I have anxiety.
I’ve referred to it here many times. That I suffer from anxiety isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows me well. To people who don’t, it’s a bit of a shock (or so I’ve been told). Over the course of my life I became very very good at hiding it, to the point that now when I take a deep breath and confess just how often my traitorous brain undermines me the reaction is often disbelief.
Just writing this, right now, my heart rate is starting to increase and my palms are sweaty. If you don’t live with anxiety as your constant companion, it’s very difficult to imagine what it’s like to have that treacherous bastard on your left shoulder all day long.
Some days I wake up with a hollow, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. My system is coursing with adrenaline and I am filled with a sense of impending doom. It’s the feeling many people get when faced with a challenging event. The physical symptoms are similar to bad stage fright, but with one important difference: there is no actual reason to feel this way. This happens on a day like any other. Workdays, weekends (those especially feel like a kick in the ass, because it’s my WEEKEND, man). I spend the day jumping at shadows, letting phone calls go to voice mail, avoiding email and pacing the house. I am possessed with far too much energy and no outlet for it. I’ve had people suggest “go for a walk!” or “get some exercise!” on those days, and intellectually that makes sense, but here’s the thing.
When I am actually terrified of some nebulous something, this is what goes through my mind when I contemplate going for a walk (especially on a weekday):
Yes, a walk. A walk would be OK. Have to get the stroller. Make sure the kids are all holding the walk-rope. Dammit I wish this road had sidewalks. Here comes a car GET OFF THE ROAD KIDS JESUS CHRIST IT’S A GIANT CAR HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT. What happens if a car hits us? What if it hits one of the kids? What if it misses the kids but hits me? What if I die? What if I don’t die but I’m badly injured? Will I be able to get to my phone? How will I manage all these extra kids if I have to go to the hospital in an ambulance? Now we’re passing that house with the barking dog. OH FUCK THE DOG IS NOT TIED UP TODAY. What if it runs at us? What if it bites one of the kids? How will I chase it off?
All of this goes through my head before we pass the first four houses.
Some days, everything seems fine, and then suddenly pow! my mind will present me with something new to worry about. Sitting at red lights, I will often become convinced that the car behind me is going to smash into my rear. Stepping onto escalators going down, I will tense, waiting to trip and fall, cartwheeling down and breaking both legs somehow. Commercials for cancer research fundraisers cause me to plan how we will cope if I get cancer. One minute I’ll be fine, the next I’ll be seeing my kids crowded around my hospital bed. It puts a damper on outings, as you can imagine.
My anxiety shows itself all the time, in a million small ways. I can’t stand arriving at appointments with any less than 15 minutes to spare – even for appointments that are never on time, like doctors. On the very rare occasions when I can make myself get on an airplane, I need a good hour of grace time or I’m a twitchy, short-tempered wreck. If I’ve timed dinner to be ready to eat at 5:30, and Michael calls at 5:20 to tell me he’s only just leaving work, my immediate reaction is oh my god now dinner will be ruined I hope he will eat some of it and that it won’t be too awful. If the fridge makes a weird noise, I’m convinced it’s about to die forever and we’ll need to replace it. Ditto the car. If I’m grocery shopping alone I will always have to stop at least twice to make sure I brought my wallet. We had a snow day this week and played Monopoly with the kids – turns out I can’t let rows of plastic houses be not lined up neatly. I caught myself fixing them over and over again; I didn’t even feel anxious, I just wanted to, but even as I was making a joke of it I was still doing it, and this tiny little voice was muttering I don’t think that’s normal, kiddo. No one else is paying any attention to those houses, you know.
So! Fear of losing control, fear of chaos and disorder, fear of death. FUNTIMEZ.
I also have social anxiety, and this is where folks really don’t believe me at all when I try to tell them how hard it is for me to be around people. One on one, I’m a little better, although I find myself talking too much, too forcefully, and too fast in an effort to seem friendly. In groups I’m a mess. I feel like I’m always breaking into the conversation at the wrong moment. I’m convinced that I am unwelcome. I have a freakish ability to recall the words said but not the tone, and will replay moments over and over in my head until casual comments are insults and my own stabs at being witty are feeble and probably offensive. It’s a weird combination of low self-esteem and rank egotism, because I am certain – certain – that after I leave a group they immediately start talking about all of my flaws and faults.
Social activities, even with people I love and trust, are a minefield for me. I often talk myself out of them altogether. I also take “rejection” really hard, and I put that in quotes because it’s often not actually rejection, it’s just “hey, thanks for the invite to dinner, we’ve got something on the go this weekend but we should do it another time.” What my brain tells me is that those people don’t actually like me, don’t want to come over for dinner, would rather walk over hot coals than spend leisure time with me… and so I never issue a second invitation.
I have lost friends because of this.
If my anxiety looked like anxiety, I suspect I’d have more understanding from people in my real life. Instead, my anxiety sometimes looks like anger. When I’m scared, I lash out. I bristle like a porcupine to try and prove to myself that I’m OK. Sometimes it looks like laziness; on the days when I’m just scared all day for no real reason, my only recourse is to huddle on the couch with a blanket and the internet. Sometimes it looks like stubbornness, or shyness, or rudeness. If I can’t face big family gatherings or those kid’s birthday parties where the parents are expected to stay and mingle with each other even though they are all strangers or work functions or political meetings or school orientation sessions I am looked down on. I inadvertently insult people, or hurt their feelings. It’s self-fulfilling; I refuse invitations because I’m afraid of mingling with people, so invitations stop being extended, and then I’m alone and I realize dolefully that no one ever really liked me anyway.
I recognize all of this, and so I’ve started telling people that I come into contact with on a regular basis that I suffer from anxiety. That’s as far as I get. I haven’t yet figured out to explain what exactly that means for me. It’s enough to just say “I have anxiety. It makes [task A] hard for me.” People either nod politely, or look confused, or surprised.
It don’t feel stigmatized, I just feel misunderstood. I feel like for all the talk about mental health in this country, that no one really gets where I’m coming from. I’m sharing my story not because I’m looking for solutions, or suggestions, or even reassurance – I just needed to explain my truth, as it is now, today. In the hopes that maybe someone will recognize this in themselves, or someone they care about, and that maybe I can shed some light on how anxiety affects us.