My Journey of Overcoming (Separation) Anxiety

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been struggling with the monster called anxiety. Specifically, separation anxiety disorder. Together with other anxiety disorders – generalised anxiety disorder and agoraphobia – it has complicated my life so much.

Constant fear and worry used to be my “normal”. Nowadays, I’m much calmer and happier. I’m fighting back and I’m winning. Although I’m not quite anxiety-free yet, I know I’m getting there.

It’s time for me to speak up. Here’s my story.

What is separation anxiety disorder?

Separation anxiety is excessive fear about being separated from home or an attachment figure.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. Most children outgrow it around age 3, however.

Sometimes, children’s separation anxiety turns into separation anxiety disorder. This refers to serious anxiety about being away from parents or caregivers.

Less often, teenagers and adults suffer from this disorder too. In effect, it causes significant problems leaving home or going to work.

Symptoms:

  • Excessive distress when separated from home/attachment figures
  • Worry about losing or harm coming to attachment figures
  • Excessive worry about experiencing a negative event (getting lost, becoming ill) that leads to being separated from attachment figures
  • Refusal to leave home, school, work, or another place
  • Fear of being alone
  • Nightmares about separation
  • Repeated physical complaints such as headaches and nausea

Agrophobia

Agrophobia is the fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness or embarrassment. As a result, people with anxiety rather choose to avoid these places and situations, limiting themselves.

My childhood

As it sometimes happens to children, my separation anxiety became a disorder around the age of 7. In primary school, a therapist officially diagnosed me with separation anxiety disorder.

Primary school was awful for me. In the mornings, I didn’t want to leave my mom. I reminded her daily to pick me up from school again, even though she was (is) a super caring mother who wouldn’t forget things like that at all.

(Although she did neglect to pick me up from the airport after a grade 6 school tour once because she got the arrival time wrong. But that’s another story.)

I struggled to make friends, and when I did, I was often overly clingy. I never left my parents’ sides in public places like parks and clothing stores. And the list goes on.

Although I eventually got stabler and braver, especially in high school, my separation anxiety peaked again when I was 19 years old.

Adulting

When I was a 19-year-old first-year student, my family and I went on holiday to a neighbouring country. It was a long drive, and the further we drove away from home, the worse my anxiety became. By the time we got to our destination, an isolated, rural (albeit idyllic) seaside village 40 minutes’ drive away from the nearest proper town, I was a wreck.

The two weeks we spent there were awful for me: I struggled to breathe, eat, and sleep. I had vivid nightmares almost every night. What’s more, I kept following my sisters around, worrying something bad would happen to them.

I ruined my family’s holiday without meaning to.

 – – –

Back home, I was still excessively anxious.

Although I felt relatively calmer and safer, anxiety still had its grip: I worried about my family and my then boyfriend constantly. I had frequent panic attacks which made me feel like I was going to die. I struggled to breathe and had anxious thoughts on a daily basis.

Acceptance

For more than two years, I tried to deny that I had an anxiety disorder. It was just university’s heavy load that was making me stress; I just handled stress worse than other people.

But in time, I became a burden to my family and my boyfriend (and his family). I realised that I was rarely truly happy, and I was less interested in things I usually enjoyed, like writing and travelling.

I just wanted to stay at home every single weekend.

And this drove a wedge between me and my boyfriend at the time, especially because he didn’t really believe that anxiety is a real thing. He didn’t understand why I dreaded the two-hour drive to his hometown on weekends and why I didn’t want to go on adventures with him on the beautiful farms surrounding our respective hometowns.

I was losing touch with my close friends and struggling to make new ones. Socialising was so much effort for me, even though I wanted to socialise.

So I took the first step:

I went to see a psychologist.

I told him about my background and my daily challenges. He confirmed that I had anxiety. He reasoned that the ultimate cause of my anxiety was fear of death. Which might be true, but it wasn’t satisfactory to me.

Although I had some clarity after my sessions with my psychologist ended, and the yoga and meditation techniques he recommended did help, the anxiety still wasn’t gone.

And in July, I broke up with my then boyfriend who I had been with for three years. A defining moment of my life (long story).

Psychiatry

In August last year, I finally saw a psychiatrist who happens to be a friend of my father’s.

The psychiatrist diagnosed me with generalised anxiety disorder, which was what my separation anxiety disorder had warped into in time.

He prescribed chronical medication. Despite their side effects (like tiredness), they worked quite well:

  • I didn’t stress about my family excessively anymore
  • I didn’t have anxiety about the future anymore
  • I had far fewer panic attacks
  • I found it much easier to get my breathing under control
  • I flew to Mauritius (before, I had been afraid of flying too)

and so on…

Relapse

After I broke up with my longtime boyfriend, I started dating a new guy about a month later. I became very attached to him, and when we broke up in January, I went a little crazy:

One night, I showed up at a bar where he was hanging out with a group of friends. He didn’t text me all day, so I was anxious and I really needed to see him.

I didn’t wait for him to say it’s okay for me to come over to the bar; I just showed up.

I went up to him and asked him why he ignored my messages all day. I acted all clingy around him, embarrassing myself in front of his friends without even realising it.

He soon got up, obviously needing a break from my craziness, and went to chat with a female friend a few metres away. I kept looking at them, distrusting the friend, worrying that she might be his new crush.

Later that night, we fought (in public, outside the bar). His best friend even got involved to try and help us. His friend’s attempt to get me home safe backfired and I went out to a club to vent to an old friend of mine.

 – – –

I found it so hard to let go of him. He tried to stay my friend (nothing ever happened between him and that girl by the way), but our friendship soon went south.

And now I’ve lost him.

Recovery

Today, I rarely get panic attacks. I still struggle to breathe, but instead of becoming anxious about it, I manage to get it under control. I’m also a lot less dependent on my parents. I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment, but I’m stable. I refused the last guy who asked me out, even though I could’ve said yes just for the sake of having someone – it’s something, right?

Bottom line: There is hope. I’m getting better every day. If you’re struggling with anxiety, trust me when I say you can get better too. Just speak up and ask for help, even if your first step is only confiding in a friend or family member. There’s also great help online, like blogs and YouTube channels.

You’ll be fine, promise.

Keep on keeping on.

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