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My Anxiety, Part I

The Origin Story

By Jen SullivanPublished 6 months ago 10 min read
A peaceful sunset in the place that was once my second home | photo by Jen Sullivan

In an attempt to explain my anxiety to my husband, I searched the internet for effective ways to do this and found a lot of useless information that was more often about positive thinking than actually living with anxiety. However, I did come across a few articles written by people who suffer from anxiety on the level I do—real people with real anxiety trying to explain what it’s like to live with this type of mental illness. Yes, I say “mental illness” because anxiety is a problem in the brain, not a way of thinking. It cannot be just ignored or cured through positive thoughts, meditation, or my doctor’s favorite prescription of “diet and exercise.”

The one thing these articles and many other websites that try to explain anxiety have in common is simply expressing the feelings and emotions that anxiety sufferers go through. It isn’t just stress and worry; it can be so much more than that. I have learned that experiences and techniques to overcome an anxiety attack vary from person to person, and I am realizing that is why nothing has ever helped me to cope: no one in the world is like me.

For me, anxiety comes in waves, sometimes stronger than others. It often helps when I write, whether that is a blog post, a researched article, or a fictional story. After reading a few articles about explaining one’s anxiety to others, I sat down to write, and that is just what I did: I wrote.

Let us start at the beginning.

The Origin Story

My panic attacks only started in 2016 and my anxiety has been increasing since then. I still remember my first panic attack: it was February 29, 2016—Leap Day—and my mom was just about to drop me off at work. I had been sick, leaving me feeling extremely fatigued, and my job was high in stress from the beginning. I was the manager of the wine/gift shop at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire at the time. I loved that place and it felt like a second home, but upper management often treated me like a child, questioning my management style and leaving me out of important information.

On Sunday, February 28, 2016, there was a late-day show in the mansion and the wine shop had to stay open until after that show. No one had told me this until I was getting ready to close the store, eager to get home and rest so my immune system would be better equipped to fight my illness. Then I was told that the store had to stay open, meaning I had to stay another couple of hours just so they could funnel guests out through the wine shop. The two other employees insisted I sit and rest, so we sat and talked at the barrel chairs we had in the shop back then. One of my employees even went 20 minutes up the road to get us all McDonald’s since I was not prepared to eat dinner at work.

I was so pissed and tired the next day and was venting to my mom on the way to work. First my left arm started to go numb, then my right, and then I struggled to breathe. I assumed I was having my first ever asthma attack, brought on by the illness that was attacking my lungs, so my mom called an ambulance and met them at Sheetz. The EMTs and ER doctor insisted I had a panic attack, though by the time I saw the ER doctor I was mostly back to normal—the Lebanon hospital is terrible with wait times, unless it is heart related. This would be proven multiple times over the next few years and remains true to today.

A similar attack happened maybe a week later when I was at home with my then-boyfriend. I didn’t even think about the fact that it happened right after I got off the phone with my boss—a man who I considered to be my best friend, but who was trying too hard to insert himself into my life and who was dramatic if I did not take his calls. My boyfriend realized the connection, but I was sure my boss wasn’t the cause—I cared too much about him and my job to connect the dots.

My boss and I had bonded long before he was made manager, and it was his decision to promote me when he was offered a newly created position. He tried to run the wine shop without me, putting his faith in women who schmoozed him and what he called “pretty boys.” He ignored me and cut me from the schedule for a couple months, so I guessed I was finished with the job.

The new crew that he chose over me eventually left him in need of workers who were willing to work weekends and who would do the harder work rather than just want to work the tasting bar for tips. That was when he realized my worth and politely asked me to come back. I had not had any luck finding another job, and since I did miss the wine shop, I agreed. The store needed those who were willing to stock wine and work as cashiers, and I much preferred moving heavy boxes of wine over dealing with the patrons taking advantage of free wine tastings. As the months passed, my boss and I became as close as two platonic friends could ever be, relying on each other’s moral support to get through tough days at work.

I gained promotion after promotion until I became the wine shop manager several months after returning to the job. The owner knew I had just received my Associate’s Degree in Business Management, so when the opportunity to promote a new wine shop manager came up, my boss chose me and the owner agreed. Six months after graduating from Harrisburg Area Community College, I had my first salaried management job. It was stressful, but it was home and I had some freedom to do things my way…or at least some of the time—my boss was clearly struggling to let go of his position as wine shop manager. Still, I loved the place, but my illness in February 2016 complicated everything.

In March, I was finally starting to recover and had not had another attack after the first two. I had asked my then-boyfriend to marry me, and after he said yes I knew I needed to focus on getting better. I had not been that sick since maybe third grade when I had walking pneumonia. It was like I had a really bad sinus infection followed by some type of strong, persistent flu—I rarely got sick with flu as an adult. I remember being sick with what seemed to be flu for a couple days in 2014 when I was working at Faire, and before that, H1N1, or “Swine Flu” in 2009. My illness in 2016 seemed to last forever, but I was finally getting better.

On May 4, 2016—Star Wars day—I had another attack, except this one was different. Instead of having numbness in my arms and trouble breathing, I had pain and tightness in my chest and my left arm. I was in the wine shop at the time and thought I was having a heart attack, so I called for an ambulance. That time I went to Lancaster General Hospital and was able to get some answers: it was likely stress, specifically, stress from my job. I handed in my notice on Thursday, May 5, 2016, which was extremely upsetting—I loved that place, aside from the unnecessary stress from the office people and the extremely limited payroll that left me always short-staffed. And though my boss sometimes drove me crazy, I still considered him to be my best friend. I hated to leave, but I knew I had to protect my health, mental and physical.

When I returned to work on Friday May 6, I was visibly upset, but starting to feel better. It was like I was beginning to shed the stress and toxicity as I created plans to train my replacement. I had a month to recover, and I knew it would get better each day.

At the end of that first day into my notice, the owner’s wife came down to my office and insisted I resign immediately. I was adamant that I did not want to leave and that I wanted to be there for my team and to help train my replacement—the man I had already been training to be my assistant manager. She insisted I let it go and forced me into a sobbing fit, then stating that it was obviously too much for me and leaving would be the best option for myself. I walked out of my wine shop, sobbing into my box of personal belongings, but was aware enough to notice that there were three additional people working in the store—I was only ever allowed to have one.

Looking back, leaving that day certainly was not the right choice for my mental health. I was suicidal that night and so upset that my little brother considered going to the wine shop and punching my boss. The next day I was filled with rage, especially after I went to return my work shirts and was clearly not welcome in the store. My boss actually fled the shop before I entered. He had avoided me the day I was coerced to resign, even though I asked for him before leaving. It was clear to me that he felt some level of hatred, likely coming from his own guilty conscience. It was then that I realized he was no longer my friend and questioned if he ever was, or if he had been trying to use me to control all of the operations of the Renaissance Faire. It suddenly hit me: that was why he was always criticizing my management style—he wanted it done his way, and I am not the type to follow orders.

I questioned if I would ever again be able to manage another store, concerned that my panic attacks would return. I never had one as strong as those I had while working at Faire, but I do still get them, including the first time I saw my old boss walk into my next job. However, my general level of anxiety has been increasing ever since 2016, so it was not the job but something else. In 2017 I was treated for Lyme disease and I cannot help but wonder if that was the illness I had in 2016—it matched the early symptoms of Lyme, though my joint pain didn’t start until September 2017. I was only tested for Lyme once and it was negative, but a specialist decided to treat the illness as if it were Lyme and it went away—everything except my anxiety and chronic knee pain and weakness.

I was able to manage another store again, this time for a nationwide craft store chain, but that is another story, which is told in my book The Fabric Manager: A Memoir of a Craft Store Manager.

My anxiety seemed to steadily increase at a slow rate since 2016, though I learned how to better control my panic attacks. That didn’t stop me from having to go back to the ER a few times over the years, unsure if it was my anxiety or some sort of cardiac event. The last time this happened, the ER doctor tested my thyroid stimulating hormone level and discovered it was elevated. It has steadily increased since then and my test numbers indicate subclinical hypothyroidism. Unfortunately, the medication prescribed by my doctor increased my anxiety to a scary level, so he told me to stop taking it.

I am seeking a second opinion for my thyroid situation, as well as a few other concerns, and am still trying to find help for my mental health struggles. Lebanon has limited healthcare in all areas, and I have yet to find a therapist who takes my insurance and is not scheduling a year out due to an overwhelming number of patients.

Meanwhile, I continue on the best I can, hoping that the wave of anxiety passes and I can have a few days where I can function like normal. As time goes on, those days are less and less often, making me wonder if eventually they will cease entirely.

. . . . .

Originally published on the author's blog

panic attacksdepressionanxiety

About the Creator

Jen Sullivan

I am a gamer, a geek, a writer, an entrepreneur, and a gardener, among many things. I have a lot of knowledge and opinions to share with the world, along with creations from my chaotic mind.

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