I spent a childhood in terror. I thought drug dealers were going to crawl up my two-story brick wall and kill me.
I thought forgotten homework would end my entire school career. I lay awake at night, convinced my house would burn down. I thought I was acting weird. I knew I was acting weird. In college, I used the same two words as a source text and thought I’d be convicted of plagiarism and kicked out of school. I always worried I’d forgotten something. That I wouldn’t finish my work in time. That my boyfriend would die in a fiery car crash whenever he wasn’t in my direct line of sight.
I didn’t know it then, but I was suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
What is GAD?
According to the Encyclopedia of Pharmapsychology, GAD is “characterized by excessive and inappropriate worrying and not restricted to particular circumstances.” The second volume of the Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology: Adult Psychopathology says that GAD is often called the “‘basic’ anxiety disorder.” This is partially because of “its early onset and its ‘gateway status’ to other anxiety disorders.” Worry seems to tip into GAD when it becomes frequent and uncontrollable. Those with GAD also have more trouble “controlling, stopping, and preventing” their worries.
American Family Physician states that 7.7 percent of women and 4.6 percent of men in the U.S. will deal with the condition over the course of their lifetimes. Which is to say, I’m not alone.
I was diagnosed with GAD in 2010, after I had my first child. I spent time lying in bed, nursing him to sleep, and thinking, This is how we will lie after the bombs fall, after the apocalypse happens.
When my husband ran up the road to the grocery store, I worried that a drunk driver would kill him. I wondered how I would live without him, losing myself in all the minute details of finding a job and a day care center, and cashing in the life insurance policy. Was there a life insurance policy?
“That’s not normal,” my psychiatrist said when I told him these things. “It’s excessive. We need to treat you for that.”
The debilitating impact of GAD
Many clinicians like to think that severe depression and severe anxiety go hand in hand. This isn’t always true. Although these conditions can be what physicians call comorbid, or occurring at the same time, they don’t have to be.
I had preexisting depression (I was one of those comorbid cases), but my treated depression didn’t explain my persistent worrying.
I worried that my baby’s head would fall off.
I worried all through my pregnancy about a hospital delivery: that they would take my baby from me, that my baby would have medical procedures performed without my consent, that I’d have medical procedures performed without my consent.
These worries kept me up at night. I was constantly tense. My husband had to rub my back every night above and beyond what I needed for normal pregnancy pain. He spent hours reassuring me.
Needless to say, GAD can be just as debilitating without depression in the mix. In addition to dealing with unrooted worries like mine, people with GAD can have physical symptoms, such as trembling and a racing heart. They also suffer from restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and disturbed sleep.
All this makes sense if you’re busy worrying. You can’t focus, you’re terse with the people around you, and tense all over. You lay down to sleep and find your thoughts racing through your worries.
Living with and treating GAD
GAD is usually treated in two ways: through psychotherapy and through medication. A study in Clinical Psychology Review also suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective way to treat GAD.
Another study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology looked at guided mindfulness meditation as treatment for GAD. Researchers used a series of 8-week group classes with breath-awareness, hatha yoga, and a body scan along with daily audio recordings. They discovered that mindfulness training was at least as effective as other “psychosocial treatment studies.”
My severe case of GAD is under control now. I’ve had some in-patient therapy, which has taught me a bit of mindfulness, such as how to banish negative thoughts. I try to hear them in the voice of someone I don’t like, and that way, I find them much easier to dismiss.
And, most importantly, I no longer worry that my husband will die in a fiery car crash. I don’t stress about not finishing my work on time.
When the worries come back, I find myself at my therapist’s door, waiting for an update and a tinkering. It takes constant work. I have to keep trying to banish the wolves from the door. But my condition is manageable. And I no longer live in fear.
With all that said, GAD can be an ominous shadow, lurking in the corner and threatening to materialize into a real-life villain. Some days, it creeps back into my life.
And I can tell when my GAD is getting out of control again because I start to develop irrational worries that I just can’t kick. I constantly stress over making the wrong decision. When I’m having trouble, I can’t answer basic questions about, say, what I want to eat for dinner. The choice is too much.
In particular, I startle easily, which is simple for outsiders to observe. In the grips of GAD, it can take me hours to fall asleep. These are the times when my loved ones know to be extra patient, extra supportive, and extra kind, while I rein in the beast.
GAD can be scary. It makes life downright terrifying for those of us who live with it, and it can make life very frustrating for our relatives and caregivers. It’s hard to understand that we simply can’t “let it go” or “drop it” or “just look on the bright side.” We need help, including psychiatric intervention and possibly medication, in order to make our worries (and our physical symptoms) go away.
With treatment, people with GAD can live full, normal lives free of the small terrors that plagued our everyday lives. I manage it. It takes some medication tinkering and therapy, but I am a fully functional, worry-level-normal person, despite my early onset, severe GAD. Help is possible. You just have to reach out and find it.
Elizabeth Broadbent cohabitates with three small boys, three large dogs, and one patient husband. A staff writer for Scary Mommy, her work has appeared in Time, Babble, and many other parenting outlets, in addition to being discussed on “CNN” and “The Today Show.” You can find her on Facebook at Manic Pixie Dream Mama and on Twitter @manicpixiemama. She likes reading adolescent literature, making art of various kinds, doing research, and homeschooling her sons.