Anxiety is a very convincing argument for “Ignorance is bliss.” One of the most hazardous potential side effects of self-awareness (certainly right up there with depression, addiction, and Instagram), anxiety is one of the myriad ways humanity conspires to keep itself miserable. These mental hang-ups are like a tax we must pay on the ability to walk upright and post pictures of our brunch online.
The work we put in to withhold our own happiness is truly astonishing. There are times when I look around at the wonderful life I’ve worked so hard to secure and think, “Remember that time in high school you slipped in the cafeteria in front of the popular table? You fucking loser.”
Yes, I still obsess over trivial embarrassments from ten years ago. Yes, I still obsess over potential embarrassments that will likely never happen. I’ve dealt with social anxiety since my mid-teens and it’s generally been a lonely and rather brutal struggle. But I’ve emerged from the other end with something approaching catharsis and contentment.
Like depression, anxiety is self-perpetuating, the proverbial snake devouring its own tail. Unfortunately, awareness of the absurdity of your worries provokes only further despair and a horrifying meta-anxiety. You are anxious about X despite the objective knowledge that X is nothing to worry about; you are, in a sense, only frightened of the mysterious and self-destructive inner-workings of your own mind.
Take a man terrified of flying: he is simultaneously plagued with fear over his flight (“What if we crash over the water and they never find our bodies?!?”), the knowledge that his anxiety is both foolish and irrational (“Driving to the airport was statistically more dangerous than this flight”), and, consequently, the disturbing schism caused by his mind’s inability to reconcile these two incompatible views.
This realization that you’re the chief engineer of your own despair is particularly, maddeningly true of social anxiety, which I entered a decade-long battle with beginning in high school (not surprisingly, those four years when we see ourselves only through the eyes of our peers and when our social shortcomings are held up to the sun like Rafiki lifting Simba). For me, the result of this vicious cycle of self-destructive, David Foster Wallace-esque logic was that my goal was eventually not to avoid anxiety, which seemed an inherent aspect of my personality, but to make the attacks bearable. Picture someone who suffers repeated heart attacks giving up on preventative measures and embracing a lifestyle in which repeated heart attacks would be no biggie.
I should add that Wallace’s depiction in The Pale King of a young man trapped in a paralyzing circular anxiety over his excessive sweating is the most devastatingly acute description of social anxiety I’ve ever come across and left me nodding my head in mute awe at his ability to brilliantly dissect complex behavioral paradoxes.
It was not the anxiety I was so desperate to be rid of, but the symptoms – especially, the dreaded and highly noticeable shaky hands on which I’ll later elaborate. I became so ashamed of the physical symptoms that publically outed my anxiety that, in a case of signifier and signified blurring beyond recognition, the symptoms became the very cause of the illness. Of course, this is exactly the kind of mindset that fostered my anxiety in the first place – the perception that I was constantly being judged, and that it was those superficial judgments that actually mattered, far more than my own feelings of worth or comfort. I would have doubled my anxiety just to hide it from the world because I thought it made me look weak, insecure, and pathetic.
A major element of my panic attacks, which persisted intensely through college and the years thereafter, appeared to be genuine sabotage. Since I was so paranoid others would detect my panic, hand tremors became the dreaded symbol of my weakness. Of all of the ways my internal turmoil was physically manifested – rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, numb hands (lots of strange things going on with my hands), clumsiness, awkwardness, inability to speak – my jittery hands were easily the most flagrant. I’m probably not making this clear enough – I had absolutely no fucking control of my hands. You can fill in the blank with your own Parkinson’s, coffee, or cocaine simile, but trust me, it was bad.
And so I obsessed over it – ways to cover it up, strategies for calming it, constantly rehashing the humiliating times when I had been stricken by it. Of all the nagging, unhealthy fixations that kept me up at night (people with anxiety disorders tend to have plenty), it was the most nagging and unhealthy. Unlike my overall anxiety, my hands were clearly observable and ostensibly curable. In a way, my struggle to get them to behave themselves became larger than my overarching struggle with anxiety because it was something tangible. I mean, why couldn’t I just hold my freaking hands steady? Who was in control here, anyway? Who’s flying the goddamned plane!?!
In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, it was no longer that my hands would shake because I was anxious but that I would become anxious because I feared my hands would shake. My body was repeatedly panicking over the smallest of social encounters (anything from sharing my name in front of a group of strangers to handing change to a cashier), and the result was that I spent large portions of time in “fight or flight” mode: some primitive part of my psyche sensed danger and alerted my body that I might need to make a run for it. Secondary symptoms and late nights spent berating myself were sure to follow.
I know how ridiculous this all sounds. I literally spent years of my life consumed with anxiety that people would see my hands shaking and assume (correctly) that I was nervous. Perhaps I have not done justice to the mental anguish that went unobserved to all but myself.
Grasping for relatable examples that might shed some light on the way panic attacks feel, I keep returning to childhood traumas. How about this: imagine you’re back in 3rd grade and a group of very frightening 8th-graders are circling you, grinding their fists menacingly into their palms. Panic attacks possess that same deep-seated terror and aura of impending danger. Like adolescent fears, panic attacks also share a nightmarish quality in which events that seem trivial to outsiders cause you to feel that the earth itself is crumbling.
If you suffer from social anxiety, panic attacks involve confronting your most personal of demons in brightly-lit public spaces.
These were my panic attacks – a mind helplessly trying to assert control over a rogue subconscious powering a body in a constant state of near-terror. In my head, I knew that there was absolutely nothing to be anxious about. Despite all of my self-conscious fears, people were not staring at me, waiting for me to fail. Hell, even if they were, all I needed to do was fly under the radar and not noticeably freak-the-fuck-out – I merely had to do the bare minimum expected of a normal human being. Yet, I couldn’t stop my subconscious from bullying my central nervous system until it broke down and started malfunctioning like a damaged robot in a bad science-fiction movie.
That was how I felt during my most abject, helpless moments – like the powerless controller of an out-of-order machine (picture Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Krang: an oversized, irritable brain trying to operate an elaborate man-suit). Nothing I tried worked; I pushed all of the right buttons and pulled the levers just like it said in the manual, but I was stuck with hardware intent on self-destruction. This inability to reassert control was the most terrifying aspect of my panic attacks, revealing a dark, gaping chasm between mind and body.
Here’s the part where I tell you it got better. At some point in college, I caved in and saw a doctor about my anxiety. I was honest enough with the doctor to admit that I drank regularly, but not quite honest enough to admit that my sole effective method for relieving the unceasing torrents of fear and stress involved drinking astronomical quantities of Colt 45. She prescribed me Paxil, which I took on and off for about ten years.
In retrospect, I honestly don’t know how much the Paxil helped. Likewise the therapy, which consisted of me repeatedly and without prompting admitting that I realized all of these issues were self-created and that obsessing over them seemed akin to poking and prodding a pimple. I will say the Paxil seemed to at least reduce the most extreme symptoms and anxiety, which allowed me the necessary relief to do the real transformative work.
Ultimately, I think what really helped – and I truly apologize for how incredibly lame and Oprah this sounds – is that I achieved some level of acceptance of myself. I found a job that fulfilled me and where I worked with an amazing group of people who appeared to genuinely like me for who I was, not who I got drunk enough to pretend to be. I fell in love and realized that the flaws I expended all my energy concealing were not unforgivable defects, but more like manageable imperfections. I stopped feeling like every single social interaction was of life-or-death importance.
As Kanye once said, I realized that “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” And, as Kanye also said, “In a French-ass restaurant, hurry up with my damn croissants!” I don’t know, why not.
Essentially, I got out of my head a little. I’m still stuck in there a lot, still overly concerned with people’s perceptions of me, still obsessing over microscopic failures and projected disasters. And I know that I’m fortunate enough to have social anxiety that, while debilitating, has not completely derailed my life. My panic attacks were very unpleasant, but mere fender-benders compared to the nine-car pileups some face on a regular basis.
My hands still shake when I know people are watching me intently. For work this year, I wound up having to make an impromptu demonstration in front of a group of co-workers. Immediately, that fight or flight sensation returned and I began shaking and awkwardly bumbling around. I did okay, but not nearly as well as I could’ve done without a roomful of eyes on me. At the end, I was compelled to explain, “Sorry, public speaking just makes me so anxious.”
The difference is, now I can admit it. I left work charged up on a mixture of adrenaline and anxiety, but oddly proud, and smiling ear to ear.