San Fran, California → Founder, Product Manager → Anxiety (GAD) → Meditation, Medication, & Communication.
R: Who are you?
M: I’m an over-thinker who can slice the question ‘who are you?’ 12 different ways.
R: Where do you live?
M: San Francisco, California.
R: What do you do?
M: I work in tech. Most recently as a product manager, though I started my career as a video producer. I had a crazy 2015. I worked at 3 startups over the course of the year (I started each job thinking it was permanent). I’ve written about it.
R: You stated your anxiety hit at 39, I imagine life before that was a bit confused and/or frustrating. What made you see a doctor?
M: I went to see a neurologist for a migraine appointment. As I went through the crazed litany of research, tracking, and testing I’d done to trace the source of my symptoms, she said, simply:
I know what is wrong with you.
I was stunned into silence.
What is it?
You have Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
I had never imagined there could be a root cause beyond the headaches themselves.
R: Were there symptoms earlier?
M: I first had migraines and nausea as a little kid.
“anxiety is a massive wasteland of discarded decisions and unspoken thoughts.”
R: Has it got worse over time? or better?
M: It would go through periods of being better and worse. I never put together that migraines and nausea were connected with my periodic sleeplessness and muscle tension. And that THAT whole bundle of chaos coincided with stress triggers like work struggles, difficulty at home (there was a period with a troubling downstairs neighbour…) or feeling out-of-step with society in small ways.
R: How would you describe being anxious?
M: Anxiety hits with many small blows. It’s the pervasive sense of confusion that life is filled with too many options.
When I experience anxiety, I have the feeling that I’ll never be able to narrow options down and make the right choice. If I try to articulate my thinking and I’m not understood for whatever reason, I feel alienated, causing more anxiety. It can be lonely. Many of us with anxiety are stuck in our head. In this, anxiety is a massive wasteland of discarded decisions and unspoken thoughts.
R: Were you an anxious child?
M: In retrospect, I was. I didn’t realize it at the time. I remember being worried that my family would run out of money (even though it wasn’t an obvious concern growing up). I’d think, I just need to get through this period of school, and then I’ll be OK. I’ll have enough education that whatever happens, I should be OK. Education felt like a life raft because it couldn’t be taken away.
R: How does Anxiety affect your normal day?
M: I’ve described anxiety as a sine wave in the past, with the equation that creates the wave being the events of life. I’d say that anxiety is a part of every day, but it comes and goes. I don’t know why, but it tends to flare in the morning. When others are bleary-eyed and trying to make coffee, I’m looking at the disorganised spice cupboard skeptically.
R: Have you found any positive aspects of Anxiety?
M: In the past 6 months, I’ve learned about the power of hyper-sensitivity, which is one way I think of anxiety. Understanding what’s going on in my body and brain has brought me closer to a lot of people in my life. It’s made me more compassionate about the struggles of others. If you can unlock this hyper-sensitivity, and not let it hurt you as much, I believe it can be a powerful, insightful tool for understanding.
“anxiety nudges me into a deeper awareness of myself and the world around me”
R: If you had the option to lose your anxiety would you?
M: It’s a hard question. The fact that I’m on medication says that I’ve needed help managing my anxiety. But I also appreciate that anxiety nudges me into a deeper awareness of myself and the world around me. My journey is still pretty new. Ask me again in 5 years?
R: Does Anxiety keep you awake at night?
M: Yes. Right now it’s 4 AM. I have lots of exercises for falling back to sleep. I use my husband’s breath as a kind of sound machine. But sometimes the ideas floating around my head get the better of me.
R: Do friends or colleagues notice you’re anxious?
M: In Silicon Valley, many people are anxious. It seems like a badge of honor to be overworked and Type A. But in the middle of my crazy 2015, I was fired from a startup and the reason was: You seem unhappy. (This was just before I learned that I had GAD). So there’s that.
R: Do you think your life would be different without anxiety?
M: My life would be different. I’ve greatly enjoyed the periods where the sine wave, and my anxiety, was at its lowest. They’ve been so great. I met my husband during one of those periods. At the same time, I’ve taken actions to change my life for the better as a result of the periods where the anxiety wave was high. Is there a correlation? I’m thankful for both.
R: What was your inspiration for launching it?
M: The Beautiful Voyager really started when I wrote my first public piece about anxiety on Medium. I wrote the piece out of frustration. Googling “generalized anxiety disorder” was an exercise in futility. Nothing I was finding on the web spoke to me. I saw page after page of sad and depressed-looking people clutching their heads in shadowy corners. I wasn’t hearing my story being told. I knew that others like me needed something else and I could do better.
R: What is your primary aim?
M: My goal is to help over-thinkers with physical symptoms tune in to what they’re feeling (and improve their symptoms). I’m hoping to do this collaboratively. I need the information as much as everyone else! The Beautiful Voyager is a blog, photo gallery, and most importantly, discussion forum. I want to get people sharing tactics and ideas.
R: Have you received any great feedback / response?
M: As with anything new, it takes time. The site’s been evolving as I figure out the right approach and tone. But lately I feel like it’s starting to hit its stride. People seem to be finding it helpful. The other day I got my own first piece of helpful personal insight from the discussion forum (it was a reminder that exhaustion is an anxiety trigger on a day that I was exhausted and feeling anxious and couldn’t figure out why). That’s when I knew it was starting to work. Also, the Beautiful Voyager Facebook group is starting to feel engaged, which makes me really happy too.
R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional?
M: First by my neurologist, then through UCSF. The diagnosis process was deep but felt a little inexact (ultimately, it came down to, “So does this diagnosis seem right to you, Meredith?”)
R: Did they prescribe medication?
M: Yes, escitalopram.
R: Do you / Did you take medication?
M:Yes, and I’m thankful for it for now.
R: How do you best manage it? (medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else)
M: I meditate every day for 20 minutes. I do cognitive behavioral therapy thought records. I communicate with other people. Yoga and walking are great too. I try to do everything I describe on this page. Some days are better than others.
R: Did any treatments work?
M: Meditation, medication, and communication work best for me right now.
R: Do you feel as if you’re in control now?
M: I feel as though I’m starting to understand my own brain and self. I’m thankful for it.
R: Have you seen a therapist?
M: Yes. I saw therapists for years who never caught that I have anxiety. There were a lot of questions about where in my body I felt my feelings, but no one ever described to me how to get out of my head to do that. My diagnosis has been a key part to me understanding how to connect my mind to my body.
R: Anxiety & alcohol often go hand in hand, do you drink? And if so, in moderation? If not, how do you keep it under control?
M: I drink a glass of white wine a couple of times a week. I don’t often want more than that. It’s just not appealing anymore. I’m not sure why or how to explain it.
R: Where does your Anxiety come from? Did any health professionals explain where your Anxiety originated?
M: It’s a good question, and one that we all want to know. I’m intrigued by the idea of inherited trauma, where you carry family trauma in your DNA. It’s trendy subject these days and was artfully covered in Season 2 of the Amazon show Transparent.
R: Do family members have Anxiety?
M: No one’s come forward to say “me too” yet.
R: Anxiety can result from a difficult childhood. Did you experience trauma as a child?
M: I really didn’t. There are people I’m close to who had much harder experiences in childhood and are riding a nearly nonexistent anxiety wave these days. It’s confusing.
R: Do you tell friends, family and colleagues that you have anxiety?
M: I think creating a site and doing interviews like this has made me as open as a person can be. I’m working to be graceful in how I introduce the topic. I say on Beautiful Voyager that since anxiety is stigmatised there is a closeted aspect to it, and I’m really not into closeted behaviour. It’s true. But it’s been a journey to figure out how to introduce it in a way that doesn’t freak people out.
R: Do you know others with anxiety?
M: Yes. Turns out many of my favorite people have it. (Not that I ever realized it before.)
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
M: Friends are starting to send me great articles, which I love. Now that they know that this is one of my “beats,” the good stuff is flowing in. Twitter is great for connecting with others.
R: Have you read any great books about anxiety?
M: Here’s a blog post that includes my reading list about GAD. I put it up on List App, a great little app for sharing lists and ideas with people.
R: Or seen any movies?
M: My favourite movie about anxiety of all time, hands-down, is Modern Romance by Albert Brooks. I never understood why I loved that movie so much. I would show it, guffawing, to guys I was dating and they’d say, “huh?” After diagnosis, the light bulb blinked on. Anxiety can make us self-absorbed monsters. Hilariously so. I laugh when I can.
R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?
M: I love that you’re doing this. There is one provider I’ve liked for CBT: Kelsey Schraufnagel at Gateway Psychiatric.
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
M: I’m excited to work on new projects that help people feel better. I’m excited to see what 2016 brings, work-wise. I’d love to travel a little. And I’m excited to see my daughter finish kindergarten
Me in Sweden in 2015.
R: What next for your anxiety (GAD)?
M: Going to see where the Beautiful Voyager takes me.
R: Anything else you’d like to add?
M: I want anyone with anxiety who is reading this to know that they’re not alone. I collected responses to my original Medium piece, but to do it, I had to go to Slack groups, Facebook groups, and other hidden corners of the interwebs. It’s not easy to find like-minded (haha, get it?) people who are ready to speak up about anxiety, but we are out there. The hardest work is in learning to trust yourself. I know it’s easier said than done, but from this one lone voice in the crowd, I’m saying, you, you there. Trust yourself.
R: Thanks for the insight Meredith!
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Meredith Arthur
Cover Photo by Molly Greenwald
Other images supplied by Meredith Arthur