It’s a slow burn. For me, at least. It starts as a tiny seed in the very bottom of my intestines. The seed grows, little by little, until it reaches my stomach. It feels like a balloon expanding inside of me, until it has inflated my entire torso into a massive hollow cage that feels as heavy as lead.
From the second I feel the seed, I start to prepare. I know what my next 12 hours are going to feel like. I know what my next three days will feel like.
I alert my husband. I look at what is expected of me over the next day, and act accordingly. I cancel. I go home if I’m not there already. I put on pyjamas. I make sure I have one of my dogs nearby to snuggle with. I close my eyes. I wait.
This is an anxiety attack. This is debilitating. This is mortifying. This is my reality.
It’s not my first anxiety attack, nor will it be my last. But it is the first one I’ve had where going to work is not an option.
I play Princess Anna in the Broadway musical Frozen. Eight shows a week, I step into someone else’s low-heeled shoes and take her journeys, both emotional and physical. I love my job. I love walking into the stage door, and I love saying hello to everyone as I make my way to the dressing room. I love the people I work with and the company I work for. But on this day, instead of being “frozen” onstage in a pivotal scene, I was frozen to my couch, vacillating between hyperventilating and throwing up. Going to the theatre was out of the question.
I texted my stage manager. She immediately texted back and said, “Okay hon. Are you by yourself? Is your husband home? Can we do anything for you?”
My husband sat quietly next to me and let me feel. He let me heave and sob. Never have I howled and keened like I did that day, unless you count the anxiety attack I had about nine months ago. Or the one before that. Or any of the other ones before that.
I watched the clock tick. I stared vacantly at the TV, the familiar drone of the House Hunters voiceover providing a marginally calming presence. Eventually, we turned on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and whichever Marvel movie came after it, and watched in silence. It provided enough of a distraction to get myself through the next several hours.
As for eating, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes I can choke down a few french fries or a piece of toast, but the mechanism in my throat in charge of swallowing is paralysed, and my stomach is too full of nervous electricity to allow any food in. This specific side effect lasts for a few days, so I lose a little weight. I would rather have the extra pounds.
All I can do is sit on my couch and feel absolutely nothing. Because to feel anything would mean that my soul was victorious, and I am not convinced that I have a soul at this moment.
I took a Klonipin as soon as I knew that I wouldn’t be doing the show. I learned a few years ago that there are certain drugs that I can’t function on. I can’t do my job when I take the “anxiety attack” drugs offered by modern medicine. They dull everything about me, although I enjoy the excellent night’s sleep that comes with them. Tonight, I’m forced to just zone out and wake up the next morning.
It’s 10 a.m., and I’m outside walking my dogs. Of course it’s a brilliantly sunny day, one where everyone I see on the street seems to be revelling in the arrival of spring, their faces sporting toothy grins, glowing with the promise of what wonderful things might occur in the next eight hours. I tentatively smile at the other dog owners at the dog park, the smallest amount of hope rising and pushing against that seed of despair.
I’m not cured. I’m slightly better, and definitely calmer, but the uneasiness is still present and impossible to ignore. I contemplate taking another show off, but thinking about sitting home on my couch again, picturing my cast and crew doing the show without me for a second time somehow makes me even more anxious. So I shower, pull on my sneakers, and decide to go to work.
But before I do, I sit down across from my husband and compose an Instagram post. I tell anyone in the world who wants to know exactly why I did not play Princess Anna last night. Right before I hit “Post,” I have a small moment of fear, but experience has taught me that if I fear it, it’s the right thing to do.
So last night I called out of the show because I had a massive anxiety attack in the afternoon. It had been building up for a while, and while the past month has been incredible, all of the ups and downs and stress and excitement really takes a toll on my mental health. I’ve learned that these situations aren’t something to “deal with” or “push through.” Anxiety and depression are real diseases that affect so many of us. It requires a lot of rest and self care to heal every time it becomes more than I can handle in my daily life. While I hate missing the show for any reason at all, Disney has been nothing but supportive of me as I navigate my life and work, and I’m so grateful to them. Just remember that you’re not alone, your feelings are real, and this is not your fault. Even Disney princesses are terrified sometimes.
There are so many of us out there who suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or any combination of these and other mental illnesses. And the vast majority of the time, it’s a silent suffering that we endure. I want you to know that you are not alone – just as so many of you, literally thousands of you, have shown me that I’m not alone. Even though these are isolating diseases, all of us collectively form a “we” that is much larger than any of us can imagine. And for all of us who suffer, silently or publicly, knowing that there are millions of us out there is the first step in healing.
We are not alone, but we feel alone in every step we take. Even if you feel as though your self worth is at the bottom of a dark, forsaken well, take solace in the fact that I’m literally a Disney princess with an incredible husband, a supportive and loving family, and the best friends in the world, and I still feel broken.
But I’m not broken, and neither are you. If anything, we are the strongest, most powerful and beautiful superheroes in the world. We can’t take anything for granted, because every single second that we continue to breathe in and out feels like an accomplishment. And when the moment comes where we get to break through the invisible veil of darkness and feel things again, we exhale in relief that we’ve survived.
The day after my Instagram post, when I returned to the theatre, about 10 people, from crew members to castmates to ushers, found me to tell me that they also suffer from some form of depression and/or anxiety. Members of my immediate family reached out to connect. All of them said, in different ways, that they were grateful to find a partner in me — but I am even more grateful to them for being brave enough to come out of their own silent caves to help a fellow club member. This is how we will all survive: together.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Anxiety UK's hotline at 0844 775 774.