By Ciarra Zatorski
I was eight years old when it all began, when a match sparked the anxiety within me.
Though the flame was dim at the time, its presence would only grow stronger and stronger as I grew older.
It was the year my grandfather passed away and the first time I truly encountered death. It was nothing like the movies, children books or television programs depicted. My grandfather was not a goldfish and could not be readily replaced.
Nor was it as quick of a healing process as they suggested in which the young child would come home to find her goldfish floating at the top of the fish bowl, cry in disbelief and frustration, flush the goldfish down the toilet, cry some more and the next day act as if nothing ever happened.
For myself, the next few days after his death proved that something did in fact happen and that “something” would change my life in ways I would have never imagined.
I was eight years old when I first stepped foot into a funeral home, when I saw my grandfather lying in a coffin. It was the most terrifying image I ever witnessed. I did not truly understand death or what happened to my beloved grandfather, but I understood what I saw and understood that I would never see him alive again.
However, I moved on…at least I thought.
Thank God for my child-like mind and imagination as the next five years were marked by love, happiness and laughter.
I was a “normal” young girl growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, playing with life-long friends, patiently waiting for Lizzie McGuire to come on the television and dreaming up the most magical future for myself. For the next five years, I was a normal young girl who was constantly told she could do anything she ever dreamed of, who believed she had the ability to one day become a Victoria’s Secret model, a normal young girl with all the confidence in the world. Despite the common insecurities later faced in middle school and high school, my confidence continued to soar.
Then it happened again.
This time I was 16 years old and my grandmother passed away, the only grandparent I still had alive. Though much more educated at this age, my flame of anxiety not only grew but instead, burned brightly as my eight-year-old fears of death, funeral homes and services, cemeteries and hospitals rapidly returned.
It was at this age that my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome really kicked in. My mind, which had always been my greatest strength transformed into my most dangerous weapon as it convinced me (as strange as that may sound) that I had to perform certain “habits” in order to control my reality.
For one, each night I would have to align the chairs of my dining room table so that no arm and no leg were out of place. I would have to straighten up the shoe room in my house, make sure all the Windex bottles were perfectly aligned next to the kitchen sink and turn my bedroom light on and off until I felt it was OK for myself to go to sleep.
(I use the term “have to” very loosely here as clearly my life nor anyone else’s life depended on these habits, rather I made it my belief that they did.)
Then came the religious rituals. Being a faithful Catholic, I always placed a firm belief in God and would keep several holy items within my room to maintain the feeling of safety and security. Placed in various locations around my house were several other holy statues, crosses and figures which too kept my family feeling safe as well.
However, my mind had other plans for these figures. Lacking the ability to physically control what was happening around me, these figures too became a means of controlling my reality, as I would have to touch, kiss or bless myself with the items each night before I went to bed.
There were seven in total, which, if you do the math could take up to less than a minute. It took me over three hours.
Because my mind literally convinced myself that I was the “chosen” one; the only person that could control my reality as well as that of those around me by doing said rituals. I firmly believed that I could control the future based on the thoughts I had while performing each task. If I had the slightest of negative thoughts, I would have to start all over again.
At the age of 17, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer and within two years she lost her battle. My world shattered.
I immediately placed the blame on myself; trying to pin point the moment in which I failed to perfectly align the chairs one night, pick out the right item of clothing, turn the lights off at the right time or bless myself with a positive thought.
As one could imagine, my anxiety flew through the roof and so did my OCD. I became a different person; a person I hated. There were no positive thoughts left in my mind as they were all overcome with negativity. Yet, I hid it all with a smile.
No true combination could describe my emotions behind that smile. I was angry, scared, frustrated, heartbroken, sad and a number of emotions I didn’t know myself.
I began to increase my habits, hoping to gain better control of my life. I would wash my hands every five seconds, walk in and out of rooms, turn faucets on and off, get dressed and undressed, type and retype words, and even flush my bathroom toilet 700 times (trust me I counted) in one night until I again, felt it was OK for me to go on with my day without feeling as though I would cause something bad to happen.
However, despite being crushed on the inside, I kept it all within, not allowing anyone except God, to see the struggle I was going through on a daily basis. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I didn’t want to show my vulnerabilities, I didn’t want people to characterize me by my anxiety, nor did I believe I deserved the attention as what other people in the world were struggling with was far worse than anything I could ever imagine. Most importantly, I did not want to hurt those around me by spreading my negativity, as I knew they were hurting inside just as much as I was. I thought by merely keeping everything within, the thoughts, fears and anxiety would simply go away. They never did.
Within what seemed to be months after my aunt’s death, I lost several other family members and attended several funeral ceremonies of those outside of my family.
My life was crumbling before my eyes. I hardly left my room, made lame excuses as to why I couldn’t hang out with friends and cut myself off from social media, movies, television and even music with the fear of seeing or hearing something that would further spark my anxiety. For nearly a year, I refused to embark on the torturous journey of walking up the stairs to the second floor of my house.
Because I still believed I was the chosen one and attempting to make it up the stairs and down the stairs without having a negative thought was far too difficult for my mind to handle.
My confidence no longer existed. I sat in my room, hating the reality I created for myself. I couldn’t walk up the stairs, how did I expect myself to achieve any of my dreams?
The best way to describe my mind at this time is as a montage or a film reel. Every negative image and scene I witnessed played in my head on repeat every second of every day. There was my grandfather, then my grandmother, followed by the hearse and chain of cars flooding the cemetery.
Then my aunt popped in and the scene of the very last time I ever saw her played over and over in my head. I can relive the moment at this very second. I walked up the stairs of her condo and into her bedroom only to see someone who no longer looked like my aunt lying on a hospital bed, lethargic. But the very second I shouted, “Hi Aunt Lori!” there seemed to be a sparkle in her eye. I immediately gave her a hug and ran out of the room, ran down the stairs and allowed the tears to roll down my face.
After endless wasted days thinking, daily crying sessions and panic attacks, and struggling to do the most basic life activities like walking down my hallway or getting up from my seat, I cracked.
Naturally, I turned to my family who gave me all the love and support they possibly could to overcome my anxiety and I could not thank them enough nor could I apologize enough for all I put them through. I turned to psychologists as well, hoping a “professional” could get me out of my own rut.
But this was a job for myself, for someone who needed to become stronger despite the pain she held inside.
I’ve come to realize that if you truly want something to change, you have to want the change from deep within.
So, I looked within, turning to my core beliefs, my family and my firm belief in God to pull myself through.
For years, I patiently waited for God to save me, while God was waiting for me to save myself. I did in fact save myself, with the help of God, my family and prescribed medication. I have cut back on more than half of my habits and pursued my dreams of creating a fashion and lifestyle blog, ciarralorren.com. My confidence is still shattered, but I am slowly picking up the pieces.
Which brings me to today, five months after my cousin passed away after battling cancer twice; something I never saw coming as my family hid it from me until doctors informed him that he was through with his intense treatment of stem cell reproduction.
I found out a few days before my 22nd birthday that he was cancer-free and able to leave the hospital after nearly a year. Though I felt so guilty for failing to be there for him when he needed me most, I couldn’t be happier to hear that he was alive and healthy.
I therefore, dedicated the next few weeks of my life to putting all of my anxieties aside and simply being there for my cousin and his one-year-old son. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend with him before his newly produced stem cells failed and attacked his very weak immune system.
While this episode has set back a few steps as I continue to struggle with anxiety, OCD and PTSD today, I am so proud of how far I’ve come along, of how many habits I resisted and how many thoughts I simply let go. I am proud of putting my pride aside and seeking help, proud that I am finally sharing my struggles that began when I was eight years old and proud to let everyone out there suffering from mental conditions that they are not alone and they will get better. I am proud that I’ve learned to love myself once again, but most importantly, I am so proud of the strength I dug up from deep within to not only face my cousin but to give him all of my love and support until his final days.
Anxiety may be part of my reality. However, it’s not part of me.
Ciarra Zatorski is currently a senior at Rutgers University majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in Italian studies. She dedicates her free time to conquering her anxiety and fulfilling her dreams by maintaining, ciarralorren.com, a blog that strives to merge both fashion and journalism into a lifestyle.