UPDATE 2/7/2014: Hey, as you read this, make a note of the date this was posted. This is a pretty old piece now and while it perfectly captures the state I was in at the time, a lot can change in three years. Just keep that in mind.
UPDATE 5/30/2013: Just an FYI, I don’t check this site a whole lot anymore but I’ve re-posted this piece at my new blog located here: http://rambohiggles.com/blog/2013/2/28/six-reasons-why-having-an-anxiety-disorder-is-bullshit
Like just about any nerd out there, I grew up with the constant knowledge that I was “different.” I’ve always been shy and quiet; I’ve also gone to great lengths to avoid uncomfortable situations and once or twice a year I have a full-on anxiety attack in the form of a huge tantrum.
Only in the last few years have I really found something to blame for all the things that made me feel like such a weirdo: high anxiety. It’s a small problem when compared to something like, say, addiction or genocide (you know, the standard benchmarks for sizes of problems), but having a constant sense of dread running through your brain is, to say the least, stressful. When that dread becomes too overwhelming, I freak out. These moments aren’t always, necessarily, full-blown panic attacks, but they are uncontrollable fits of nervousness and depression that shut me down for a day or two as my brain frantically sorts through all of its bullshit and buries me underneath.
High anxiety is such complete bullshit. It’s real and it isn’t at the same time. It’s in your head, but it also takes an actual, physical toll. It’s a construction of the mind, but it feels as tangible as a brick wall, where the bricks are made of mithril and the wall is covered in adamantium spikes and manned by rabid velociraptors armed with rapid-fire grenade launchers.
So what, exactly, makes high anxiety such bullshit? Well, for starters….
Everything Causes it and Anything Triggers it.
General anxiety is exactly what it sounds like — overall, constant, day-to-day fear. Basically, a fear of everything. I can look around my room right now and find dozens of things that would stress me out if I started thinking about them: the stack of old bank statements on my desk that remind of how little I know about finance and how doomed my money is having me responsible for it; the LCD TV that I’ve used so consistently in the few years I’ve had it that I have to wonder how much life it has left; the shitty electrical outlet that only works if something is plugged in at just the right angle and will probably electrocute me someday; my cat/life that I’m responsible for who could become dinner for coyotes if she were left outside at the wrong time; my phone and the overwhelming cascade of texts, phone calls, instant messages, emails, and turns in multiplayer games that could descend on me at any moment.
Because everything causes your anxiety, anything can boil it over into a full-blown anxiety attack or some other kind of freak-out; it’s just a matter of what bill, what email, what text message, what awkward social interaction will tip the scale and send you pacing around your house like a crazy person for the rest of the day, your thoughts racing as your brain does double-duty panicking and trying to think of a way to just calm the fuck down. (And because you won’t be able to calm down, you’ll also feel like a failure. Right? I hope that’s not just me. [Oh, hi there, insecurity!])
Worse, it will always happen when you think you’re feeling fine, when you think you’ve gone weeks feeling just peachy. Really though, you’ve been gradually losing your mind the whole time.
Nothing Fixes it.
If there’s any evidence that your brain is the biggest asshole in the world, it’s that the only remedy for your anxiety is also the worst coping mechanism humanity possesses: denial.
There’s no way to fix your dumb brain. The best you can do to ebb the tide of dread and exhausting mental fatigue is to just ignore it all — until that one trigger fucks up all the shit that you have on hand to fuck up.
And the best part? After your little explosion, you get to start the whole process over again, because. …
It’s a Self-Sustaining Cycle.
The truly shitty thing about an anxiety disorder is that it’s completely self-sustaining. There is no getting over it, there is no defeating it, because it will always come back. Anxiety is the Wolverine of bullshit mental disorders; as long as a single cell remains, its mutant healing factor basically makes it immortal.
The cycle goes something like this:
You: “What? Where?”
Brain: “PANIC! PANIC NOW! NOW! NOW! PANIC NOW! PANIC!”
You: “WHAT THE FUCK?! WHAT’S HAPPENING?!”
Brain: “Why are you panicking? Are you in danger!”
You: “Brain, I’m in danger! You have to help me!”
Brain: “What?! You’re in danger?! OH GOD PANIC! PANIC NOW! NOW! PANIC NOW!”
Brain: “Why are you screaming?! Are you in danger?! PANIC PANIC PANIC!”
Brain: “Because you’re in danger!”
You: “I am?! OH MY FUCKING GOD I’M GOING TO DIE!”
Brain: “What’s happening?! Are you okay?! QUICK PANIC IT’S ALL YOU CAN DO!”
You: *Crying* “I don’t know what’s happening!”
Basically, the dialogue breaks down and your brain and body become engaged in a debilitating rendition of “Who’s on first?” (If “Who’s on first” ended with Lou Costello sobbing, drinking a bottle of wine (from the bottle) to calm his nerves, then eating ice cream for dinner while watching cartoons and hating himself.)
The silver lining, I guess, is that you know for certain when it’s all over: when you’re crying yourself to sleep, too scared to drift off since your once manageable waking panic attacks have evolved into something else entirely.
Yup. It Evolves.
Something interesting happened to me several months ago. My regular, daytime panic attacks went away almost entirely. Sure, I still have bad days and moments where I freak out, but the actual fight-or-flight things that make my heart beat like a machine-gun and my brain dissociate entirely from everything happening outside of my own skull dissipated.
Or so I thought.
It turns out the actual-panic panic-attacks hadn’t gone away; they’d just moved from being a daytime thing to more of a middle-of-the-night-while-I’m-sleeping kind of thing. My anxiety evolved and became nocturnal.
Now my panic attacks happen while I sleep; I’ll just wake up, my heart punching its way out of my chest, feeling that I’m about to die. Sometimes they take the form of the most vivid, twisted nightmares I’ve ever had in my life, the illusions of which persist for a minute or two after I wake up. A few weeks ago I woke up clawing at my leg because I thought a bug had burrowed into my flesh. Then I tore up the covers trying to find it before realizing that it was a dream. Something like that happens about once a week now.
And remember that thing about anxiety being self-sustaining? Yeah, so now I’m pretty sure my fear to fall asleep plays a big part in why I wake up terrified night after night. I’m scared to sleep because of nocturnal panic attacks and I have nocturnal panic attacks because I’m so anxious about falling to sleep. And because there’s no fix for anxiety, this is just a thing that I do now. (The next several decades of my life are sure going to be fun.)
The best part is that nocturnal anxiety hasn’t completely replaced my typical, waking anxiety — no, no, this is all in addition to, not in place of. There’s less of it, but it’s still there, and with the added nocturnal anxiety, it’s still more of this bullshit than I’ve ever had to deal with before. So as if being awake didn’t give me enough to be afraid of, now my own dreams have become as frightening as everything else in life. That’s really the worst thing about an anxiety disorder. …
Once you realize that anything can trigger your anxiety, you start avoiding everything. And I mean everything. I go out of my way to avoid doing things that I should want to do. I avoid going to my friend’s house because his neighborhood only has street parking and I’m scared to parallel park; I avoid doctor’s appointments because I’m too scared they’ll find something wrong with me; I avoid anywhere where there might be bugs because they could be poisonous; I avoid the ocean because of sharks and jellyfish and drowning; I avoid concerts because I’m scared I won’t know how to act during the show. (I know that people yell “Woo!” a lot. Do I do that? It never sounds right. People will know I’m faking it and they’ll judge me for it.)
In fact, most of my fears are social. A few years ago I started keeping my hair long, getting it cut maybe once or twice a year. Why? Because I’m terrified of the inevitable awkward silence and stilted conversation I’d have to endure with a hair dresser. I don’t answer my phone because I don’t know how to talk to people if I can’t read their expressions and their body language. I have $219 worth of towels in my car that I need to return, but I’m too scared to do it because the manager of the store checked me out when I bought them and he’ll probably be there and he’ll remember me because we had this long conversation about how many towels I was buying and then he’ll wonder why I’m returning all these towels and then he’ll know that I bought too many and the wrong color because I don’t know how to function in the world where adults buy towels and — and — ugh.
Now I just feel like a shitty person. That’s the thing about social anxiety….
Social Anxiety Makes You a Social Outcast (and Rightfully so).
It sucks but it’s true: people don’t want to hang out with somebody who’s clearly nervous and slightly afraid all the time. Your stress causes them stress. At worst they think you’re just kind of weird. At best they know exactly what’s going on and feel like they have to adapt their behavior to you. In any case, you’re just a bummer to be around.
Even worse, it keeps you from functioning as competently as your peers. You don’t feel like an adult. That’s not to say you won’t get there eventually, but get used to using the term “late bloomer” as one way to describe yourself, because you’ll be using it a lot.
Maybe you can convince yourself that you’re a misanthrope, so you don’t care what other people think, but that just makes you a liar. Social anxiety kills your self-esteem. Because the world scares you, because you don’t know how to function in it, you can’t really be relied upon, but you constantly have to rely upon others.
Humans are social creatures, so we can’t help but burden our friends with our bullshit. When that bullshit is, say, financial ruin or addiction or your parents dying, friends want to be there for you. But when your “problem” basically just amounts to consistent inconvenience and a sense of helplessness that you’ve manufactured entirely in your own mind, you’re just a fucking drag.
I wish I could end this article with a message about how it gets better, about ways I’ve learned to cope, but the best way I’ve figure out to deal with my anxiety issues is just to drink. If I’m feeling nervous, overwhelmed, full of dread, depressed, or panicked, I drink. Alone. And eat my feelings. And watch depressing movies. So basically I’m like any great writer of my gender, only without any of the swagger, confidence, ability, life experience, or sex-having.
Huh. Suddenly I feel like I could really use a drink. …