Illustration: Angelica Alzona (The Root/GMG)
AntisocialThe society column for people afraid of society, written by The Root's Editor-in-Chief and resident Bipolar Disorder expert/sufferer.  

When you don’t listen to your body, your body has a way of forcing you to listen. Or at least that’s what my body does, over and over again, from annoying to terrifying effect. When you suffer from stress-induced anxiety, as I do and have since I was a child, you get a host of stress-related illnesses to go with it.

I’ve had a lot of stress-related, psychosomatic illnesses, starting with stomachaches as a 6-year-old to today’s current horrors—heart palpitations and compulsively staring at the sky at inopportune times while my brain shuts down completely.

Why do they happen and keep happening?

Two explanations:

  1. For most of my 20s through early 30s, I did a shit job of taking care of myself. I didn’t sleep, didn’t really eat properly, drank too much, inconsistently took my medication for my bipolar disorder, and wildly careened between being a hot mess and ... an even hotter mess. It wasn’t fun.
  2. Even though I’m much better at taking care of myself than I’ve ever been, a lot of my triggers are hard to avoid because there are literally so many of them! Anything can trigger my anxiety—large crowds, small spaces, money, the outdoors, social events, driving, riding in a car, flying in a plane, the airport, being “late,” the subway, transitional periods, loud noises, bright lights, both eating and not eating enough, not getting enough sleep, being away from home, standing upright for too long, etc. This is probably why I suffered (and still to some extent suffer) from agoraphobia. Literally, the only place I don’t have anxiety is inside my house, making me want to become a shut-in and stay there forever.

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So, basically, it sucks. Not everything sucks, mind you. Being me means that you get a great job and lots of friends who love you and a family that adores you, but ... you’re also crazy. Like, all the time? Yes. I am crazy, literally, all the time. And I have all the stress-related illnesses (and a column dedicated to going out when you suffer from social anxiety) to prove it.

Here is a ranking—from not so bad to terrifyingly horrible—of what my body does to me when I am doing too much and need to immediately go somewhere and take all the seats:

1. Rapid weight loss. 

This is the only stress-related illness I “like,” but it only happened once, right after I filed for divorce back in 2001 and I lost something, like, 30 pounds in a month. I put “like” in quotation marks because if it had lasted longer than a month, I probably wouldn’t be typing this right now.

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How did I lose so much weight so fast? I guess I didn’t eat? I don’t know. I don’t really remember. All I remember about that month is that I adopted my fur baby, Shaggy (my beloved pet cat who passed away a few years ago), and could suddenly fit into a pair of size 10 jeans again after gaining about 50 pounds during the (brief) marriage. It was wild. My father was the first to notice how much weight I’d lost, and considering that he also suffers from a lifelong battle of the bulge, I couldn’t tell if he was happy for me or terrified.

2. Rapid weight gain.

Oh yes, that’s more like it. That’s my old friend. Sudden fatness, just waiting to consume me. That’s been a problem since I was 13, and is still a problem today! Thanks, psych meds that all make you fat instead of skinny! The only good thing about stress-induced weight loss or gain is that I don’t actually “feel” anything at the time, probably because I’m dead inside.

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3. Heart palpitations.

I still get these whenever I have an anxiety or panic attack. They happen so much now, I’m almost used to it. I actually was in the middle of an anxiety attack as I conceived and wrote this post. I can usually power through these now, no matter how bad they get, unless I’m in a car driving or attempting to ride the subway. Then it all just goes to hell and I feel like I’m dying and it takes hours for me to calm down.

4. Burning-mouth syndrome.

This one showed up around 2009-2010. Basically, my tongue felt like I’d burned it, as well as the roof of my mouth. It made food taste bad. It made NO SENSE and served no purpose. There is no treatment for it, since it is a mystery as to why it even happens to some people. I’m pretty sure it happened to me because I got laid off from my nonprofit job in 2010 and was struggling to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the United States: Washington, D.C.

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5. Eye twitch.

It’s annoying and common. I still remember the first time I saw someone with a stress-induced eye twitch. He was a student at my college and we were chatting, and his eye kept jumping and spasming so bad that I asked him what was up with it. He told me to mind my business. I never asked anyone about a jumpy eye again. Then, one horrible day, I developed my own eye twitch that lasted weeks. Lucky me.

6. Migraines and gas.

I used to get migraines in college all the time from spending the longest hours working at my school newspaper. Usually they came because I’d forget to eat. They were often accompanied by my stomach filling with air and being uncomfortably gassy ... but the gas wouldn’t come out. It would just sit there in my stomach, churning away.

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7. A stomachache.

When I was child, this was the No. 1 way that all my stress manifested: stomach pains. Someone teasing me on the playground? Stomachache. Nervous about a doctor’s appointment? Stomachache. Get my name written up on the chalkboard for talking during class? Stomachache.

I dealt with a lot of bullying as a child and had a lot of stomachaches. I was forever in the nurse’s office because I didn’t understand that the stomach pains correlated with stress and anxiety. Also, children can be cruel, horrible little assholes. Sometimes the stomach pains were so bad from bullying that my mom would let me stay home from school.

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Fortunately, my brain has suppressed, blocked out and forgotten about most of the incidents that triggered these stomachaches. Which is probably for the best. I know I wish I could just forget the time I got punched in the face in first grade by one of my classmates, or the time in eighth grade when I was actually bullied by my (probably racist, definitely sexist) social studies teacher.

8. A low-level fever that lasted three months.

This was the second stress-induced illness related to my long-dead marriage. It’s exactly what it was. He said that he wanted a divorce after we’d been together six months and gone about $10,000 in debt on my paltry $28,000-a-year salary in West Texas as a newspaper reporter. As soon as he said he wanted out, the fever came on and just never left because he never left, sticking around for another three months before he “surprised me” by moving out unexpectedly two days after my 24th birthday.

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9. Almost fainting. 

This is a recent one. Just the other day, I was waiting for a car service to pick me up and take me to work, and it suddenly felt like I was too high up. All I was doing was standing on a curb. I got dizzy and nearly blacked out. It happened again a few days ago at an event where I was convinced that I was near death or something, because the urge to black out was that strong.

I’ve only truly fainted twice in my life: once after walking almost 2 miles in the sweltering Southern Illinois heat without anything to drink when I was in college, and once during choir in elementary school. Don’t remember what caused that one.

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10. Vertigo. 

Much like a cat, I can climb up shit, but I can’t climb down. I can go up stairs, up escalators, but the trip down is always a nightmare-inducing doozy where I feel that, at any moment, I could pass out or fall. This started back in the mid-2000s when I was living in Bakersfield, Calif. It made no sense then—to go from having no problem with escalators to “escalator = death”—but it’s been my reality for almost 14 years now.

11. Feeling as if a grain of sand is in my eye.

Hoo boy. So, as I mentioned earlier, I used to be married, right? Like, a billion years ago. And this was my very first stress-induced illness that I recognized as an illness caused by stress, and, unfortunately, not my last. Basically, my husband went to New York City while we were living in Texas, “lost his phone” and didn’t call me to tell me he was alive for almost two weeks. Just when I was about to file a missing person report, he re-emerged and gaslighted me into thinking that this was all no big deal and clearly I was the crazy one. Yes, it was my fault. Of course!

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In the midst of all this, I started feeling as if a grain of sand was stuck in my left eye. I went to an eye doctor, who examined my eye and insisted that nothing was in there but my eyeball. Confused, I went home, got on the ole computer and found out all about stress-related illnesses.

12. Neck and facial twitching with hand clenching and an embarrassing sneezing sound. 

This was the stress-related malady that led to my series of hospitalizations from 2004 until 2009. Nothing like trying to do your job, live your life and pretend to be normal when suddenly stress turns you into a literal hot mess of jerky hand movements and twitches. The longest time I went into compulsively twitchy meltdown mode? In 2005, when I had an anxiety-induced twitch attack that lasted more than 12 hours and sent me to the ER, where they doped me up with so many sedatives that eventually I went from twitchy and scared to nontwitchy and angry.

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13. A bad case of the “look-ups.”

If my brain were a computer, this is the part where you get the blue screen of death. Basically my entire brain stops working and all I can do is stare up at things—the sky, the ceiling, at buildings, at the tops of people’s heads. It’s by far the most annoying and dumbest stress-related, psychosomatic malady I have. I can’t do ANYTHING once this happens. I can’t hold a normal conversation. I definitely can’t walk around anywhere, for fear I’ll get hit by a car.

The worst time the “look-ups” happened was during The Root 100 gala last year, when I forgot to eat during the day, and by that evening my brain was in full-on meltdown mode. Somehow (I still don’t know how I did this) I managed to pull it together at the last minute to read a teleprompter and give a little speech, but that was a miracle. Usually when this happens, all I can do is go home and sit my ass down and wait until it passes.

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The only good thing about this is that most of my stress-induced illnesses don’t happen anymore. I haven’t had any twitches in years. The gassy stomach I used to get back in college is long gone. Only had the grain of sand in the eye and burning-mouth syndrome once. So I can’t wait until my body gets over the damn “look-ups” and gives me a new malady to contend with that will—hopefully—be easier to hide and easier to manage and not make me worry so much that I’ll get hit by a bus.

Come on, rapid weight loss (but not too rapid). Let’s make that a thing this year.