Order, disorder, reorder: Haley Littleton’s journey through anxiety and identity
Building Hope Summit County
Anxiety has nipped at the heels of Haley Littleton her whole life.
She describes it “as a low hum” in the back of her head: “You’re not doing enough. You’re not good enough. You need to be better. You need to work harder.”
Haley, who was raised as an evangelical Christian, said her religion informed her ideas of success.
“Growing up in an evangelical culture, I thought religion was the pursuit of perfection,” she said. “I internalized that. My personality was shaped by earning validation and being the best student, the best Christian, the best captain of the basketball team and always trying to fit more and more in.”
But success only intensified the pressure she’d put on herself.
Enduring an anxious childhood
Haley grew up along the Bible Belt in Greenville, South Carolina, with church every Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.
“I grew up in a very ordered, black-and-white idea of conservative Christianity,” she said. “Very much a ‘Do this. Don’t do that’ behavior system. When I was young, the order suited me well, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be the best Christian you’ve ever seen.’”
When Haley was 5, her parents adopted her brother, Wesley, from Russia. As a child, Wesley struggled. He had frequent tantrums, and her parents naturally focused their energy in his direction.
“As a kid, I thought, ‘I’ll take care of myself. I won’t be a burden. I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do,’” Haley said. “I took the mentality of, ‘I’m fine. You both focus on him, and I’ll just excel and perform to make you proud.’”
She was an anxious and cautious child, a condition that intensified in third grade after 9/11 — a formative childhood event that got her thinking about death.
“You mean my mom and dad could go someplace and not come back?” she said she thought at the time.
She had frequent panic attacks accompanied by difficulty breathing and sleeping.
“My dad used to spend the evenings trying to soothe me before bedtime to ward away the nightmares, which were terrible,” she said.
Haley later learned that she had generalized anxiety disorder and a hyper-vigilance around safety. Her coping mechanisms were to work harder, be successful, achieve more.
“I misinterpreted that nervous energy as ambition when it was just anxiety,” she said.
Focusing on her health
In 2016, Haley earned her master’s degree in English literature from University of Denver and headed for the mountains to be a ski instructor at Keystone Resort. At the end of the season, she started applying for year-round jobs and got hired by the town of Breckenridge managing communications and marketing.
She began focusing on her mental health in May 2018 after a particularly bad romantic relationship. She started seeing a therapist, getting into meditation and yoga, reading books about spirituality and spending a great deal of time outdoors.
“I think it’s hard for people with anxiety like mine because you’re constantly rewarded for working harder until you can’t function anymore,” she said. “I never understood the danger in it. When you live in a culture where success is rewarded at all costs, you have to hit a wall for it to change.”
Haley hit that wall in an unexpected way after she discovered she had life-threatening food allergies and later went into anaphylactic shock after mistakenly eating an avocado.
The experience made the hyper-vigilance of her youth return in spades.
“Basically, I just never felt safe,” she said. “I pretty much just stopped eating. … It was a really dark time consumed with anxiety.”
She lost 20 pounds. That’s when Haley realized she needed help, and her best friend convinced her to talk to a doctor about medication.
“I’d always viewed life’s challenges as ones I should manage on my own, that my successes and failures were built on the framework of my own hard work, pure and simple,” she said. “My doctor said, ‘No, this is not something you’re failing at. You have generalized anxiety disorder — probably have had your whole life. It’s biological. It’s clinical.’”
She was prescribed an antidepressant.
“Going on that was like night and day,” she said. “I felt calmer, more even. The hyper-vigilance was gone. It was such a blessing.”
Together with therapy, the medication stopped the incessant hum of “I’m not good enough” to allow her to celebrate and embrace her new life.
Discovering a new world
Before attending graduate school, Haley traveled abroad to Amsterdam for several months.
“I started to see a whole different world, different ways that people thought and lived, and I realized that there wasn’t just one way to live life or structure your politics,” she said. “That intensified the deconstruction that began in college of the black-and-white religion I’d grown up with and my conservatism.
“I really opened my mind and found a bigger world than what I grew up with.”
Through books, she reached for spiritual guides that resonated and found Father Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, spiritual speaker and author.
Rohr helped her understand the process of growing into an independent adult. He teaches that order is what you’re taught to believe by your parents. He describes that first phase as a natural and safe way to begin life. Order is followed by disorder, or challenging your beliefs through the vagaries of life. And lastly is reorder, finding a place in which you’re comfortable sitting with yourself and all of the uncertainties of life and death.
After internalizing the three-step process, Haley said she initially felt shame and was worried about disappointing her parents with her changed religious beliefs.
“Our relationship really suffered because instead of talking through that, I just shut it out,” she said.
Her therapist encouraged her to talk to her parents and give them an opportunity to grow, just as she had done.
A year ago, Haley had dinner with her father.
“We had this beautiful conversation,” she said. “I’m crying, saying, ‘I’m so sorry I shut you out because I didn’t know how to process it, and I didn’t want you upset.’ Then my dad said … ‘Nothing will ever change how I love you.’ … It was so freeing for me.”
In addition to therapy, medication, meditation and spiritual readings, Haley credits improved communication with her parents as well as the great outdoors for helping to tamp down her anxiety.
She says she’s seeing the order, disorder, reorder process clearly now.
“Some people are too afraid to leave the order,” she said. “It’s hard and scary and takes a lot of humility and uncertainty to go through disorder. You can’t reorder without it, but it’s so fulfilling on the other side.
“I try to remember that’s where the growth is. In the mountains, we’re so used to training for long events. It’s the same way with our maturity, growth and mental health. You think of long runs; they hurt, but in the end, they get you to your goal.”
Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of a story written by Suzanne Acker, a special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. Read Haley Littleton’s full story and watch a video interview with her at BuildingHopeSummit.org/about/hope.
• Building Hope Peer Support Line: 970-485-6271, Option 2
• Therapy resources: BuildingHopeSummit.org/resources/therapy-resources
• National Alliance on Mental Illness High Country support groups: NAMIHighCountryCo.org/programs
• Support Groups Central group video meetings: SupportGroupsCentral.com
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