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.