(This is the third post in a new series called “Anxiety Society,” in which I interview everyday anxiety suffers from all walks of life about their struggles, their triumphs, their coping methods, and more. I believe that the more we openly talk about our mental health, the less of a “thing” it becomes. Conversation can reduce stigma, and my interviewees want to be a part of that.)
Meet Angie Jackson. She’s a mother of a 6-year-old and a sufferer of both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After growing up medically neglected in a fundamentalist Christian cult, she stepped aside from religion and now proclaims herself as an atheist/anti-theist. Currently agoraphobic, she has a difficult time leaving her house unaccompanied.
If Angie’s name sounds familiar to you, there’s good reason. In early 2010, Angie made the news when she live-tweeted her abortion after an IUD implant failed to protect her from pregnancy. Unlike most women who elect to abort, Angie found herself in the national spotlight because of her decision to go public.
Summer: It’s sort of hard to decide where to begin, so I’ll start with a question about something we very clearly have in common: an anxiety problem. Are you diagnosed with an anxiety disorder? How does anxiety manifest itself for you?
Angie: I was diagnosed with GAD in 2008, but I think I’ve had anxiety for much longer than that. I was also diagnosed with PTSD in 2008, which gradually became enough of a problem the two sort of combined into the social anxiety/agoraphobia I have now. I get panic attacks when I feel anxious. My palms get tingly, my heart races, and I start sweating. I have a hard time thinking clearly or articulating myself, which in turn makes me feel more panic-stricken. I try to avoid getting to that point for the most part.
You were part of a fundamentalist Christian cult when you growing up. Is that where the anxiety began, or did it wait until you became an adult to make an appearance?
I do think my childhood produced a lot of anxiety and was certainly filled with traumas. Parts of that were directly influenced by my parents’ religious beliefs, like the medical neglect I endured. Other parts weren’t directly due to their beliefs. For example, my grandmother struck and killed a pedestrian while driving with me in the car when I was young. This left me with great anxiety around driving. I do not drive now and haven’t for a few years, although I have in the past.
Was the medical neglect a result of the cult? Does this affect the way you see your body now, as an adult, when you panic? Are you afraid that you might be neglecting some sort of important symptom?
Yes, the medical neglect was due to the faith healing beliefs of the cult/sect. They believed going to doctors was a sign of disrespect to god, and displayed a lack of faith. If you weren’t getting healed, then you had some un-confessed sin you needed to deal with was the presumption. I tend to still under-report pain and wait a long time to seek treatment. Not being able to afford health care is certainly a factor in that, but I have a lot of medical anxiety. More fear of the doctors than my own body. I spent three years walking with a dislocated right hip (from age 14 to 17), due to the then-undiagnosed tendinitis I have. I also have arthritis and endometriosis. For years I internalized guilt about my physical pain, because of the religious beliefs I was brought up under.
Within the past few years, you’ve become a significant online presence. You’re very open about your anti-theism. What drove you to step away from religion?
My own religious experiences were extremely harmful to me. I accept not everyone feels that way, but I see the potential for great harm in religion. Many of the children who grew up under the same teachings I did were illiterate as teenagers, thanks to religiously-motivated inadequate homeschooling. Other children died due to medical neglect. A boy I babysat, Harrison Johnson, died after being stung by over 200 yellow jackets and his parents not taking him to the hospital. I do support the right of adults to believe and practice their faith, but I don’t support the right of parents to force their children into unsafe lifestyles in the name of religious freedom. Those children were afforded no freedom in their religion.
There are a lot of people out there who claim that belief in some higher power is necessary for relief from anxious suffering. What do you think? Do you think peace and calm can be found without the supernatural?
Whether a god exists or not, I think most people can agree that religions are man-made, and thus subject to being very very wrong. Yet they are treated as if they were created by gods and are all holy and always right. My belief in a god produced far more anxiety than it alleviated. I was a big fan of the Old Testament from early childhood on. I remember reading the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and liking the maudlin tone of it. I believed in a god who could and would kick my ass for the slightest infraction. And I believed the chronic pain I suffered was a punishment for my inherently flawed human nature. I hated myself when I believed in a god.
And now? How has your self-confidence changed in your non-believing adult life?
I can forgive myself for a lot I used to hate myself for. I no longer feel guilt over physical pain, though now I feel a lot of resentment towards my parents instead. I can also give myself credit for past achievements. Things I used to thank god for working through me, I now believe I did.
Do you still have a relationship with your parents?
I was raised by my mother and grandmother. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and we do not speak. I have a strained relationship with my mother, but we are both trying.
Speaking of achievements, in one of your videos, you mention that you were a C-level executive by the age of 24 and fired when the economy started going downhill. That’s an incredible accomplishment for someone who has barely reached their mid-twenties. Do you consider yourself to be an overachiever?
I was certainly a perfectionist, something I’m glad to be letting go of. I should have mentioned that I was abusing caffeine and energy drinks at a ridiculous rate, and had a nanny caring for my son as I was barely ever home back then. Overachievement comes at a great personal cost.
Perfectionism is a sticky trait. How are you letting that go?
For starters, I’m learning new skills which has always been very hard for me. I’m used to doing things I’m already very competent at, and learning curves are very humbling for me. This year I’m learning how to cook. I’ve gone from burning the mac & cheese to preparing a baked Parmesan chicken recipe that I get repeated requests from my family for.
What advice would you give to other anxious perfectionists?
Start small. Pick one area of your life to let go. And have supportive people around you. I don’t think I’d be able to let myself just be human if I didn’t have such a supportive partner. He loves me even when I’m human and not perfect. That’s not something I never felt confident of in my family of origin.
Later this week in Part 2, Angie and I discuss her abortion, her online presence, and her advice for other anxiety sufferers.
Angie blogs at angieantitheist.wordpress.com.