Crossed-Wires: Anxiety in Overdrive

Sometimes I think that whoever wired my brain used the wrong schematic. They took the plans and flipped them upside down. They crossed the red wire with the blue wire, and thus I was born- an odd little duck in a world full of geese. I am a collection of juxtaposed ideals tied together with a pretty bow of contradiction. I am an enigma, even to myself some days.

For a long time I didn’t know that there were different types of anxiety. I saw one of my best friends fight every day to simply function the way that many of us take for granted. I knew what a battle it was for her to just get out of bed, get dressed, and make it through a day at the office. I still remember the last time she willingly engaged in a conversation with me- where she was convinced that I was only speaking to her out of pity, she refused to believe that I genuinely cared. I know what a battle with debilitating, soul-crushing anxiety looks like. But I did not fit that description. It felt disingenuous to claim a seat within those ranks. So there I was, struggling with an enemy that had no face, no name; a phantom that perhaps existed only for me. 

I’ve always known that I reacted a bit differently to the world than other people. The older I got, the more insistent my internal dialogue became. A small part of me was aware that I was being overly-critical, that I was looking too deeply, that I was causing problems where none existed. But I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t self-correct my thoughts and my fears. I was a runaway train slipping off the rails. And truthfully, that’s a feeling that has never completely gone away.

I was always envious of those people who appeared to flit through life so effortlessly; the ones who could make random conversations with perfect strangers. I was jealous of the people who were good at making friends, the ones who didn’t turn bright red at the drop of a hat. I wanted to be like them; I wanted to crack a joke without getting tongue-tied over the punch line. I wanted to be able to order something in the drive-thru without rehearsing it to myself before the person’s voice broke out over the speaker asking me what I would like today. I wanted to simply not feel a rise of panic inside when I saw someone approach me. Truthfully, I think it’s a bit of a wonder that I have managed to maintain friendships at this point. After all, it took me an entire year to really even start speaking to people where I worked. They politely say I was just shy; but that’s a rather simplified answer. It takes me a long time to get to know people because I can’t get out of my own head.

I can put on a smiling face, I can make conversation when it’s required of me; you might not even notice the way I nervously tap my fingers together as we talk, or the way my toes bop in my shoes. Perhaps you think I’m trying to flirt when I play with my hair- not realizing that it’s just another outlet for that fight-or-flight energy that takes over my body. Since my rapidly firing neurons can’t seem to distinguish a pleasant conversation from a life-threatening lion attack; I have to find these inconspicuous outlets for my energy.

I will berate myself for days if I stutter or stumble on a word. I will replay a conversation over and over again in vivid detail if your reaction to my comments wasnt what I had anticipated. I will dissect every word and every gesture, I will tear myself apart trying to find the deficiency in our interaction. Because I know it’s not you- it has to be me. And next time we speak, you may wonder why I appear more guarded, why I look to the ground so often- it’s because inside I’m insecure and, honestly, terrified that I will mess up again.

You’ll probably see me on my phone during down time; sitting in my car before work listening to an audiobook while playing a game, or reading my kindle while waiting for dinner to cook. Perhaps you’ll catch me scrolling through social media while I wait at the doctor’s office. You may dismiss it as the actions of a millennial who simply can’t unplug from the technology she wears on her hip. But if I were honest- I would tell you that my reasons are a bit different than you would expect. I don’t do it because I’m incapable of unplugging; I do it because I’m trying to tether my anxieties to the ground so they can’t carry my away. Idleness is dangerous for me; when my brain has too much free time, it starts going down dark alleys and jumping on trick staircases. When I have too much time on my hands, then the internal panic is able to catch up with me. I’ll suffocate on the fear if I’m not careful. So I stay busy, I tread water because I’m afraid I’ll drown if I slow down. I am constantly moving because I know what it’s like to fall down that rabbit hole; and it terrifies me. 

When life starts to overwhelm me, then I start to lose myself in more tasks and random occupations. For example, since January of this year I have read over 115 books. That isn’t because I’m an avid reader with a personal challenge- it’s because reading is one of my outlets; when the world goes wild I get lost in a book.

Sometimes I think that’s why I love writing so much; it’s a sense of control I can feel when so little in life makes sense. I can edit and rewrite my character’s words until they shine. I can choose their flaws and their reactions. I can decide what battles they will face. I can write the story I want to read, I can create the people I want to know. For just a few fleeting pages I can become someone else. I don’t have to be my own worst enemy. And for once, all of those worst case scenarios that dance through my brain and torment me- they come in handy. Because worst case scenarios are a writer’s best fodder. I can take my own fears and construct something dangerous and enthralling. I can take the worst of me and force it to serve a beautiful purpose.

Anxiety is not romantic, my neurotic moments are not charming or adorable, contrary to what the movies would like you to believe. I look for the silver lining because I have to; because if I thought this internal pain and struggle was completely pointless- I would probably lose my mind completely. Telling myself that it might somehow assist my creative process is how I have learned to accept it. I can’t change the way that my brain is wired. I cannot convince my innate responses that I am not in life-threatening danger when I am ordering a burger at Red Robin. I am who I am. Some days I am okay with this, and some days it makes me want to pound the ground with my fists and cry.

For some people anxiety is a palpable shroud that hangs around their shoulders. For others, it is hidden behind smiles and avid productivity. Some people can’t get out of bed in the morning, and others can’t slow down in fear that they will fall apart. I move constantly; I stay busy and focused from the moment I wake up until I drop to sleep in the middle of a page. Its bittersweet to always be moving; and yet I miss the days when I would just sit there and breathe deeply, focusing only on myself and the way my body moved in the world. I miss viewing downtime as a luxury, not something to be afraid of. I constantly make to-do lists to get me through the day; because I find comfort in having a plan. It will consist of little things; read the paper, check emails, read ten pages, ten minutes on Facebook, research, write for 30 minutes. I intentionally put more on the page than I can accomplish because that means I won’t risk having extra time at the end of the day. 

You will never know the struggles a person is facing, or the reasons they act the way that they do- not unless you really watch what they are doing, not just listening to what they are saying. We need more compassion in the world, we need to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best that we can with the tools that we have available. Just because a person does not respond to the world the way that you would expect doesn’t mean that they aren’t still going through more than you can see on the surface. Sometimes we can’t help our eccentricities. For those who suffer through the various forms of anxiety, simple daily activities can seem like insurmountable obstacles. Just because a person isn’t falling apart on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t still fighting those same demons. I look like I have it all together- but my big secret is that I don’t. I have to focus on one day at a time, I have to fight for every step. My anxiety and I are inextricably intertwined. As much as I like to pretend it is some other entity that influences me- I know that it is just another facet of the woman I am. I was wired differently; but hopefully I will be a better person for it.

I Will Never be ‘Normal’ (and how I inadvertently discovered ice cream tacos)

I have always had an idea in my head of the type of woman that I wanted to become. I pushed aside all of my personal phobias and eccentricities; I don’t know if I thought I would grow out of them, or if I believed that I could simply will them into nonexistence. If I stopped acknowledging my flaws, perhaps they would just disappear. I knew that the person I was didn’t align with the bold woman that I envisioned to grow into. I was going to be that shooting star; a bright, intelligent woman with style to boot. I was going to be clever, I wouldn’t be afraid to dance in a crowded room, I would jump at any and all opportunities. I would have a thousand stories for the hundreds of off-the-wall experiences I had. I was going to be fun, sparkly and spontaneous. Impromptu midnight drive to the coast so we can watch the sunrise? Bring it on. Skinny dipping at the lake- why the hell not. Learning a new dance in a room full of stranger? I thought you’d never ask.

I didn’t expect to be the way that I am, wrapped up in my own little shell like a turtle. I didn’t anticipate that my tongue would still tie at the most inconvenient moments, forcing my face to turn ketchup red as I scurried away to internally berate myself. I didn’t think that twenty-seven year-old me would still be intimately familiar with the flash of panic that raced through my nervous system at the mere prospect of being left alone in the room with another person to partake in that dreaded act known as small talk. I didn’t think my hands would still get clammy and my voice would get quiet when I made a comment and didn’t get immediate responses. I didn’t think that adult Katie would still be fighting the same demons that I raged against ten years ago. No, I did not think that these would be daily struggles in my life.

I am a master in the arts of self-sabotage. I am a creature deeply in love with her comforts. Tonight I knew exactly what my plans were going to be when I got home from work. I was just settling into the rare treat of a hot bubble bath coupled with a good book I’ve waited all day to read. And then a wrench came flying, smashing right through my meticulously well-laid plans. My fiancé knocked on the door and let me know that his friend reached out and invited us to meet them at a cool foodie place over in Portland. And we would have to leave right away. You see, his best friend got engaged last weekend, and today his fiancé got a promotion at work- they wanted to celebrate, and they wanted to share that moment with us. I am ashamed to admit that I actually hesitated. One part of me was bouncing up and down screaming, ‘yes, it’s Friday night, let’s go do this! Where are my boots?’

But then there is the other voice. It’s a quiet but persistent little creature. It twists my stomach in knots as it stand awkwardly in the corner, tugging on my sleeve and whispering to me that it’s not a good idea- I’ll just say something stupid, there will be those awful moments of complete silence and wouldn’t it be so much better to just ignore the entire world while I hide with my bubbles and book? This is the voice that takes my self-esteem, crumples it up into a little ball like it’s nothing ore than a piece of tarnished notebook paper, tosses it on the ground and then drives a Zamboni overtop of it. Twice. And then takes a match and lights it on fire for good measure- all with an apologetic little frown. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Inside Out,’ I like to picture Sadness- turning everything she touches blue. That’s what my little voice is like, she is the unofficial face for all of my anxieties.

The rational part of me understands that my fears are generally unfounded, but emotions can easily overpower any and all rational thought. It is a battle that I am not always well equipped to fight. I had hoped that if I started pushing myself out of my comfort zone, that the fear would stop and I could learn how to function like a relatively well-adjusted adult. But alas, that is not how this war is won. It must be fought one battle at a time. I have to learn to push myself out that door no matter how many times that little voice inside tried to throw herself on the ground kicking and screaming at me to turn around and go put my pajamas back on like a good little girl.

And yet tonight, I took a deep breath and said okay. Because I knew it was the right thing to do, I knew that I would have fun once I got out of my own head, and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t. You see, I have one fear that is actually bigger than my fear of all forms of social interaction- and that would be the fear of watching my anxieties slowly erode all of the relationships that mean anything to me. Because sadly, that has happened in the past. This is a tragic tale I am all too familiar with, a lesson I have learned too late- one that I do not wish to breathe fresh life into.

So I put on my cute jacket and my new necklace. And I started typing this post in the car as my fiancé loudly sang his new favorite song ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ as we drove to Portland. And you knew what happened? We had a great time. We hung out, we talked, we laughed, we ate some awesome food (including an ice cream taco- what? Yes, you heard me right- a waffle cone ‘taco shell’ with ice cream inside, drizzled with magic shell chocolate sauce to keep the whole mess contained). Tonight we did what normal people do. And it felt fantastic. Because I forced myself to get out of my own way. Because I chose to control my anxiety instead of letting it dictate my life for me. And that little voice inside? She was too busy happily munching ice cream to poke at me.

Tonight I won a small battle in a war that I have to fight every single day. And you know what? I’m proud of myself. Because for one night I did what everyone else does, and I enjoyed myself. Growing up I always had an idea of the type of woman that I wanted to be. But it wasn’t realistic. I am not that perky picture-perfect spontaneous woman. I like to have at least a semblance of control over the situations that I put myself. But that doesn’t mean that I have to hide in my house and avoid the world. It just means that I have to try a little bit harder to get myself out that door. It means that I have to force a smile until I start to feel a real one forming. It means that I have to laugh and joke until I feel the tension ease from my shoulders, until the sickening knots in my stomach begin to untangle. It means that I have to be stronger than I ever imagined, it means that I have to fight. And you know what? I am so proud of the woman that I have become. I am not the woman that I had always envisioned, but I am stronger than she ever could have been. I am awkward and quirky, I am nerdy and passionate, I dance even though I have no rhythm. But I force myself to step out of my comfort zone to truly live my life every single day. So yes, I am proud of the neurotic mess that I am. I am unapologetically me- and that is the best battle I have ever won.

 

Don’t Let Fear Rule You (The Social Anxiety Win)

I came to the realization a long time ago that my social anxiety will never be ‘cured.’ It is as much a part of me as my freckles, the scar on my lip, or my affinity for Harry Potter. Much like my fear of heights, I can face it, I can find a work-around; but the fear itself does not change. There are no magical solutions that will make me forget to be anxious. There is nothing that will stop my heart from racing, nothing that will keep me from analyzing every word I say and every move they make. No, these things will not change. But I have to fight through them anyways. Some days I am prepared for the battle, and some days I am holding that white flag high above my head (or more appropriately- on the door that I have locked myself behind).

I can’t even begin to explain the frustration that starts to build up after a long week of uncomfortable moments with people that could be fantastic to get to know- if I could only get out of my own way. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would be without it; who would I have become if this wasn’t always following behind me like a damn shadow? I have never been a big fan of ‘normal,’ and in most situations I don’t even know what that word is supposed to mean. But there are days where I would give anything to just feel normal. I wish I could understand what it’s like to step into a room and feel genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting new people, not terrified that these new people might not like me. Is it kind of like walking into a library full of new books? Full of possibilities, and promises of new adventures? What is it like when fear doesn’t rule over you with an iron fist? What is it like when you can walk into a party and not feel like you are stepping into your own personal battlefield? Tell me friends, what does it feel like to be normal?

I’ve been feeling closed off the past few weeks, no matter how hard I’ve been trying at this ‘social’ thing. The distance has been palpable, and I haven’t really known what to do about it. I keep trying- I’ve been making plans, racking my brain to initiate conversations, smiled when I wanted to turn tail and run. I even made plans for an overnight trip with another couple. I have been avoiding all thoughts of this potential adventure, because otherwise I might just start having a panic attack right here where I sit. Surprisingly, my efforts have actually been paying off- I was even able to hold a few lengthy conversations with a superior at work who has traditionally made me feel notoriously awkward. That’s right my friends- full conversations with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But all week it felt like work, desperately grasping at conversation starters. So when Saturday hit, I had mixed feelings. We were invited to a BBQ by a friend. There were only going to be a couple of people that I knew, and, more importantly, I was going to be meeting the wife of one of my fiancé’s best friends for the first time. She is a master at the ‘girl thing,’ it’s what she does for a living, and I am a twenty seven year old who still hasn’t completely figured out eye liner. I know she’s nice, but would we really have anything in common? I wanted to make a good impression, but I was nervous- very nervous. As it turns out, my anxiety was unwarranted- she wasn’t able to make it, and therefore I was left to my own devices with the other strangers.

There are rare instances where you just hit it off with people and all of the awkwardness quickly goes out the window. BBQ night turned into one of those nights, and for the first time in a long time I got a taste of what it felt like to be a normal social person. There were seven of us total, which, as it turns out, is a pretty good number to keep conversations going without it getting too overwhelming. It was interesting- these were seven very different people with very different life stories and experiences. We had some military, all but two had undergone some major relocations throughout their lives. Everyone had stories, and everyone felt comfortable telling them. It was liberating (and the steady supply of beer didn’t exactly hurt my social game). I was able to talk without too much fear of what people thought, I told stories and people actually laughed. I felt like I was a part of something; a rare moment that I crave with all my soul.

Perhaps I am not as far gone as I thought I was. Perhaps its just a matter of finding people that you don’t have to force a conversation with. Perhaps its simply a matter of learning to relax and let go of those internal filters. Maybe the stars aligned just right or I was abducted by aliens and they implanted these really nice memories instead. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I went. And perhaps next adventure, the terrifyingovernight trip, wont be as scary as I have feared. There’s only one way to find out: take a deep breath and jump.