REFRESH
11/11/2019 8:57 AM AEDT

Anxiety As Obstacle And Muse: How I Took A Challenge And Turned It Into A Strength

I lived with a time bomb of a secret and I rarely told anyone what was happening to me, afraid they would think I was strange.

Courtesy of Ethan Ballinger
"Already prone to anxiety over small, everyday things, I faced insane existential questions before I had even hit puberty."

“We’re not doing that anymore, it all goes to the same place,” my dad told me one late afternoon at Cracker Barrel. Time to put an end to the madness. I would not be ordering extra forks for each vegetable on my plate.

Six years old, wide-eyed, and with my feet far too short to touch the ground, I waffled between wanting to be obedient and stressing about my macaroni and cheese touching the green bean juice on my plate. 

Would it make me sick? Surely these textures weren’t meant to be mixed; if they were, they’d mix them in the kitchen! 

No, it was definitely going to make me sick. What if I got so ill that I got dehydrated and had to go to the doctor? 

Dad said it was fine, it all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway. 

My heart was pulsing, my brain spiraling. I grabbed my lone fork, took a bite of the green beans. Seemed OK. Next, the macaroni. Still living. But what about the fried okra? I succumbed to the pressure and took a bite. Then another. I felt OK.

Fast forward to later that day. We’re at the self-serve car wash. The overbearing Tennessee heat is pressing in on all sides. I’m standing outside of the truck while my Dad thoroughly inspects every crevice. 

“Dad, I’m hot.” 

“I know, baby, I’m almost done.” 

But I’m really hot. I breathe faster. The sun glares down, searing white. My ears start to ring. I panic. My ears ring louder; my vision starts to blur. I blackout.

“Dad, I can’t see!” 

Courtesy of Aubrie Sellers
Aubrie Sellers at preschool in Nashville

He picks me up, lays me down in the car with the air conditioning blasting, overworking trying to keep up with the unbearable temperature. I breathe. I make myself feel the fabric of the seat pressing against my back. My sweat-beaded forehead cools, slowly my vision returns. Better. However, I have a sinking feeling whatever just happened to me might happen again. 

Perhaps it was a combination of dehydration and heat. But looking back, I recognize another element: a predisposition to intense worry.

I didn’t know then, but this feeling would follow me throughout my life. Cutlery. Separation anxiety. Extreme temperature. The stories live on as cute anecdotes.

But then they weren’t funny. Later, it would be panic attacks, agoraphobia, stage fright. These challenges made me question not only my capabilities in an already demanding entertainment industry, but my ability to cope with everyday life. As someone who has real difficulties turning off my negative thought patterns, triggers were everywhere.

I grew up on the road, surrounded by a world far more erratic than most children. Splitting my time between school in the front lounge of a tour bus ― my lessons stored in a tackle box — and hanging with the grown-ups, it was atypical. An only child until I was 8, I was blessed with a vivid imagination ― a wonderful tool that became a double-edged sword. I could imagine entire worlds, channel my observations into characters in acting class, songs to sing to myself. But, just as quickly, a good situation could turn ghastly.

A dreamy affair, my childhood was filled with opportunity and laughter. Looking back, I can’t help but notice a trail of moments that turned a predisposition to worry into a constant state of alarm. 

There were the strange realities. Some of my friends only wanted to come over if my newly famous mother was around; adults treated me differently when she was in the other room. I began to question people’s motives in a way most 8-year-olds never had to, growing a sense of distrust for everyone around me. 

My guard was getting stuck, always on. Already prone to anxiety over small, everyday things, I faced insane existential questions before I had even hit puberty. How could I ever trust anyone’s intentions? How will I know if someone genuinely cares about me? Is it even possible? It seemed like everyone wanted something from me, from mom, from that other world.  

These challenges made me question not only my capabilities in an already demanding entertainment industry, but my ability to cope with everyday life. As someone who has real difficulties turning off my negative thought patterns, triggers were everywhere.

Over time, the experiences added up. Around age 17, on the brink of adulthood and complete independence, I started to experience panic attacks. Intermittent at first, they were explained away by circumstance. But when I almost passed out in an airport before a big trip, going backpacking like so many high school graduates before me, a doctor finally gave me a name for what I’d been going through: anxiety disorder.

Sadly, knowing what it was didn’t give me the confidence to go. My anxiety got a lot worse before it got better. And then I was introduced to a new term: panic disorder. The panic attacks became so frequent, I became afraid to go anywhere. At my worst moments, I was too scared to even leave my room. 

I lived with a time bomb of a secret. I rarely told anyone what was happening to me, afraid they would think I was strange. In the rare moments I could get vulnerable, it only felt more isolating because people couldn’t grasp the depth of what I was suffering. 

Handling my challenges the bookworm way, I read everything I could get my hands on. I scoured the internet for scraps from anyone living with this unwanted visitor. It made me feel a little less alone, and I gathered some coping strategies. But it would take years of growth and therapy before the panic attacks were under control.

I went to college briefly before leaving to write songs in an attempt to embrace self-reliance. Writing with strangers in small rooms regularly, I fought to focus, dizzy from a constant inner dialogue of feeling trapped and embarrassing myself should my panic problem rear its grisly head.

I learned the concept of “exposure,” a term psychologists use to describe methodically facing your fears. I pushed myself consistently, experiencing distressing situations, hoping I would become desensitized to them as time went on. 

With so much constant change going on around me, the pressure made it hard to keep my head above water. Every time I turned a corner, a new challenge with higher stakes appeared. We’re talking problems that would be difficult for most young adults, but especially so if you’re struggling with an elephant of anxiety waiting to trample your willpower.

First, I was constantly trapped in rooms with strangers; then, I’m singing those songs in front of strangers onstage. First at local dive bars, then opening slots on tour with some of the most accomplished artists of our time. I was always gripped by stage fright and panic. Every show felt like an impossible challenge. What should have been thrilling was smothered by darkness and worry. I found myself restless and questioning my capacity to handle a passion that required the spotlight regularly. 

I had the opportunity of a lifetime to sing songs I had written to attentive crowds. I was opening for artists I admired immensely, but it was all I could do to get myself onto the stage and stay there. How could I be in the moment and enjoy it?

Early in my life onstage, I sang through gritted teeth as I counted the songs down one by one — one more down, now only seven to go. If you can make it through to the end, you don’t have to worry about it again until tomorrow night, I’d tell myself.

Often I was blessed. I had the opportunity of a lifetime to sing songs I had written to attentive crowds. I was opening for artists I admired immensely, but it was all I could do to get myself onto the stage and stay there. How could I be in the moment and enjoy it?

I would love to say after a few months, things went smoothly. It actually took years of biting the bullet and staying with it to see even a glimmer of hope and improvement.

We all have different trajectories and circumstances. Mine were turbulent, and I was often disappointed. Traditional doctors gave me prescriptions to ease the symptoms. Instead, I had side effects and even more self-recrimination. I tried multiple therapists before I found one who was able to offer me the brand of help I needed. It was a long journey of retraining my brain to favor self-compassion instead of the default critique and catastrophe. 

Here’s the good news: with the help of therapy, learning, and time, I got over it. 

I don’t know who or where you are. You may look fine to the people who see you, putting on a brave face when you can muster one. But I get it. Know this, a year can feel like a decade, a decade like a lifetime when you’re grappling with anxiety. The work takes time. You need to find out what works for you. We’re all different, but we can all get better. No one should be scared to ask for help. We need to remove the shame.

It’s been a long road so far, but now I enjoy the opportunities I get to play for strangers around the world. After a lot of patience, those strangers are starting to look a little more like friends. 

Aubrie Sellers blazed her own trail in the music industry with the release of her genre-defying debut album “New City Blues” in 2016, and she is set to release her highly-anticipated follow-up album “Far From Home” on Feb. 7, 2020. Aubrie has offered a glimpse into the new album, co-produced by Aubrie alongside Frank Liddell, with new tracks “Worried Mind,” “My Love Will Not Change ft. Steve Earle,” and “Drag You Down.”

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