day, your relationships, your job, your well-being, and your life – until you get ahold of it. It can be paralyzing. Fear will overtake your body and mind; physical symptoms will ensue, and life can feel like a train wreck.
For many years, I’ve been inundated with a fear of prison. It sounds weird, right? Most people are afraid of heights, the water, being alone, etc. But, prison? It’s certainly not a fear you hear every day. Maybe if I give you some background, it’ll make better sense.
When I was a kid, my father had a bad cocaine addiction that led him to prison many times. My father, although a likable person with the biggest heart in the world, struggled badly with addiction. Often, I missed him and would be in fear for his safety or in fear of him being incarcerated again. From an early age, knots filled my stomach. It was hard to focus in school. I can still feel those elementary school emotions as if it was yesterday.
My father, who is from Lebanon, was deported when I was 16. The experience was traumatic and only compounded my anxiety. The fear that comes with your parent being taken away never really leaves you — even when you reach 31.
As an adult, my anxiety stayed with me and grew into this horrifying fear of going to prison. I don’t break the law nor do I plan to, but I’m always afraid of things like – What if I make a mistake on paperwork? What if there’s an error on my taxes? What if I get wrongfully convicted of a crime?
What if? What if? What if? I drive my accountant nuts, I drive lawyers nuts. I question every single nuance to make certain it is being done by the book and to the T, otherwise, panic will consume me.
During my academic career, I would dread completing the FAFSA because I would overthink every question. In fact, I once got audited for making too many corrections that were based on fear of being wrong. (I passed the audit, of course.)
Everyone has normal worries, but mine led me to full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is not just about washing your hands too many times. I often wonder that because my father’s deportation was the worst thing that ever happened to me, my mind always prepares for the worst. I always expect bad things to happen and I panic – my heart races, my stomach becomes full of knots, and I have days where I can’t get out of bed. There was a time when my nerves were so intense that they made me want to die.
Here is another example of just how bad those steel bars get me. Some years ago, I contacted an attorney regarding my dad’s immigration case. That attorney became a friend and my legal sounding board. He understands my fears and obsessions about the law. He must be an angel and not a lawyer because he answered every email I ever sent him. All 500 of them. I’m not exaggerating. My sent box is flooded with years of asking him, “Will I go to prison for this?”
He answers my endless questions and always concludes with the same: Think about something else and relax. You’d be surprised how powerful someone reminding you to redirect your thoughts can be. For someone like me, that redirection can be the difference between a peaceful day, and an anxiety-ridden day that leads you to shut down and stay under the covers.
Anxiety has given me many dark days, but through a lot of work, experience, and treatment, anxiety has given me bright days, too. The monster also became my friend. If I work to understand that friend and manage my relationship with it, we can coexist together. That friend now gives me hope – hope that I can get through anything. Hope that there are ways and tactics I can utilize to get through the days when that friend wants to turn on me and be a monster again — if only for a second.
Through support and a strong self-will, I practice the tools I’ve been given for a better tomorrow. Two of the best tactics I’ve learned are to face my fears and not attach so much meaning to them. For years, I dodged prison documentary series on TV, and if someone shared a story about prison that they saw in the news, I asked them to change the subject. Today, I strive hard to watch those documentaries and participate in those conversations.
I’ve also learned that people, like me, can live full lives. I’ve learned not to be afraid of stigma or the term mentally ill that some still cringe at with fear. In fact, I have worked in social services as a job coach for people with developmental and mental disabilities. I have learned – like me – they are just people, too. People who need a little extra help and resources for a better tomorrow. If we can all adopt this learning – whether through our own experience or that of others – imagine how many better tomorrows we would all have.