I’ve always been anxious.
Some of my earliest memories are racked with it, a tightness in my chest and a heightened awareness from the surplus of adrenaline. When I went to preschool, I cried every day for the entire school year. Every day. My mom would leave me, the kids were noisy and made messes, they couldn’t stick to one game at a time, wait no I was playing with that like really could you not…and that’s how it goes. Anxiety has always been part of who I am.
When I was 10 and my parents separated, the compulsive behaviors started. Without the means to express to my family what I was feeling, I used other things to quell my anxiety. Symmetry and even numbers felt satisfying, so I’d count my steps everywhere, changing my stride to get to a number that somehow just felt better. Touching a light switch with my left hand would cause a burning need to flip it with my right, but off and on, up and down, they’re different motions, and so there I stood flipping and flipping until kingdom come in an attempt to get the same number of same-direction flips on both hands. I still trace symmetrical patterns with my tongue on the roof of my mouth or with my toes in my shoes, counting the strokes in fours as I go.
Off and on, throughout negative life events as well as innumerable smaller situations, I felt anxious. Many of my friends and family have asked me what anxiety really feels like. I can only describe the monkey on my own back, but I guess the most prominent feeling is one of being indefinitely unsettled. I could be in bed with my dog and wine and not a thing to do or place to be for the next year and nothing wrong in the world and still feel as though something needs doing or fixing or figuring out. It can be hard to just rest.
In moments of higher anxiety, my heart pounds, my chest tightens, my throat closes, and I feel as though I’m floating outside my body. Even small movements feel draining because it’s like trying to manipulate a life-size marionette. My thoughts race between “I’m so alone” and “I’m having a heart attack” and sometimes go extreme with “I think I’m going to die.” Oh, and tears. There are always tears. It’s been clinically proven to be the same as the biological fight-or-flight response. Anxious bodies react to their triggers the same way non-anxious bodies would if someone pulled a gun on them and they felt the cold metal meet their forehead.
I may have known anxiety my whole life, but I didn’t get a word for it until four years ago. Moving away from home into a larger town was challenging. Going to a huge school and only knowing three people was completely different from my tiny, basically-incestuous-because-we-all-knew-each-other-too-well high school. Meeting new people was hard. I was a big kid without a clue how to be one. Realistically, I was fine and as prepared as possible. But things got overwhelming.
I had my first panic attack on the floor of my bedroom. I had cried before class in a bathroom stall (shout-out to Rinker Hall) but made myself attend, then quickly fled home before the dams could break. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but as it subsided, the word anxiety just appeared in my mind. My freshman year was when the mindfulness movement first started gaining traction, and anxiety was just beginning to become a real buzz word. I did some Googling, and I met with a therapist who confirmed my suspicions. She was the first person I ever talked to about feeling this way, and the first to tell me it was okay, that I wasn’t weak or crazy. I was anxious, and we could work with that. So I did. For three years.
This summer, in the midst of what was one of the best chapters of my life, I broke. I hadn’t had a panic attack since freshman year on the floor of my bedroom. This time it was a hotel bed in Venice, and I woke up with my heart already racing. I fought for air, fought back tears, fought my desire to break into a dead run to who-knows-where. The next day, my body would start aching near my ribs, and 12 hours later my entire right side would be covered in painful shingles because my stress levels had compromised my immune system. I knew days prior I needed to leave Europe, the trip I’d dreamed of for a year with three of my best friends, because I could feel my anxiety roiling without any tangible reason. While it broke my heart and damaged my friendships, I knew I had to go. I had no coping mechanisms. Knowing I couldn’t fix myself there, I spent more than the rest of my travel budget on a plane ticket back to the U.S.
I understand this all sounds a little neurotic, maybe even more than a little. People who get to go to college, people who graduate and go to Europe with their friends, they shouldn’t have breakdowns. Truthfully, I didn’t have much to panic about. I was supposed to love college from the moment I got there and hurtle headlong into the four best years of my life. I was supposed to take the summer trip of a lifetime and create incredible memories with my incredible friends. Instead I lost a year and a half of my college experience to feelings of dread, isolation and fear of myself. I relinquished half of my dream trip and credibility with three long-time friends. Most days I can square with that, but on others, it’s hard to remember that it’s not my fault. Anxiety doesn’t need a reason; it needs triggers. Some of mine are feeling isolated and breaks in routine, both of which are givens in moving and month-long backpacking escapades. Having them repeated with no way to cope? It’s a simple equation, really.
When it comes to being an anxious person, the best anyone can do is learn what triggers their anxiety and the coping mechanisms to help the moment they feel it escalating. It’s also important to find long-term strategies to prevent those feelings from building up. For people who may know and love an anxious person, the best you can do is a little research on how to be there for them. Ask about their triggers. Learn why saying things like “it’s not a big deal” or “that doesn’t make any sense” or “just try harder” are so, so problematic, and find productive alternatives. Ask what you can do to help. Listen. Most of the time you can’t look at someone and tell they’re feeling anxious, so if they choose to tell you rather than trying to bear the burden alone, really listen.
People will not always understand. What then are we to do? All I can do is be my own caregiver and get cozy with my anxiety since it’s not going anywhere. It’s not a battle I can win, but it’s not unmanageable either. In fact, I’m finding ways it works for me.
Katherine Sharpe’s Coming of Age on Zoloft describes her life and how she learned to live it with depression. She writes that the best counselor she ever had earned that title because of one question: how does your depression serve you? So I asked it too. How does my anxiety contribute to the parts of me that I like? If it disappeared tomorrow, what would it take with it and which of those things would I hate to see go? It makes me compassionate because I know despair. It makes me a better friend because I know loneliness. It makes me a better citizen because I have been met with reactions ranging from compassion to condemnation. It makes me a better writer because I’m sensitive to small things other people miss. It makes me stronger because it gives me something to spar with. And I’m working on letting go of fear of my anxiety in favor of being brave despite it.
If you’re still with me, thank you. It’s pretty cool that you wanted to know more. I also understand it may be difficult to get behind someone who had weird quasi-meltdowns after a. moving to attend her dream school and b. flying to Europe to visit her dream places. I appreciate the ostensible lunacy there. However, I doubt I’m the only one who by all accounts should be perfectly happy and yet isn’t, at least not all the time. Like I said, reasons are irrelevant.
I suppose the point of my little sermon is this: anxious people, and anyone else who struggles with mental health, are not weird, crazy, oversensitive or trying to be difficult. Mental health is nebulous, and we want better answers too. Believe me when I say we’re every bit as confused or frustrated or disappointed with ourselves as you’ll ever be. It’s not that we can’t handle the same things, but that we have to do them in our own ways, and it may take a little thinking outside the box (as in I meditated daily in full view of the public for over a year trying to “bring my thoughts back to center,” outside the box) to make it work. All we ask is for a little understanding, and if you don’t understand, for a little grace.
As for me, I’ll always be anxious. But I’m learning it doesn’t have to suck so much.