As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
I would wake up crying at 3 a.m. feeling like the ceiling was lowering and the walls were closing in on me. My throat and chest were tight. There was no exit, no escape. My thoughts were racing so fast I expected my head to explode.
I’d always lived with a low-level feeling of dread I had no name for. But these nightmarish feelings of being trapped, of being stifled, were truly unbearable. And they struck while I was at work, too.
I was a middle school teacher juggling more than a full load of classes to make rent in Los Angeles. It was usually during my lunch break, when I finally had some time to catch my breath, that I found myself gasping for it.
I felt the extreme urge to flee and would often literally speed walk around the campus. Anything to distract from the tidal wave of out-of-control thoughts.
I didn’t know what was happening to me, but it seemed to be affecting my body as well as my mind. I struggled with digestive problems, including severe constipation.
I visited my healthcare provider (HCP) to get help with the digestive issues. He thought they were tied to stress overload and burnout, and encouraged me to relax and possibly talk with a therapist. But I just couldn’t pause for even a second to do anything but work, work, work. In addition to my demanding day job, I was also taking classes to pursue my passion for film and television and doing my best to network, socialize and date.
I was in my mid-30s and the pressure to do everything right — right away — was intense.
It wasn’t until the world came crashing to a halt in response to Covid that I was forced to slow down. I went back home to Houston, Texas, to ride out the pandemic with my parents and to just take a break from the madness of my go-go-go life in LA.
Back home, in the delightfully dull suburbs, I was able to truly rest and take time to reflect on how I had been living the last two years since relocating to LA. I pieced together that I was running on empty and that those scary moments where I felt unable to breathe were panic attacks, and that I was living with anxiety. Finally I had a name for it.
And I realized that, with my workaholic lifestyle and fierce drive to succeed, I had managed to become my own worst enemy. I was running myself ragged. My body and mind were crying out for help. And that cry for help manifested in part as anxiety and panic attacks.
As soon as the off switch was flipped on my hectic life, my digestive symptoms resolved and the panic attacks stopped. All the anxious thoughts disappeared as though cast away by fairy dust.
The shape of my life changed. Rather than working nonstop and then desperately trying to cobble together social, romantic and creative extensions of myself, I embraced a slower pace. I visited with old friends in the park, masked up and six feet apart. I went on long walks with my parents’ dog. I ate full meals and slept all the way through the night. I woke up refreshed instead of teary and afraid.
The irony that I became my healthiest self when the world was brought to its knees by a deadly virus that has, to date, killed well over 1 million Americans, is not lost on me, but I must also make clear that I wasn’t blind to what was going on around me. I was generally frightened and sad about Covid, but not in a way that personally overwhelmed me.
Additionally, I felt a sort of solace in the concept of all of the world sheltering in place together. And I found an inspiring sense of connectivity in social media, where people joined in on viral trends while self-isolating, be it learning a new dance or baking a new kind of bread.
It wasn’t until the world began opening up again that I got a return visit from the anxiety I thought I’d shaken off for good. Questions raced through my mind: Should I go back to LA? What would I do with my life? Am I doing enough?
Once I felt the anxious questions ramp up, I knew that I could easily be headed back down that dark, restless path that had been my life for two fraught years. I had to seriously step back and decide: Do I want to hustle every second of the day for the dream of “making it” in a town that hadn’t shown me much love? Or do I want to actually enjoy my life with my sanity intact?
I chose the latter.
I decided to stay in Houston and get more serious about content creation, specifically my YouTube channel, which I created during the pandemic and where I share pretty much everything — be it my thoughts on dating, anxiety or Beyoncé. It’s not traditional therapy — but it is definitely therapeutic for me. And it’s united me with an army of people who appreciate me, and whom I appreciate right back.
I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person and I think that, for me, my anxiety fed on the ambitious part of me. I’m still goal-oriented and ambitious, but by taking time to rebuild my life and reclaim my time, I’m focused less on this extreme version of my own success, and more centered on what I can do to serve a community and make a positive impact on other people’s lives.
I still have my low times — but they’re nothing like they were before. When I feel an anxious wave coming, I have the space and self-love to dodge it. I may pick up the phone and talk with a nearby friend who can meet me for lunch. Or I may hash out my feelings in my journal or work on a new video for my channel.
While I shudder at the memory of how severe my anxiety was back in LA, I’m thankful I experienced it. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today — living a life that’s healthy and right for me.
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