By Annie Doherty
I grew up in a family full of mental health fun. The men on my Dad's side are bipolar and the majority of the women in my family deal with depression--and we all have a large helping of anxiety. From a family viewpoint, things have been an open dialogue for the most part.
My battle with anxiety began when I was 8 years old. I had panic attacks every time I went to bed and had no idea how to articulate to my parents what was happening, but only that I felt as though I was going to die. Fortunately for me, my Mother has experience in anxiety herself and in dealing with other family members. She helped me through that strange first experience with anxiety by quietly sitting with me and reminding me to breathe. She eventually got me a kitten as an attempt at a therapy animal. I still am highly responsive to touch when I'm in the middle of panic and often reach for strange textures to awaken my senses to something other than the madness in my brain. (my Mother is now a therapist!)
When my Father passed away last January, my anxiety erupted in a grief and confusion filled storm. I had spent the past 12 years caring for my intensely bipolar Father while he battled kidney failure and kidney cancer. Our relationship was a tumultuous one. After he passed, I had no idea what to do. I had all sorts of time and freedom from my caregiver duties and felt a bit lost. My Father was a writer and a painter, something he also encouraged me to do my entire life. During the good parts of our relationship, we often discussed literature and shared our own writing with each other, we even wrote a book of poems together when I was in middle school. My apartment was littered with his paintings, and my paintings that I created so desperately in an attempt to gain his artistic approval.
After he passed, I found myself unable to write or paint. His passing created a rainbow of emotions--ranging from relief to confusion to guilt to grief. His mental illness and lack of proper attention to it caused a lot of tension in all his relationships, mainly ours. when I sat down to write and process his death, it felt too intense. My anxiety would shoot through the roof and I'd be left exhausted and with nothing processed, so I turned to a new artistic outlet of hand lettering. I wasn't great at it, but it was soothing practice and something I could do mindlessly without having to create my own content--I could letter other people's words and quotes that meant something to me.
A co-worker, at the time, knew I had started this hobby and suggested I participate in the #100dayproject that takes place on Instagram. I had already created an Instagram solely dedicated to my lettering, which often talked about my mental state, anxiety, depression, and the loss of my Father. I had no idea what I would do for 100 days but was definitely intrigued.
The week before the project kicked off, I had one of my top five worst panic attacks. I had been paralyzed by the need to remove and shred a pork shoulder from the crock pot. The task seemed impossible. I had to first clean the dishes in my sink before I would be able to shred the meat, but I just couldn’t do it. I crumpled to the floor in a pile of tears. I remained in the fetal position, sobbing and trying to catch my breath for nearly three hours. My mind raced with thoughts of failure, the inability to be a decent human, and thought of being weak since I had been reduced to nothing because of the simple task of cleaning the dishes and making dinner. I almost got up and threw everything in the garbage several times, but the thought of being like my Father kept me from doing that. you see, when he got overwhelmed with things, he would just throw them away--all of his dishes, his pans, the food he couldn't figure out what to do with, clothes when he couldn't stand to wash them. I was terrified that I was turning into my father in that moment. I was 28 and completely convinced that I was going crazy and never going to make it back to anything that resembled normal life.
But then something happened and I said to myself, "Annie, take one breath. breathe in, breathe out. now repeat," and I did that for a few minutes, then I said, "Annie, we're going to stand up now. one foot at a time," and I did it and then, "Annie, let's wash one fork. we can handle one fork," and I washed a fork, and then a plate, and another dish, and another, and next thing I knew, the dishes were clean and I was able to move on to making that pulled pork. When I was finished, I took my anxiety medication, emailed my boss that I would be taking the next day off work, and passed out.
It was the first time I ever took a mental health day. and it felt empowering. I didn't even fib and say I was sick--I said I needed a mental health day and I realized at that moment that my 100-day project was going to be about anxiety because we need the freedom to be able to take care of ourselves when the time calls for it. I reached out to 100 people to get their input on anxiety--their experience, their advice for fellow anxiety friends, their advice for people who have never experienced, and coping mechanisms. I wasn't sure if anyone would respond. but then I got all sorts of replies - and I had more than enough material for the project.
I posted for 100 days the words of people who so bravely shared with me vulnerable details of their life. We worked to open the dialogue of mental health, in this case with a focus on anxiety and depression. I hand-lettered all the words myself, trying to make something beautiful out of something that can be so ugly. I connected with so many people across the country and even across the world. though my following is humble, I am honored that so many people have felt the freedom to share and discuss their mental health journey through the project.
This spring, Annie kicked off part 2 of her #100daysofanxiety project. She’s currently accepting submissions via the survey link in her profile. The project runs from April 3 - July 11.
Follow her lettering Instagram handle, @pennedbythepiglet