For the longest time (literally decades) I didn’t dare say out loud that I had anxiety issues, because I didn’t want to be labeled as “mentally ill.”
I’d had mentally ill folks in my life, people who did really worrisome, unsavory things because they weren’t in complete control of themselves, and therefore were seen as crazy or unstable. I didn’t want to be labeled as crazy or unstable, so I kept my burdens to myself.
But anxiety has always, *always* been a problem in my life. Even as a little girl, I remember being so nervous that I would bite myself to feel pain, because pain made sense—nervousness didn’t. I remember that even though I was going to the same school, with the same students I’d known since preschool, I vomited every day before middle school. I remember telling people I had headaches because Of my glasses, to justify inexplicably crying in class. And I remember having a full on meltdown at a school dance when an upperclassman asked me out. I didn’t like being so uneven all the time, or having epic, massive unravelings at school for random reasons that made no sense to folks around me.
I hated the fact that I was different. I hated being viewed as erratic and babyish because I couldn’t control my emotions. I hated that it was viewed as weakness and immaturity. Rather than telling people that it felt like I was having a heart attack, or that I couldn’t breathe or bear my own weight at times, I let folks think I was just a silly, weepy little girl. Too young and immature to care how ridiculous I was being. It was better to be viewed as lame and immature, than crazy. I knew that much.
Over the years, I learned to keep these anxiety attacks to myself. I learned how to turn these meltdowns from tears and sadness to rage—because it’s easier to explain that I’ve got a rotten temper, than to explain that I’m having panic attacks triggered by random, seemingly inconsequential triggers. Rather than being seen as a “crier,” I would be seen as a “rager,” which is equally damning, but slightly less embarrassing. To this day, I am not a “crier,” and I would rather be seen as an epic b*tch than cry in front of most people.
Over the years I became adept at hiding my anxiety from the world by masking it with humor and a loud voice. If I was laughing, nobody would know that on the inside I was literally spinning out, and that I would over analyze literally every word of every conversation I had that day, while struggling to slow my heart rate back down to a tolerable level. There were always 5 kids in my marriage that I had to manage: my four children, and my anxiety, which was usually the unruliest and most unpredictable of them all.
As far as anyone knew, I was a healthy, happy, functional—albeit high strung—middle aged wife and mother. I showed up for church activities, I had two jobs, I participated fully in raising and rearing my children, and I spent most of my time smiling and laughing while I did it all. My secret was just that: my secret. Nobody was the wiser, and even better, nobody saw me as weak....
I detest being seen as weak.
When we moved abroad, though, that’s when I lost my ability to (mostly) hide my anxiety from the world. We were in a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language, and I was put into circumstances I could not control. See, in an expat situation, you’re given a small handful of folks and told: “here are your friends, play nice.” If you do not mesh with someone, too bad. If someone isn’t your cup of tea, too bad. If someone isn’t kind to you, too bad.
You don’t get the opportunity to find other people to befriend. There aren’t other people to mesh with. You get who you get and you deal with it, or you accept that you’re going to be lonely and without a social support system, which to me (at the time) felt utterly nonnegotiable. And it takes massive amounts of patience for a person with anxiety to spend time with people who emotionally and mentally drain them.
This is not just a case of not really digging someone, it’s the difference between seeing and spending time with them, and then having the physical and mental energy to *function* for the rest of the day, and be there for your own family. For a human with anxiety, faking it for four hours can be the difference between spending an evening cooking and eating dinner with their family, or laying in bed crying because they’ve over analyzed a ten second blip of a conversation they had with someone who mentally drains them, to the point where they’ve spun out completely.
Yeah. No bueno.
Between the move, and the unraveling of my relationship with some family members which caused some panic attacks of epic proportions, followed quickly by the death of my father while we were estranged, and I was suddenly unable to mask my anxiety from the world any more. There I was—live and in color—melting down for all to see. And it sucked, hard.
Panic attacks; meltdowns; temper tantrums; verbal tirades; unexplained illnesses and physical ailments; crippling, mind boggling exhaustion. The list goes on, and now that I’m back in the USA, I’ll likely be able to get help for a lot of these things, but the anxiety is a beast that never, ever lets up. It’s a monster that sits in the corner, growling lowly like my dogs when they dream, grinning at me as if to say, “don’t get too comfortable, Brooke, I’m right here, ready to pounce when you least expect it.”
And so I wait. Praying I don’t fall apart and cry in the line at the grocery store, or at a meeting at church, while simultaneously patting myself on the back because I’ve been wrangling this awful, ugly beast for 42 years, and still managed to show up for life, participate fully, and keep everyone fooled for a good, long while.
I’ve learned little tricks to maintain my composure. I control the things I’m able to control. I like to be organized. I prefer things to be tidy and predictable. I like order and predictability. Chaos sets me on edge, so I make lists. Dozens of lists. I even list on my lists that I need to make lists. This is how I maintain my calm. It doesn’t always work, but it helps, and my husband appeases me, so I go with it. I also eliminate people from my life if they trigger anxiety in me. Not because I don’t like them (though sometimes I don't,) but because I like myself enough to want to maintain my balance.
I still don’t like my anxiety being referred to as mental illness. I am not schizophrenic, I do not hurt other people or myself, I hold a job, I have a successful family. I don’t like being lumped into a category with folks who are sicker than me. But I’m learning to relax about it. I’m learning to accept that it’s an umbrella, and I’m on just one end of it, much like the ASD umbrella my son is under. If I fight the stigma associated with his diagnosis, shouldn’t I fight the stigma associated with mine?
Eh, with time, I suppose.
In the meantime, why not celebrate those who, like me, wrangle that beast every single day, and still show up, participate, and function, as if they *didn’t* just collapse on the floor because they couldn’t breathe, or spend the last night of their life laying awake crying because they just couldn’t stop stressing and panicking long enough to doze off....
Maybe we should be high fiving those peeps, because they sure as heck deserve it. I feel like I do. It’s not easy to be me some days. And I would venture it’s not easy to be you, either.
Just a thought.