I sank into the faded green couch and prepared to tell another stranger about a part of myself I'd been trying to get rid of since I was a child; to describe what it feels like on those rare occasions when my brain tells me to run from everything; when even the most mundane daily tasks -- driving to the store, making plans -- can trigger a fight-or-flight response so intense that my vision blurs, my heart palpitates, my palms perspire, and I am left gasping for breath. Anyone who believes anxiety is purely a mental phenomenon has never had a panic attack.
As I prepared to tell this man about the inner workings of my psyche, I took stock of his demeanor. He looked professorial and to-the-point, much like his office décor, if you could call it that -- a sparse collection of psychology textbooks and self-help resources littering some plain wooden shelves. He seemed vastly different than the last therapist I'd seen over two years ago.
The woman I had seen then offered me tea from her finely curated collection, telling me to make myself comfortable amidst a plump leather sofa and lavender walls covered with tribal art. Now, two years later, sitting in the clean, sterile room of the only office my insurance would cover, I felt less emotional than I had then. I wasn't interested in making myself comfortable or pouring out the contents of my mind. I just wanted him to fix me. I wanted a cure.
Call it desperation, but at the time I would've told you it was determination. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at the age of 9, a blanket term that I've never much liked, as it sounds like it could apply to most of my generation at this point, all of us entrenched in constant doing, sharing, news-absorbing, and one-upping online, living with some vague sense of paranoia that our lives are not as meaningful or exciting as the next person's. My anxiety never feels generalized like that. It does not make me afraid to give speeches in public or meet new people. I'm not afraid of making a fool of myself or putting myself out there -- otherwise I wouldn't be a writer or a former performer. I studied theater for several years and found my most life-affirming moments to be when I was performing live improv on stage in front of people I had never met.
No, my anxiety's always pertained to things I cannot create or control. Not how I interact with other people, but how a presumably random and unpredictable world will interact with me: accidents, medical afflictions, disasters. Most people don't know I have an anxiety disorder, quite frankly, because it isn't always apparent. Many days, I am carefree and unencumbered by worry, and my anxiety doesn't rise to the surface. I'm an ambitious, hard-working person with a rich, full life. Even on the days my anxiety grips me tightly, I still usually do whatever it is I need to do: get on a plane, stand in a crowded room, make my way through traffic.
The problem is that while on the outside, I may just appear to be walking through a crowd, on the inside it can feel like I'm walking slow-motion through quicksand, wanting desperately to escape before I'm pulled under by a wave of anxiety. These are the days that leave me breathless, defeated -- days when a panic attack comes out of nowhere and interrupts seemingly mundane, everyday situations. The tricky thing about anxiety is that it can often sneak up on a person in the form of bodily symptoms before their mind can catch up with it. Heart palpitations, vertigo, stomach aches, and insomnia have all been friends of mine that never arrive saying, "Hey! I'm a symptom of your unconscious anxiety!" but rather, try to trick me into believing that they, themselves, are things I should fear.
After the new doctor and I got acquainted, I explained this lifelong, on-and-off anxiety to him, and how it had been intensified lately. How I was committed to getting rid of it -- as if it was a pile of trash I finally agreed to take out. I explained I had tried countless things over the years to cure it, everything from cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR to meditation, yoga, herbal remedies, and SSRIs.
The doctor, this stranger, who I had again inevitably poured my heart out to, paused for what felt like an eternity before clearing his throat. He looked at me in earnest and said: "We don't want to get rid of your anxiety entirely."
I laughed at his suggestion. How could something that made me feel so handicapped be worth keeping? Like a worn-down security blanket, my anxiety disorder was something I had been embarrassed to still possess. I always kept holding out hope that one day I would outgrow it. I fantasized about the "normal" laid back person I could be -- if only I could fix my anxiety. Laid Back Me wouldn't care about much, she'd be flexible and easy to make plans with. She'd let long, drawn out silences fill the air after someone spoke, as if to say: I really hear you. Laid Back Me would go where the wind took her, without batting an eye or needing a Xanax. I also pictured Laid Back Me wearing cowboy boots and a DIY fishtail braid, and maybe like, making her own Kombucha.
But that's not me.
I am expressive and enthusiastic and creative and sensitive and yes, anxious.
Something people who don't suffer from anxiety often fail to grasp is that it's not logical. It's not something a person decides to be consumed with, or something that can be cured by simply "snapping out of it." I can do deep breathing exercises, read self-help books, take all the yoga classes in the world, and sometimes, on rare occasions, the anxious thoughts, the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms... they still don't go away.
When I snapped back to reality, the doctor repeated his psychological platitude again. "We don't want to get rid of your anxiety," he repeated. "We just want to manage it so it's at a lower level." I repeated his words in my mind, finally deciding I somehow agreed with them. This was a revelation for me: that I wasn't in his office -- or any other -- to cure my anxiety. That I couldn't make it go away entirely, and shouldn't set out to fix a presumably broken mind or smooth the rough edges I had assumed made me pathetic. I was there to normalize and accept my anxiety for what it was and continue to manage my symptoms -- not look for a quick fix.
The doctor explained that even if I was able to "cure" my anxiety, I wouldn't be happy with it completely extracted from my psyche: It was an evolutionary mainstay, and while somewhere along the line my brain had intensified that fight or flight response in situations that didn't always merit it, humans still needed a small level of that impulse to avoid dangerous situations. On some level, this anxiety was a part of what made me an ambitious person, someone who is imaginative and caring -- not cold and unfeeling.
Over the many years I've dealt with an anxiety disorder, I've learned countless ways of managing it. I've learned that eight hours of sleep helps a hell of a lot more than five. I've learned that, for me, switching from coffee to tea reduces the likelihood of a panic attack. I've learned about positive self-talk, and proactive self-care, and that I need a long walk or run every day to feel my best. But that day, talking to yet another stranger, sitting in another office, pouring out my secret shame, was the first time I realized my anxiety wasn't something I had to be embarrassed by or abolish entirely.
An anxiety disorder is just one aspect of the fragile compendium of thoughts and feelings, blood and bone, that make up the spirit of the person suffering from it. We all have fear; some people just feel it more than others. While my anxiety doesn't define me, and some days it's nowhere to be found, I can't pretend it's not a small part of who I am -- a part I can continue to manage but still need to accept. For anyone suffering from an anxiety disorder, your anxiety does not make you defective -- it makes you human. And at the end of the day, after we've conquered another 24 hours of tasks both mundane and difficult, after we've survived threats both real and imaginary, accepting our humanity in all its messiness and beauty might be the bravest feat we undertake.
For more posts on radical vulnerability and self-acceptance, visit www.scotchandthefox.com