In nearly every photo I’ve seen of myself as an infant and small child, I am either sucking my fingers, biting my nails or gripping something. I ripped up napkins and shredded straw wrappers at every table I sat at. At night, I rubbed the back of my hand across the cool spots on my pillowcase or rolled my earlobe between my index and middle fingers of my right hand while sucking fiercely on the same two on my left. All these actions helped tamp down an internal chaos; a relentless daily assault of dread and fear that trembled around and inside my body.
I spent a lot of my childhood floating away from my body—depersonalizing, it’s called—and staring down at myself from the ceiling. It was frightening and confusing, and I knew I was broken; the light-switch of a dead bulb. Only my problems were internal, and therefore invisible—no one could see what I needed, when I needed it, or why. Although I lacked the emotional vocabulary, there was something else preventing me from speaking out: shame. I was mortified by my own fears, which felt so out of proportion to any given situation, something I knew because I was fiercely hypervigilant and I didn’t see my dread in anyone else. It was mine alone and it meant something about me that I didn’t want to know.
There was more dread in me than body weight. The doom I experienced felt like an inescapable humidity, relentless and emotionally dehydrating. Something extreme was always about to happen, some terrifying and irreversibly traumatic event was about to occur that would alter my life forever: my mother would die, I would be kidnapped, she would be kidnapped, I would get cancer, something was always about to happen and none of us would have any say or control over our destinies. I waited, preparing myself for this inevitable horror by worrying.
Anxiety removes a person’s sense of control, so that your body is no longer yours. Instead it’s taken hostage by an existential fear that taunts you, waiting around each corner to startle you, forcing you to be on guard at all times. Here is what you fear will happen should the inevitable thing occur: you will vomit in public, or go insane in front of everyone, worse yet, you might die and then you really will never have control. Best to stay home.
I discovered increasingly effective, often dangerous, ways to quell my fear.
When I sucked my fingers, my dread was placated—but only for the length of time my fingers stayed in my mouth. Yet, at age 11, social mores required me to stop sucking them, and because I was never properly taught how to soothe myself, I looked for a substitute. For a while I picked at my cuticles, which felt good, then I dedicated myself to biting my fingernails and the skin around the tips of my fingers. I bit until I went too low and had to tamp down the sharp pain with a Band-Aid. When I was 13, I discovered cigarettes, which were even more powerful at soothing me than my fingers were.
I practiced smoking until I could inhale without coughing and gagging. I practiced until I was so advanced I could blow smoke rings and French inhale. I’d never worked as hard at anything in school as I did my smoking, because I was sure that the cigarettes would save me. The action of smoking was a type of protection, a defense, a pre-emptive strike against being exposed for what I worried everyone could see: my all-consuming fear and dread. The act of smoking and what cigarettes telegraphed provided me with a persona, and it was the persona that was the salve, me in the third person who didn’t have the same fears, a representative, a bouncer, protecting me from the world with its intimidating cigarettes.
Cigarettes are not necessarily a gateway for other drugs, but they are often a gateway to a more aggressive social network. When you smoke as a kid, you’re a “cool kid.” And to be cool means to act like you’re invulnerable. And to prove you’re invulnerable, you try what’s offered, even if you are terrified. When you’re a teenager you are always onstage; life is a performance, everyone is looking at and assessing you, with their spotlight eyes—or so you imagine. What you don’t see happening though, is your own metamorphosis. You miss the ways in which you are now, to others, the intimidating one. Even teachers were convinced I was more sophisticated than I was because I was a smoker. But still, in between cigarettes, my fears leaked in. I needed something stronger.
An adult I worshiped introduced me to cocaine, which not only solved my fears, but reversed them: I was better than, stronger than, and fearless. The drug filled the in-between; it carried me for hours, unlike cigarettes which took only three minutes to smoke. Soon enough, instead of eating, I was doing coke. Instead of sleeping, I was doing coke. Instead of going to school, doing my homework, thinking about colleges, I was doing coke. But the coke came with strings attached—when I was 18, this man said, he was going to have his way with me, and as 18 grew closer, I became more afraid. A new boyfriend saw into my life with a point of view I had lost and pointed out my bad path. I quit cocaine, and the man, but in my twenties, I continued to self-medicate in order to control my outsized emotions, which had turned into social anxiety, work anxiety, and agoraphobia. It wasn’t until when, at age 25, I grew suicidal and saw a therapist that the anxiety disorder of my childhood was finally diagnosed, and I was prescribed antidepressants.
Antidepressants provided me with clarity and a sense of perspective, one that allowed me to understand that I wasn’t self-medicating my emotions, but self-medicating before I could feel my emotions, before I reached the ooey filling of my specific fear, which was separation.
Eventually I learned to face my difficult emotions and to honor myself and care for my body in meaningful, sustainable, and healthy ways.
I grew up believing that I was broken, which meant I was wrong, and didn’t deserve the things other people did, and while I still struggle with those beliefs, I’ve realized that I need to treat myself as I would my own child, my best friend, as someone I love, because when we treat those around us better than we treat ourselves, we’re perpetuating a model of care we don’t truly believe, and worse yet, we’re passing it down. When we learn appropriate ways to care for ourselves, we model those actions to the world, and we pass that down.
For some people being healthy is an instinct, a way of life, but for me, it’s difficult. Being good to myself, caring for my body and mind requires a willpower I practically have to outsource. I’ve spent more than half my life learning how to soothe myself in the wrong way, and it’s become who I am. Making healthy choices has been much more difficult for me to learn. Just getting to the gym was an existential battle. So, when I was offered a free session with a healer, I went.
She asked what I wanted to work on and I told her I wanted to stop resisting being healthy. She had me lie down on a vibroacoustic sound bed. She controlled the frequencies to “harmonize the cells in my body and brain,” she said. She began to ask me questions. “What did your panic feel like in your body when you were a child?” she asked, as the soundwaves entered my body, replicating the feelings of dread I experienced as a child. I told her that it felt like the vibrating bed, only what vibrated inside me were black, frantic scribbles. Some days the scribbles tried to scratch me out, other times days they surrounded me. “Did you feel as though your head was disconnected from your body?” And that’s when I understood why it’s been so hard for me to be healthy: I am afraid of my body because it was the container for all my worst, unattended fears. I tried to push my body away all the time as a child, so I didn’t have to feel its burden, what it was always trying to tell me. I spent most of my life in my head, always afraid to sink down. I knew I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I never returned to the healer but that epiphany stayed with me and was enough for me to get serious about not being afraid of my body.
I took a meditation class, and when I got too in my head, I would try and feel my hands and feet. Every time I did this, my mind would calm down, and my body would wake up and I could feel what my body was trying to tell me.
In order to get healthy, I’ve had to challenge my mind, to plug it into my body so that they can communicate. It’s still a challenge, but it works, and it’s soothing. Instead of always trying to scare away my scary feelings, I now allow myself to feel the good and the bad, so that I can move through it, instead of allowing it to be stored there. Now I self-soothe by going toward, not avoiding. All my efforts when I was younger were tools of avoidance; I was constantly racing away from my own feelings instead of going toward them. But once I started to let myself feel my sadness and my fears, I realized that I could soothe myself by welcoming in my emotions, fears and all.
Amanda Stern was born in New York City and raised in Greenwich Village. She’s the author of The Long Haul and eleven books for children written under the pseudonyms Fiona Rosenbloom and AJ Stern. Her memoir, Little Panic, was released in June.