My Story: The Brilliant Gift Hidden in an Anxiety Disorder
Throughout my early life, I could be switched up for Lucy in the Peanuts cartoons with her ‘Psychiatric Help’ booth at 5 cents a shot. As the oldest child born in 1956, the first of 5 kids, all of who pretty much tumbled out one right after the other, someone needed to be in charge. Our mother was slowly and steadily losing her mind. Therefore, I formed the controlling advice-giving, strong role early on. By the time I was 8 years old, she was pronounced unfit, met and married a man she met in the psyche ward and continued her path straight down hill. I do believe she did the best she could.
My nuclear engineer father had the overwhelming task of raising us. Until his parents moved in to help out, we had a housekeeper who tried her best to deal with us. On Sundays when dad would drive her to her extended family for a day off, he would return and for some reason make us sauerkraut for lunch – a dish we all detested which I now see as a stroke of genius to give himself a break. We had the common rule that we couldn’t get up until we finished our food, hence we all sat for hours on end at the table, an 8 year old, 7 year old, 6 year old, 4 year old and a 2 year old. The heaping portions he had served us ensured his hours of peace watching a football game on TV while we threw sauerkraut around the room.
Since we never moved homes and my dad’s parents were familiar family, I assumed all would be fine after they moved in. After all, my mother, who was a gifted fine arts music major and opera singer, had not been a strong force of protection or nurturing for us, so I didn’t think I would miss her or be affected by her absence. She was passive and quiet, yet in some ways grounding in her honesty, like about Santa Claus. She answered my demanding questions at age 7 carefully and honestly, saying that Santa was in fact real, although he lived in our hearts, and that his spirit was just as real as the fantasy I’d recently had shattered from friends at school.
When she was taken from our home at my age 8, she had already been gone many weekends on “relaxation visits” which dad and both sets of grandparents did a great job concealing as psychiatric ward stays. What I hadn’t known was that the neighbors in our otherwise peaceful, suburban neighborhood (where everyone else’s house seemed so enviably normal), had recently testified that no one was raising us, and that I was doing the best I could to manage the 2 year old and the rest of the kids day to day.
We were the only “broken family” in our neighborhood, and our home had never been the beautifully maintained one I learned to viciously compare ours to. Our house mostly looked like a tornado had hit it. As inhabitants, we all wore glasses, and our gangly bodies pre-dated the upcoming fashion where being thin was considered a good thing. Basically, I identified deep down as the ‘white trash’ on the block, but I propped myself up by over-functioning, thriving on being helpful (to eventually become utterly annoying), telling everyone what to do and how to do it, and of course, dispensing advice, hence the Lucy identity.
So after our grandparents moved in, things started off bustling along as normal, although looking back, I threw up a lot from nerves. It turned out my pediatric nurse-grandmother was at times nurturing and at others, a nightmare of physical and emotional abuse, especially to my dear siblings while favoring me. Her borderline personality disorder resulted in classically ‘splitting’ us as kids from each other, which means pitting us against each other instead of offering us ways to stay loving and connected as a tribe. She liked to inflate me to the position of favor with her where I could maybe prevent my siblings from getting hurt by pleasing her especially well. My own distorted sense of power and responsibility was growing, grooming me for the eventual rescuer role in all of my relationships.
We all learn to adapt through adopting fundamental belief systems and by playing the roles in our lives that worked as a child. I was developing a sense of personal responsibility for whether or not the sun rose or set, much less how to fix anyone’s psychological pain. My religious beliefs, formed through Catholicism, fed into this ‘savior complex’, and organized my sense of how the Universe really worked.
After 5 years of sometimes-good-times, yet much outright violence and emotional abuse (from him and his parents), our dad eventually remarried and our grandparents returned to Tucson Arizona. I do believe they did the best they could. The generations preceding my parents’ lives were emotionally ridiculous, with little to no protection from the ravages of inherited survival struggles. Nurturing children was frowned upon, as people pushed forward to keep food on the table and please the “Joneses”. Funny thing, our last name was Jones.
Dad remarried and steadily succumbed to alcoholism, which, like all of us kids, I tried and failed to save him from. Our new family was somewhat of a circus, as were many families in the 1970’s. Leave it to Beaver, the TV show depicting the supposedly ideal wholesome family in the 1960’s was replaced by The Brady Bunch of the 1970’s, a show with a blended family of 6 kids and parents trying to make it work after former marriages. My new stepmother did the best she could, considering she went from 2 sons to 7 kids when we all combined. She came from a Jewish background where one living room was left as a perfect, uninhabited parlor. We had been raised Catholic, with no boundaries around trampling any corner of livable space. It was a rough go.
Thankfully, my new stepbrothers made it clear, the glasses and my geeky-looking home-made clothing had to go.
After a good round of bullying from their friends, I conformed to the pressure to look like the southern California girl I was to become, outgrowing the glasses for just plain not-seeing.
After a wardrobe change from nerd clothing to torn jeans and t-shirts, being ‘cool’ was starting to work! I became popular, worked after school jobs, tenaciously earned A’s in high school, and enjoyed many great, intimate friendships, boyfriends, beach and ‘party’ life of the 1970’s era. Inside I was actually having some fun, feeling the freedom of the great music of the early 70’s and enjoying the outdoor life that came riding waves, lots of camping and, ok, a bit of recreational drinking and drugs.
With all of that going for me, I didn’t see what was coming. I had prided myself on the fact that my childhood had not affected me….How many times had I said those very words to myself and to my friends! I was the one who people came to for advice after all! My sense of inflation became one of invincibility at times, happy to help anyone who needed perspective, anxiously willing to please, and very, very attached to my psychological “strength”.
At 18 years old, I had fallen madly in love with a young man, a powerful, passionate love that was sustained for quite a few years. It was the mid 1970’s and drugs, alcohol, surfing life, and fantastic music abounded. Again, with a naïve sense of invincibility, I took LSD with him on a beach camping trip, walking miles and miles down the beach as we came onto the drug. He had a near fatal grand-mal seizure right as we managed to hike as far from civilization as possible, followed by 2 more seizures within a few weeks. Long, devastating story – he ended up having a full psychotic break and landed in a mental institution for 3 full months.
The horror of that camping day, and the many, many months I spent thinking he may be lost to us, were much too close to home. I had no idea that not being able to save my mother from her decline was buried somewhere in a superhero fantasy way deep in my unconscious. All I knew was to give my all in joining his family in the intense treatment he required, and to pray.
As he slowly recovered, the foundation of my inner life was weakening, and unbeknownst to me, about to collapse. I had assumed my inner strength was still impenetrable, since everything else about my Lucy 5 cents life was fully working for me. Besides, in those days there was little or no lay literature or self-help books about psychology to prepare me for the anxiety disorder and depression brewing. Seeing a psychiatrist had the stigma of being for the fully insane – like my own mother, and now my new love. I had been in the “just do it” camp, and wracking up brownie points with God – being a do-gooder, with no idea the earthquake fault within my inner life had hit full pressure and was gonna blow.
The Disorder Hits
I was working at my summer job, and I remember looking at the face of a co-worker as she was talking. Suddenly her face distorted while a terrifying sound went off in my head and an explosion of panic ensued. The room sort of melted, and in an effort not to faint from sheer terror, I ran outside thinking that just maybe if I ran out of the building, I could escape the reality I was in inside. Fleeing down the hall in panic I flung the doors open, only to see a sinister nightmare outside as well. My worst fear in life was to lose my mind. It had happened.
The noise in my head continued like an off-tuned organ sound as I ran back inside the building. Everything looked distorted, colors were brightened in a hideous sort of way, and it felt like the level of fear I was experiencing was as bad as if someone had a gun to my head. I was to learn that this episode was a panic attack fueled by an LSD flashback. I remember it was the day Nixon was impeached. It turned out to be the ‘welcome to hell mat’ to what would become a long, long road to the losing of my mind, and discovery of my soul.
I was to have 3 or 4 of these episodes per day, resulting in a complete and total descent from any remote semblance of happiness and sanity, to an ongoing living nightmare. I couldn’t sleep, eat, or smile. I became phobic of the places I’d have the attacks, hence became phobic of leaving home – a hideous entrapment that replaced my former adventuresome spirit. Open space terrified me, as in actual sweating, fainting-type terror. Closed spaces were as bad, meaning flying, elevators, rides in amusement parts, all hopeless. Bicycle rides, hikes, watching sunsets on the beach no longer offered the beauty and peace they used to, as more symptoms emerged and the disorder worsened.
For example, I began to feel like the floor was on a slant when I sat in a chair, and although I knew it wasn’t, what was so deeply disturbing was that no one I knew had ever heard of any of these symptoms, and that made me feel utterly and totally alone. Other symptoms included walking across my college campus (yes, despite all of this I was enrolled in school full time and just plowed along getting through it joylessly), while the ground felt like it was a mattress as I walked. Trees and walls loomed disproportionately in any given view, such that I just had to get used to it.
Within a few days of the whole thing I called the psychiatrist that treated my boyfriend (who, by the way, made a full recovery and we are still great friends). Although I couldn’t afford to pay his fancy Los Angeles rates, he kindly said that he was not surprised that I was in trouble, that he was expecting it, based on my anxious attempts to fix by boyfriend throughout his recovery. He agreed to see me for a small fee, for which I am eternally grateful, and I paid him with my housecleaning money.
I remember being in our first session, where I’m sure I sat on the furthest edge of my chair, writhing in terror. He asked my about my mother, and I remember thinking, “What in the hell does my mother have to do with what is happening here?” The disorder worsened at first, and it looked like I might need to be hospitalized. I simply could not believe that something deep within me had shamefully broken, and that my inner life was shattered, my outer life doomed. It was unsustainable to live in what he described as a severe anxiety disorder with psychotic features, probably induced by the LSD. I had done this to myself.
Then came the turning point. The worst part of living amidst my worst fear, losing control, losing my mind – never mind losing most of my friends for awhile – was the loss of my hope that the Universe had a benevolent intelligence at its core or any remote shred of meaning to the whole thing.
I had always been fascinated by the very Presence of being alive, and relentlessly curious about why we as humans are here on Planet Earth. I have been one of those people that cannot figure out why everyone else is walking around without demanding to know where we came from before being born, why we are here, and what lies beyond the visible reality we exist within. At 6 years old in Catholic school I saw the ridiculousness of the premise that religion, in my case, sells a paradigm that some people go to heaven, others to burn in hell forever and others to purgatory and even limbo for the innocents who hadn’t had a chance to learn about God. IF there was a God, that one wouldn’t do.
Understanding the nature of reality, and possible meaning of life was (and still is) at the heart of my own daily pulse. When the anxiety/panic disorder and ensuing depression took my ‘reality’ hostage, I tried to hold onto a shred of hope that the meaningless void I now lived in, the terrifying abysmal sense of emptiness, which I literally felt all around me, had to be wrong.
What I was to learn was that I was experiencing, through the disorder, a split off from the true interconnectedness and interrelatedness that we as humans have with all of everything. The now horrifying outer world of warped ground, cartoon like colors, looming walls or trees, was an outer manifestation of my internal life, having split off from myself. Inside, as I had tried to get stronger, denying the pain and vulnerability of my experiences as a child, I had gone too far. I had wrenched myself into such a need for control and power to make myself safe by helping others, denying the terror of almost losing my boyfriend to his insanity, that I had snapped the tether that connected me to the ground of fundamental sanity.
I must return to the turning point though – having just gotten ahead of myself…One day, I begged my psychiatrist to tell my why I had the severe and bizarre symptoms that I had. I wanted to know why I felt the floor was on a slant, or the ground sunk when I walked, or why things seemed two dimensional instead of three dimensional.
He went ahead and asked me to describe the way I specifically felt and experienced any one of those symptoms, lets say how it felt to be on a floor which seemed to be on a slant. So I described the misery of feeling like I was going to slide backwards, and worse – knowing that it was all in my head. He asked what the fear of sliding backwards made me want to do about it, how I reacted. I explained that it made me feel like I had to clutch the chair, tense my body and ‘hold on’ tight. He then asked when in my life had I felt like that, for example as a young child, how these feelings were familiar at all (holding on tight or I’d slide off…). I scanned my younger life and realized that such a feeling was common. Since I can remember, from 2 years old on, as my mother was more or less slipping away and chaos ensuing, I had to stay tense and vigilant to try and save the situation.
We went through my fear of bridges. Why? Because there is nowhere to pull over. What does that matter? Because you can’t stop or slow down if you want; you can’t hold traffic up just for yourself, you must push on. And if I needed to pull over, or wanted to slow down? Everyone would become enraged, and I would experience the terrible shame of holding other people up for a vulnerability in myself.
Here, one at a time, he helped me see that my specific symptoms actually had meaning!! They were a metaphor for the larger, traumatic experiences that I had not acknowledged had bothered me.
Once I saw how each symptom actually had a direct metaphorical interpretation, that the symptoms actually pointed toward specific memories from the past, a whole new set of possibilities emerged. Could the illness have a function, like informing me that I need to recognize and own the vulnerable parts of myself? Could the panic attacks actually be a very young aspect of myself throwing nuclear bombs out to my ego-personna informing me that I needed to integrate my past experiences into my sense of self, and humbly own these younger selves within me? In other words, could this hideous disorder and all of its parts actually be a coded system of information for me?
The Cosmos was back. It did have meaning, and my broken psyche became a messenger with updated software instructing me how to better live from here. For example, as thing progressed and my symptoms would abate some, I would become filled with motivation and would head back out to ‘fix the world’ with all my renewed energy. Then the symptoms would return. I remember yelling at God,
“What the hell do you want from me? I am doing all these good works and you make me sick again every time I do!!”
That was when the first answer to an inquiry made itself known from somewhere in my depths. The answer…
“I AM NOT THAT GOD.”
Meaning, that my former God-system was one where you follow a set of rules, and earn points toward an afterlife. This new answer came from an inner ‘God’ / Cosmology / Soul – confirming that self care would cause the symptoms to abate and give me an integrated sense of wholeness again. Lack of self care would result in relapse. Plain and simple. Physics.
Now that I was getting the lay-of-the-land of my inner life, I began to trust the coming and going and nature of my symptoms. The more I did so, the more my inner life became a wondrous mystery. Hell was slowly becoming heaven.
Then came another turning point. Despite the new trust in the disorder, the hope that it was all going to keep making sense and getting better, I still had panic attacks, and some of the symptoms continued despite the insight work. I’ll never forget this day-I had had a panic attack, which feels like an earthquake that one cannot know when to expect or how long it will last. In exasperation I remember asking “it”-the disorder itself I suppose,
“I’ve been doing all this therapy and following through…
WHAT do you WANT FROM ME???”
I didn’t’ really expect an answer.
But I got one. About an hour later, something deep within me said,
“Love me no matter what.”
It wasn’t a “voice”, it was a deep thought which emerged from somewhere way down inside of me, bubbling up and just presenting itself. Love me no matter what?
I remember thinking, “But I have been pretty loving to myself. I have found this inner child, and I’ve been better to myself by not pushing myself so hard.” So I asked,
“What do you mean? Where am I not loving to myself?”
I then received or had a clear image of myself having a panic attack, and trying my best to hide it. Of course I try and look normal amidst an attack, I mean, I’m not going to howl and run to a corner and rock back and forth in front of people. Translate to, I’m not going to look like a fool in front of people.
Translate to, I’m full of shame about being somewhat mentally ill. Translate to, In an effort to ‘pull it together’, I abandon myself.
Within a matter of minutes I could stand back and see that when it comes to this one area of vulnerability, I totally abandon myself in my effort to look normal. I scare myself and goad myself to pull it together and make it stop. I had learned that it was the 4-year old who was having the attacks, getting my attention for all the buried feelings so that, by stopping me in my tracks through the attack itself, I could appreciate the level of fear she had lived with. She couldn’t get my attention without blowing inner land mines.
Now I was seeing that when she does so, when I do have a panic attack, I run away from connecting to my inner life, instead focusing on the other world, and what I look like to other people.
Ohhhhhhhhh. So what ‘Love me no matter what’ means is staying connected to my inside self, and staying lovingly connected to this 4-year old self while the attack is happening. Ohhhhhhh. Not abandoning myself means re-assuring her that I don’t care what others think of me right then, and turning my energy toward being connected to this inner presence.
Who knew that we are so much more than the outside ego-personality we think we are.
Well…so that was the deal. If I wanted the attacks to stop, I needed to stay connected to this fierce little inner being, reassuring her that the rest of the world can go f—- themselves if they don’t like the way I look to them. It was to be a forewarning for future clients and for myself…if we have a condition which we judge ourselves for, or would judge ourselves for, we are essentially abandoning ourselves. For some, it’s getting fat, others it’s being weak. for me it was going insane… whatever it is – if we would abandon ourselves by agreeing with the judging world that we are shameful and bad, we can only hope that it happens to us. By having our worst fear happen, we get a chance for a miracle. I’m getting ahead of the story.
My general anxiety was better. My strange symptoms were abating more but I wanted the attacks to stop and the phobias to leave me alone. All of the insight work had helped, and I was growing to trust my psyche as a source of deep and profound guidance. What was clear to me now, was that the panic attacks and phobias weren’t going to stop just from the insight work alone, instead demanding full action to challenge them. I had to “love myself no matter what” which meant, using the attacks to turn inward instead of outward.
With my phobia of bridges in tow, I decided to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to confront the fear and see if I could try staying bonded to this inner presence.
I had a friend with me who did her best to understand my strange-seeming disorder, someone I could be myself with and who could take the wheel if need be. I intended to drive straight into my terror, right onto the bridge and as the panic began mounting, to just stay deeply connected to this part of myself, as though she were a real, separate child that absolutely needed and deserved my full love.
As I drove onto the bridge the usual vertigo, sweating, sense of hideous void began to encroach. I started talking to her/myself, saying in essence that the sense of void and fear made total sense from her standpoint. I reassured her/me that I understood that this very feeling was how it felt to be her, back then. I began to feel deeply sad, in a good way, empathically (strange as it seemed) for myself. Not sorry for myself in a pitying way, but sad for all children when life gets traumatic and frightening. Nowadays, writing this 40 years later, relating to one’s inner child is one of many known techniques to heal trauma, but at the time, this was a very humbling endeavor. My inner critic was rolling like a hyena in the corner mocking my connecting efforts to this younger me. I went ahead anyway.
Tears were rolling down my face, and the vertigo and terror symptoms kept mounting. I just stood firmly by her/my inner self, saying, “They can haul us off in a helicopter if need be. I wasn’t budging from my focus on caring and connecting with her. Huge tears. I think I started bawling. God knows what my friend was going through. Deep forces within me were reuniting.
An Explosion of Light
Then, an explosion of light filled everything, alongside the most powerful blast of love I have ever or could ever imagine feeling. I literally experienced an opening for several electrocuting seconds of the most incredible love, like a lightning bolt of love from all directions, hitting me. I cannot describe this, the force of it, the feeling of it, and the light that came with it was totally and completely astounding. I imagined that some kind of barrier broke. The barrier that keeps us humans organized in our little space-time nervous systems with our little thoughts – removed from what must be a field of love surrounding us. The barriers were shattered for probably 3-5 seconds and I got blasted. This was nothing like the LSD-like high or symptoms. This was more real than anything I have ever experienced…in fact more real than the solid computer and surroundings in my life at this moment.
And then – whoosh – (as I kept driving) after the electric light/love blast was finished, absolutely all fear of the bridge was gone. Gone. Utter peace, total freedom, and in fact I had a kind of post-orgasmic release that made me want to almost laugh with delight. The whole phobia broke open. It was gone! “Love me no matter what.” Well hell, no kidding. This had to be one of the keys to life on planet earth. I knew anyone could have these same results.
I repeated the same process, although less dramatically, on airplanes – traveling far from home where agoraphobia symptoms would rise – anywhere that my phobias prevented me from fully living. Sometimes I wrote the dialogue with myself out in a journal, other times closing my eyes in an inner visualization. And it worked in every situation.
The Rest of My Life
In conclusion, my entire life has become centered on our human relationship to the parts of ourselves, with particular attention to trusting our symptoms as a part of a benevolent intelligence guiding our lives. The funny thing is, our deepest Self, that Soul-Self located in part in our unconscious, houses the past and our deep inner children, alongside the supra conscious of our inner genius, creative side and destiny path. This profound field of consciousness, of our true Self, does not care how much we have to suffer to learn the lessons we came for. My outer persona-self wanted anything but to go crazy. And the real reason that going crazy was so terrifying was because somewhere some part of me knew I would abandon myself for that one.
So using self inquiry, I can help others find where the split inside of them creates self abandonment. Once we unconsciously decide to abandon ourselves, and again it is often buried alive (!), our outer life has a strange way of becoming awful in some ways. Our outer life is connected directly and mysteriously to our inner life, corralling us to and from a sense of integration and meaning, and our relatedness within our selves to our Self. Ultimately we may or may not have an actual Self, but at this level of consciousness, we do. I learned that our inner life, our inner symptoms are not just pathological diagnoses. It may seem tricky to interpret a symptom, a dream, an art piece, but the psyche is a powerful, mysterious force of genius.
I learned that we do have parts of ourselves that are frozen in time until we get to them, and that we can release the experiences in hundreds of ways. The self inquiry, “What do you want from me?” was the most powerful turning point in my life, because by really asking myself instead of yelling at myself, I got an answer! I could trust that answer in the long run to change my entire life from being crippled with an illness to working on a transformational level with people for decades. I wasn’t expecting that anyone was in there to actually answer me back, especially not from a mental illness source! And she/it was.
And then following through with the answer, not belittling myself for having the answer, “Love me no matter what”, took much humility. My inner critic was a constantly cynical creature goading me the entire time from the corner of this inner experience, no doubt. I had to forge on though, because I learned that the critic, in its attempt to get approval from the outside world, which we initially need to survive, was the source of the problem. I had no choice. I could not live the way I was – it seemed life or death. So I took to the bridge with a determination that we all have if we really know it will make the entire point of our life come forward.
After getting a bachelors in Health Science, a masters in Nutrition Science and becoming a registered dietitian so that I could practice nutrition, I stumbled headlong into the brand new diagnosis of eating disorders. This was the mid-eighties now and no one knew what to do with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and what I think of as emotional overeating disorders. In Santa Barbara, California where I started a large practice with a medical doctor, we were getting referrals for individuals with all myriad symptoms of disordered eating since the dieting industry and fast food/processed food industries had made chaos out of self-trust with eating. The advertising industries had made a nightmare out of female body image, to be followed by male body image problems in the 90s. Since the psychological community in which I was embedded, did not know how to treat eating disorders, I decided to apply what I had learned in my recovery from the anxiety/panic disorder.
I began inquiring with clients about their symptoms and showing them how to track the metaphor in their answers. I worked to help them create an inner road map of their multi-layered, unique disorder, and together alongside their therapists, how to find their way out. This has been powerful work, and so many courageous individuals have graced me by letting me help along their way. Eventually I was invited to train therapists at Pacifica Graduate Institute, local graduate schools such as Antioch and recently Cal Poly’s psychology department and through my own workshop company.
Many clients also eventually found themselves struggling with exercise as a part of their symptoms, having some level of resistance or loss of motivation to become or stay physically active. After my cheerleading didn’t work, I remembered to consider applying inquiry toward exercise resistance and ended up writing a book proposal and many articles and podcasts on the subject. Using inquiry, women (I haven’t worked with men’s exercise resistance as much, yet), found an entire inner world of answers to their stalemate with movement.
From the answers, come a game plan, a unique, totally personal process toward recovering freedom to move again. Utilizing what I learned about deciding to take full action, after insights are made, the process of healing exercise motivation issues involves a ritual after the inquiry process is complete.
It seems insight alone isn’t quite enough to transform, at least that was true for me. In the end, I have had the honor of enjoying years of a thriving private practice, and owning a treatment center company in which my theories could be applied. My deepest love has been the workshops for clients and those for professionals where I, and my colleagues could teach techniques for treating individuals but also utilize storytelling, archetypal psychology, art, meditation, yoga, dance and general emergent creativity as a medium for transformation.
Now, getting my PhD in Consciousness and Transformative Studies, I am home. I found my tribe in others who are searching behind the seeming reality of every day life for the deeper reality of quantum physics, the nature of Consciousness and cosmology. The answers from each level of inquiry are so astounding, I dare go on!
Of course I will.
About the Author
MS, PHD CANDIDATE IN CONSCIOUSNESS & TRANSFORMATIVE STUDIES
Francie White is a theorist and practitioner in the science and art of nutritional psychology as well as a creative force investigating and teaching about philosophies of consciousness. She has a 35 year history at the forefront of treatment for all types of disordered eating, which parallels her abounding interest in the deeper questions about the nature of reality, and the importance of resurrecting wonder within the journey of human life.