The first time I ever heard someone talk about being medicated for anxiety, I remember my thoughts clearly: “What a baby. They can’t cope with everyday life?? Good grief.” This sentiment was undoubtedly accompanied by an eye roll. Dripping with empathy, I know.
The person who I’d heard talk about taking anxiety medications had what appeared to be a pretty great life. She was white, in her mid-20’s, had plenty of money, a steady job, a happy marriage, and no health concerns to speak of. What does she have to be anxious about? I wondered.
That day years ago, I found myself thinking about how mentally weak we all are; that we require medication to cope with everyday life. My peers and I had somehow steered our lives into waters so murky and bleak that we couldn’t navigate them without some help from a psychiatrist and a bottle of pills. Of course, I had sympathy for people suffering from what I considered to be “real” mental health problems, like serious depression caused by trauma, or schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. But anxiety? That’s just a feeling. That’s not a PROBLEM. “Buck up,” was my general sentiment.
Oh, past me, you sweet little dumb dumb.
Having recently watched The Sopranos all the way through for the first time (and oh my good God how had I not seen it before, IT’S SO BRILLIANT), I now realize that I had a very “Tony Soprano” attitude toward mental health issues. It might as well have been me sitting in Dr. Melfi’s office preaching:
Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks and counselors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. What ever happened to Gary Cooper — the strong, silent type? That was a real American.
As with dozens of other things I’ve come to firm conclusions about despite being completely uninformed, I didn’t understand anxiety until it knocked me between the eyes.
I’m still not sure what exactly triggered my bout with anxiety. There was a concoction of events that all probably worked together. While I was unsure of the cause, the symptoms were unmissable. They came out of nowhere like a Navy Seal walking silently through a building - knees slightly bent, heel, toe, heel toe, carefully absorbing all the shock from his steps with his own knees, until WHAM. I was whacked.
(So apparently this post is going to be full of violent and/or murder metaphors.)
For me, anxiety manifested itself as a conviction that all my best friends from home had stopped liking me as much as they used to, and that they never would again. Typing it here feels laughable and embarrassing, but that’s what was true for me for about 6 weeks. I pored over text exchanges, reached out by phone more than usual, and dissected interactions I had with them to see if there were any signs of disruption in the relationship. When she said, “Oh, gosh,” was she being sympathetic to the story I told, or was she rolling her eyes at me? I would think after hanging up.
Jordan started a running bit by coming home and asking, “Are you having an anxious day?” And if I said yes, he would (blessedly) lighten the mood by asking, “Is it because all your friends hate you?” Something about the joke combined with how ridiculous it sounded out loud always helped my heart feel less like it was stuffed too full of chocolate pudding, hanging in my chest by a thread. But, before long, the anxiety always came back.
On “good days,” days when my anxiety was at bay, I was afraid to talk about it because I thought talking about it would invite back in. It was as though the anxiety was a predator lurking outside the house, waiting for an open window or an unlocked door. I thought that if I could make my mind a fortress, I could keep it at bay. But that, I learned, was not how anxiety worked. Instead of a predator, it was more like a mist. It got in through the vents.
Besides Jordan, if you were to ask my friends and family whether they knew I was experiencing this, they’d say they didn’t. I am so desperately private about feelings of real vulnerability that it’s close to impossible for me to open up without feeling like I’ve failed. This will seem paradoxical to people who know me via my blog or through social media, because I’m a fairly open book on those platforms. But I’m open only about the things I can control - I know how people will perceive a certain brand of openness, so it feels safe for me. Saying something like, “I have a constant, underlying anxiety that I can’t seem to control,” feels like Michael Scott standing in the middle of the woods as Survivor Man and yelling, “I HAVE HEMORRHOIDS!” It’s humiliating, but only if other people know.
You can imagine the never ending cycle: harboring the anxiety about people abandoning me, then having anxiety about the paralyzing certainty that if I told anyone about that anxiety, they’d think I was weak and leave me.
I pride myself on my mental and emotional fortitude. I am not a person who is scream-y about bugs or creepy crawly things. I don’t buckle at people sharing their upsetting life events. I keep my shit together in a crisis and rarely, if ever, break down, even to my very closest friends. I am relatively introspective and am constantly looking inward, getting to the root of my feelings, and entering into dialogue with myself about any given reaction. For whatever reason, I find it important to be a “good soldier.” To lose the ability to deal with my own thoughts and feelings on my own was foundation-shaking and humbling in a way that was deeply uncomfortable.
This is when it finally occurred to me: anxiety is not dismissable. It’s not something you can just get over by willing it away. If I was going to tackle it, I couldn’t do it by myself.
So on a girls’ weekend with my four best friends, I broke down in tears and told them I was afraid they were all upset with me. Predictably, they were not. But the simple act of speaking the words, and the implicit cry for help buried in the breaths between them, unloaded something powerful. Palpable. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Anxiety Monster tipping his hat to me as he stepped out of my life. For now, at least.
What I learned from this experience was profound. Anxiety is not a symptom of being a sissy. It can take any one of us down with its wily, unexpected wallop. We are better off bearing our hearts to each other and trusting that, even if we don’t believe it in the moment, there is grace in another person’s listening ear and open arms.
For me specifically, it taught me that I didn’t need to try to carry it all alone, or to pretend it wasn’t happening to me. I booked a few appointments with a counselor to help for as long as I need the extra brain to lean on (and am discovering that an idle mind is anxiety’s playground - stay-at-home-parenting is a tough gig to figure out). Help is a good thing. Even when I got married, I never anticipated that I would lean on my husband in the ways I have this year. And boy, I have I. Guess what? He’s still around. And so are my friends. I’m getting the idea that I didn’t trust these relationships as fully as I should’ve. Here in these moments, I am a beneficiary of the continued blessing of being proven wrong.
Tony Soprano and I have it wrong when it comes to keeping a stiff upper lip (I suspect he, too, is an Enneagram 8). For him, it led to murdering a whole lot of people. For me, it meant pretending I didn’t need anyone at all; stuffing the vulnerability way down deep until it couldn’t see the light of day.
Wouldn’t you know it? There in the dark, stumbling around, I ran smack into the people who love me most. They offered me a hand, and together, we walked back toward the sunshine.