Have you ever leaned back in your chair too far and felt that jolt when it seemed like you were falling? Have you ever missed a step when you were walking down the stairs and suddenly your stomach was in your throat and your heart was pounding in your ears? It feels like that. But it doesn’t go away.
Have you ever watched a scary movie and felt your body tense waiting for something to jump out at you? Only it doesn’t, so you just keep peeking through your fingers and holding your breath? It’s like that, but without the giddy excitement of knowing that the monsters on the screen can’t hurt you.
Have you ever been driving down the road when your seatbelt locks up for no reason, as though it thinks you are about to crash even though everything is fine? And you have to sit there, locked in for a while, unable to really move? That’s what it’s like.
You are fighting phantom enemies with a smile on your face because no one else will understand. You are calm as a cucumber on the outside while your stomach is full of squiggly jumbled lines, your heart is pounding, hands sweaty, and you just can’t catch your breath. It is a strange moment when you find yourself trying to convince your own brain that you are okay, that everything will be fine, that you will survive this false alarm it has raised.
What people don’t realize about anxiety- I know when I’m being irrational. I know when my brain is looking at shadows and screaming ‘monster.’ But I can’t stop it. It’s not just a thought process; it’s a physical response. It’s like a migraine; I can feel it coming, but I have no power to change it. It is a tidal wave that rolls over me, washing me out to sea. And it’s so damn exhausting trying to paddle back to shore against the current.
I am not always like this. I can be the girl who (outwardly) rolls with the punches. I can be the girl who kicks ass, takes names, and dances backwards in high heels. I can be the girl who argues the intent of Nochlin’s essays on institutional powers, debate the merits of Ravenclaw vs Hufflepuff. I am the girl who can be serious, or funny, sarcastic or plain annoying. I am the girl who can be a lot of different things.
But I am also the girl whose heart was hammering so loud in her chest that I thought it might break the skin. I am the girl who discreetly made her way to the bathroom to fall apart in the middle of the workday. I locked the door, slid down the wall and sat with my head in my hands, eyes shut, gasping while trying to remember how to breath as the panic rushed through my veins, leaving me weak and terrified. Then I stood up, brushed myself off and went back out with a forced smile. I made coffee, joked with coworkers and answered the phone that just wouldn’t stop ringing. No one knew. Not a single soul realized that I was broken and terrified inside. Not one person noticed the way my eyes darted, the way I continually tapped my fingers and toes to expel the excess energy, not one person noticed the cracks showing through my carefully placed facade. No one knew that it wasn’t the first time. No one knew that it wouldn’t be the last.
I’ve had anxiety for a long time; it ebbs and flows, some moments in life are much harder than others. Some days I face my ‘normal levels,’ usually surrounding social situations. And then there are times where I spend months in a constant battle of wills with my own brain, phrases like ‘self-care’ and ‘I’m just tired’ forever on the tip of my tongue. As I write this, I can feel the squiggles inside squirming. I am jumbled up and desperately hoping I can keep my head above water. I’m writing this in hopes that I can bleed some of these emotions away; if I can capture them with words and release them into the world, diluted and harmless- then perhaps I may find a moment of peace. Perhaps I will be able to sleep for just one night.
If you don’t know what it feels like to see your own worst enemy in your eyes; then I am thankful. I hope you never do. But I sincerely hope that you remember those like me who do their best, even when it isn’t good enough. It is exhausting to spend your day hiding your monsters and your nights trying to slay your demons. It is exhausting when you lose power over your own thoughts, over the very things that make you who you are. It is exhausting to always say ‘I’m sorry’ over things you can’t control.
I had many reasons today to be anxious; I have been feeling that shadow creeping over me for some time now. I knew that today would be difficult. And yet, do you want to know what pushed me over the edge into a full blown attack? Keep in mind that I know it will sound silly; as I said, I am well aware when my fears and anxieties aren’t rational. But I can’t stop them. The little barb that managed to rip open the storm clouds overhead was a tiny thing- I finished my book and didn’t have another one to start.
At face value, it’s comical really. But the truth behind it is a bit deeper. My books are my escape hatch out of a world that I can’t control and into a realm that makes sense. There is order in my books, I feel grounded in them. They give me something to cling to in a world that sometimes appears far too foreign to me. They are my touchstone. They distract my brain when it wants to scream and wail; silencing these damned thoughts and giving me a respite from the anxiety that plagues me. When I feel the pressure that foreshadows an anxiety attack, I dive into the pages of another story to keep my brain from focusing on those imaginary little demons it conjures. When that life preserver was ripped away, I found myself drowning again without the hint of land in sight. My brain started screaming, and I was brought down to my knees.
That’s what it’s like; that’s how frustrating and irrational it is. I am normally a strong person who can carry the weight of my own little world, and yet when anxiety strikes all rationality goes out the window. I can be knocked to the ground by a missing book, by a ringing phone, by an oddly-phrased compliment. Anxiety and panic can be debilitating; though many don’t fully grasp what it means for those of us who continually struggle day after day. For those of you who do not face this battle, be thankful. I am so glad you will not find yourself in these trenches. But please, have compassion for those of us you find here struggling. To my brothers and sisters in arms; you are brave, you are strong, and you are not alone. We are in this together, allies in this war against ourselves.