I was hoping to wait a while before bringing up the topic of anxiety because, well, I have a hard time talking about it. And the funny thing is, my anxiety-fueled fear of how other people will perceive me is the very thing that keeps me from bringing up the subject. After much deliberation, I finally decided to bring it up because it is something that we need to talk about. In fact, it is something that we need to talk about much more often.
The road that I took to finding out that I have anxiety – and then finally doing something about it – was a long one. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I finally got help. It was then that I also finally got confirmation that what I was feeling passed beyond the realm of “normal” and into “mental illness”. For over two decades, friends and family members tried to be helpful, but ultimately dismissed my concerns that I might have anxiety. They would say that I was just “being a perfectionist” or “it’s normal for everyone to feel that way sometimes.”
My anxiety also did a great job of concealing itself. My anxiety gave me a tremendous amount of concern about what everyone thought of me. I didn’t ever want to come off as sad, insecure, clingy, afraid, angry, nervous, unraveled, or unable to cope. In my mind, the only thing worse than feeling those things would have been if other people knew that I felt them.
What that left was a quiet “perfectionist” who got good grades all the way through high school. But after high school, my anxiety morphed into something that seems a bit contradictory to the picture of anxiety that I usually see. Today, instead of my anxiety making me motivated and productive and organized, I often feel completely overwhelmed by it. Most of the time, I feel so overwhelmed that I can’t get anything done.
I make lists of things that I want to get accomplished in a day or a week, which can be helpful for many people with anxiety. Unlike many people, though, I usually become so overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the tasks on the list that I become paralyzed. When that happens, I can’t bring myself to complete a single thing.
It carries over into my social interactions as well. It often takes me a long time to respond to a text or an email, or especially a phone call, because I’m so afraid that I will say the wrong thing. And if I have to tell a person “No”? I feel like I might as well be stealing their first born child. To make things worse, if I wait too long to respond to something, I end up feeling bad that I didn’t do it sooner. Responding becomes harder and harder to do, and the pattern of failing to act continues.
Things as simple as spending too much time in social situations or Husband re-arranging the living room can send me into a state of near-catatonic inaction for the rest of the day. Or longer.
I feel like I am always perched at the top of my window of tolerance, where it is easy for little things to push me out of my window. When that happens, I quickly fall from overstimulation into paralyzing inaction.
My anxiety doesn’t look like the high functioning anxiety characterized by busyness and achievement. Nor does it look like panic attacks or insomnia or restlessness, or any of the other things that I feel like it should look like.
I’ve never seen another example of my type of anxiety, which makes me feel like a fraud. At times, it makes me feel like I can’t possibly have anxiety because, if I had anxiety, my anxiety would be perfectly captured in a post or a meme somewhere. But if that does exist, I haven’t found it. It’s incredible how alone we can feel in the face of such vibrant social media networks.
Even though I do have some of the more well-known symptoms of anxiety – feeling nausea in a new situation or one that I feel trapped in, heart palpitations, worrying and obsessing about situations beyond what is normal – I still sometimes tell myself that those don’t really count.
Maybe I do this out of habit from the years before treatment when I tried to justify my thoughts and feelings as “normal”. This does nothing but put me in a state where I am both down on myself, and not framing things in a way where I am able to approach them constructively. If I can step outside of that for long enough and view one of my thoughts, such as absolutely dreading making a phone call, as a product of anxiety, it is easier for me to accept what I am feeling, give myself a little slack for feeling that way, and then push through the discomfort into a place where I am ready to take action.
Is this a ridiculous amount of effort to make one measly phone call? Yes. Do I do it every. Single. Time? Also yes.
I feel really fortunate that I did finally seek help. Though facing certain thoughts and actions can still feel like looking up at insurmountable mountains towering around me, more often now those mountains look like hills. Occasionally, they even look like ant hills. It is frustrating to know that my anxiety will never be “cured”, and that after two steps forward a re-arranged living room could cause one step back. What keeps me striving forward is the thought that I could be happier, and also that I deserve to feel happier.
If I help one person feel less alone with this post, I will have succeeded. If you have been considering getting help, it may be one of the hardest things you ever do but I highly encourage you to do it. If you are already getting help for mental illness, keep fighting the good fight. And if you don’t fall into either of those categories, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and family with mental illness when they talk about it.
Listen, because one story at a time we can lift the cloud of judgment surrounding mental illness, and then maybe – just maybe – it won’t be so difficult to talk about anymore.