Interview with Maria Abbe on Anxiety
This interview is the fourth in our five-part Hope in Darkness: Journeying Through Mental Illness series for the months of July & August. Learn more about the series here.
Maria is the mind behind RunningMyselfTogether, a blog that empowers and teaches mental, physical and emotional health through the practice of running. She’s an RRCA Certified running coach and leads a run club in Charlotte NC, called ARC Running. Running is a big part of her life and has taught her how to take care of herself––mind, body and soul. You can contact Maria at email@example.com questions, speaking and guest blogging opportunities, as well as running coach inquiries.
Tell us a little about your story with anxiety. When did you start noticing symptoms? How did it affect your daily life?
I honestly believe I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was a little girl. I didn’t understand it at the time, but throughout the work I’ve done in therapy, I’ve realized I had a lot of irrational fears. When something would go wrong, like my brother getting the stomach bug for example, I’d get sick and overwhelmed with worry and would have to miss school. I continued to live this way throughout my childhood, though it didn’t hinder me from having friends, performing well in school, and participating in sports and extracurricular activities.
I started noticing eating disorder symptoms in high school, but I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. My thought was, “I’m just trying to better myself.” But that misconstrued thought led to losing friendships, depression, anorexia, bulimia, and panic/worry/stress. I was hyper-focused on what I could control with food and with losing weight. It took over my mind and it lived there for many, many years.
I have been in therapy off and on since high school. It’s helped tremendously in working through my eating disorder and my anxiety. And I’ve worked hard to get to a place where my anxiety is much more manageable and my eating disorder is non-existent. I’ve had to completely reshape my life in order to get to this place - I am always cognizant of the thoughts running through my mind and have to ground myself in reality every day to make sure I don’t let my thoughts ramble. I have to minimize stress and take time for myself, so that the anxiety doesn’t creep in. I also have to take good care of my body by minimizing alcohol, caffeine, getting a Iot of sleep and working out regularly. And my faith has to be my number one priority. Living with anxiety has taught me how to take care of myself - mind, body, and soul. It’s not always easy, but I’ve seen the graces that’ve been poured into my life because of this cross.
When did you know it was time to ask for help? What did that look like?
I think I was forced to seek help at first. One day during high school, a couple friends of mine sat me down and asked if I was anorexic. I said, “No, I think I’m fine,” but as I read my journal entries from that time, I can see how broken I was. I was obsessed with losing weight, aiming for perfection, perplexed over boys, and craving deep friendships. I can see how I thought my control over food would help me control the other areas in my life––including my faith. It wasn’t until I went to the doctor because I stopped getting my period that everything was brought to light. My hair was falling out, because I was deficient in protein, and I was underweight. It was time for me to accept where I was and where I needed to be and to start therapy.
Once I was in therapy, I was able to start talking through all of the messes in my mind. It has been a long journey for me, but as I’ve grown into loving and accepting who Christ has made me to be, I’ve been able to slowly let go of the eating disorder. I’ve come a long way, and I’m so grateful for all that’s brought me to where I am now. I still need to focus on managing my anxiety, which can get out of control if I don’t keep myself grounded, but I don’t struggle with an eating disorder and all of the baggage that comes along with it.
Who or what has been most helpful throughout your journey?
My mom is a saint. Honestly and truly. She does not struggle with mental health issues, but she has walked this journey, learning everything she can so that she can be the rock I’ve needed. She’s attended doctor appointment after doctor appointment. She’s spent hours talking with therapists and other professionals. And she has been there 100% of the time each time I’ve called her in a panic. I am blessed to have such a strong woman by my side.
My faith has also helped carry me through this. I’ve seen how my faith has ebbed and flowed throughout this journey, but now I’m more on fire for Christ than I ever was before, because I truly believe I am loved by Him even though I struggle with these things. There is freedom in surrender and I am learning that each and every day.
Finally, running. I don’t know where I’d be without it and it’s why I started RunningMyselfTogether. When I started running it finally felt like my mind and body were on the same wavelength - my body had finally caught up to my racing mind. I find peace in pushing myself to achieve my running goals, and I usually finish a run feeling more calm than when I started. It’s been an amazing outlet.
How has your faith been tested through your experience?
Anxiety can do all sorts of crazy things to your mind, especially when it comes to your faith life. I’ve always had my faith, but when my anxiety was very bad right after college, it became less of a priority. I turned to a lifestyle that would numb the anxiety instead of facing the demons. Thankfully, the fire for my faith has been reignited, and I realize that the lifestyle I was living years ago only perpetuated my problems.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is what it truly means to be a daughter of God––that no matter what this world says or what it promises, I am centered on Christ. He is my rock, and in Him I am restored and renewed. Yes, I have to remind myself every day because the world is loud and wants to take over, and anxiety wants us to believe that WE have to control everything. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that God has it. Really, think about it. He is the God of the Universe. Your problem? It has already been worked out for His good. Rest in that. Rest in Him.
What's something you want Catholics to know about mental health?
You might hear that you need to pray more, receive the sacraments more, read the Bible more, etc., and I don’t disagree with any of those things. I believe you absolutely should make your faith the center of your life. But I want to be clear: you still need to seek help. When it comes to mental health, staying stuck in your mind can just exacerbate the problems and make you feel isolated and alone.
What advice would you give to women who think they might be struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illness?
You are not alone. I know some days it feels like no one understands and you’re climbing this mountain alone, but let me promise you, you are not the only one struggling with this. I encourage you to open up about your struggles to a loved one and start seeking help. Bringing this pain and trauma to light helps make it less scary. And in taking care of yourself, you can better take care of others.