Time and time again, I’ve heard people describe individuals with anxiety as being “dramatic” or “just wanting attention.” I’ve heard and I’ve had to endure the perception that because I am an anxious being, it must be because I want everyone to pay attention to me and my problems and, hence, I need to just “get over it.” But anyone with anxiety knows that this isn’t true. Anxiety isn’t just a switch you can turn off in your head and say, “Lights out!” It’s like a parasite that has latched onto your mind, and won’t let go of it’s host without a fight. It’s like a hypothetical ghost that you can never quite vaporize because your world is in constant limbo. And it haunts you and it whispers into your defenseless ears: What if….what if….what if. The fact of the matter is though, this ghost is hypothetical. It doesn’t actually exist. You just think it does, like all of your unreasonable worries, fears, and dilemmas, which is why it sticks around and feeds off of your irrelevant and imaginary issues.
What if I don’t finish all of my work tonight? What if I get into an accident tomorrow? What if he doesn’t love me back? What if I get sick and I can’t do that really important presentation tomorrow? What if he doesn’t text me back? What if I get my car looked at and I have to pay $500 dollars that I don’t have tomorrow? What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not good enough?
You may have had a question or two like this pop into your head. For some people, they only grapple with these theoretical trigger questions when they are under more stress than usual. For others, like me, it is a constant and lifelong state of mind. For normal people, these what if’s may be about simple and relevant daily occurrences. For people with anxiety, these are often a mix of realistic and irrational worries. Our brains could go from, “What if I don’t have enough gas money to get to work this week?” to, “What if my future lover doesn’t want to be with me because I have a curved pinky?” Anxiety isn’t something that you are born with. Anyone can become anxious at any time and for any reason. But there are just some people in this world who seem to be nervous and worried about everything. I don’t remember agonizing over how I was going to get to school when I was eight. I don’t remember obsessing over if I couldn’t find a particular pen to draw unicorns with. As a child, I would get lost in my friend’s woods while reenacting scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I would play in the grass during recess and not worry about what kind of bugs might be crawling in my hair. I was pretty carefree growing up. Until one day, well, I just started to give a hell of a lot more about everything around me and how it affected me.
I think the root of my anxiety was my parent’s divorce. Not that it was the only thing, but I believe it was a pretty big event that created more than just ripples in my adolescent life. It also didn’t help that my mental image of high school was a puzzle I had put together from every and any high school movie I had watched during middle school with Mean Girls serving as my main reference point. For the first time in my life, everything felt difficult and uneasy. I had never felt the weight of society and the world on my shoulders as much as I did my freshmen year of high school. So many things in my own world had changed and I didn’t have a lot of control over it. And that’s just it. I didn’t feel like I was in control of anything anymore, including my emotions. When I got off the bus for my first day of high school, I remember my black converse hitting the pavement and feeling as if they were filled with cement as I trudged toward the entrance. Once I had reached halfway to the two, blue double doors, I froze. I didn’t want to take a step forward because I didn’t know what was going to happen. The future of my first day of school was unclear to me and I didn’t like that. It twisted and curled every vein in me to seek out something familiar and something good. I didn’t feel safe and I began to hyperventilate. And the worst thing about it was how I became more anxious at the thought or action of being anxious, just as some people have the sudden urge to vomit at the thought of feeling nauseous or at the sight of seeing another person vomit.
I spent the next two hours in the nurse’s office and my mom picked me up from school. For the first few days, this was the routine. Until, after the third day, my mom told me I had to go to school and that I couldn’t hide from my worries and my problems. “Everyone has to face them at some point,” she said. “That’s how we learn to overcome them.” I knew she was right, but the thought of not knowing what was going to happen during the school day made my stomach churn and fill with shivering moths rather than fluttering butterflies. On the fourth day, I managed to step off of the bus and move my body toward those two double doors, knowing that there was no where for me to run today. I was going to have to go to school whether I liked it or not. And you know what? I had a pretty good first day. I didn’t get shoved into a locker by a senior or get my lunch money stolen. I didn’t get as lost as I envisioned myself getting. And I wasn’t as alone on that day as I let myself feel I would be.
The main difference between being anxious and being dramatic is this: People who are dramatic are seeking attention, while people who are anxious are seeking comfort. Dramatic people complain about things without the worry in their voice and they want people to pay attention to their problems. While anxious people are often silent problem solvers. We are always wondering where the nearest exit or bathroom is in case we have a panic attack and need to throw up. We are always obsessing over our relationships with others because we don’t want to lose the only forms of intimacy that we trust and feel safe with. Our minds are always racing in an effort to confirm the safety of each and every circumstance. It is important to understand that we don’t want to be this way. We often wish we could be as carefree as our friends and family members might be about most things. And we only voice our concerns, problems, and worries when we feel that we can’t solve these problems on our own; when we have fallen into a black sea of despair and brokenness about ourselves. We want someone to save us from our damn intangible and mind wrangling ghost that won’t stop haunting our thoughts and our dreams, seductively inviting us to indulge in that delicious, malicious, and self-destructive phrase: what if. We want to resist and desist it, but the invitation it presents is often too attractive to our apprehensive selves.
Of course, this is when people tell you, “Oh, just get over it.” But I can’t. We can’t. Anxious people live in the future, while others either live in the past or the present. We know we can’t go back to the past and change things, and we are afraid to improvise in the present. So we try, with all of our might, to develop special and mystical powers to see into the future. By knowing what the future holds, we think we can control the present. If we have mapped out every possible circumstance, situation, or conundrum that may occur in the now, then we will already have the answers, and in knowing the answers, we find comfort. But we know there is one thing that no matter how much we may think we can see into the future, we know we cannot control. How will others feel about us when we are in our most fragile, agitated, and skeptical state?
This our most intense worry and our biggest fear. What if somebody won’t love us because of the way we are? What if somebody won’t love us because of the way our brains are wired and can’t be logistically reworked? What if we will always be alone to face this quibbling ghost that clutters our mind and to endure these shivering moths that infest our gut? When I first started dating in high school, I could barely make it through five minutes of spending time with my boyfriend of two months. During my junior year, I stayed home sick for three days because I was worried about seeing my boyfriend at the time. I kept tossing around all of the what if’s of how I could mess up our relationship, as if I could create some sort of detailed map or chart to ensure the success of the relationship and to reassure myself that I would, in fact, not mess it up. I wanted to be loved and I didn’t want to showcase the true inner workings of my brain for fear that they would not be accepted or reciprocated. But the real question and the realistic what if dangled in front of me, like a carrot swaying tantalizingly in front of a rabbit. What if trying to predict the future is preventing you from living in the present?
I tucked this question into my back pocket when I went to college the following year. I still grappled with plenty of anxiety throughout my four years. I was anxious about school, friendships, relationships, my major/career choice, and myself. The first two years were more difficult. I reverted back to the same process I used in high school. I’ll try to go to class today. Nope, forget that. I’ll just go back to my dorm room and stay under the covers. Tomorrow is another day. I’ll go tomorrow. Repeat. At one point, I juggled with the idea of being medicated to help subside the pressures that I felt from my constant anxiety. But once I got into my junior and senior year of college, my friendly and fiendish ghost had let it’s ethereal grip release from around my mind. I finally felt like I could breathe and live in the present more than I had ever been able to before.
Now being a soon to be twenty-four year old, I have learned how to live with my ghost. I learned to develop coping mechanisms and to use them whenever I feel irrationally (or, hell, even reasonably) anxious or worried. I inhale and exhale deeply to clear my head. I make myself a cup of tea to cleanse and warm my heart. I take a shower to wash the trivial problems from my body as if they are inconspicuous grime. There are a lot of coping mechanisms I resort to when I know my ghost is gripping my emotions a little tighter than I would like it to. But even in my day to day world, I still have irrational thoughts. I still mumble what if’s to myself when I am alone, and I still wonder where the nearest exit or bathroom is in the event I need to purge myself of all my worries. Because the truth is anxiety feels like a vicious circle without an exit. People like me never feel completely at ease with the world around them. We care a lot about others, ourselves, and our world, and we show this by, perhaps, caring too much, which then translates into feeling like we have to be the world’s number one problem solver. Anxious people don’t create problems. We feel the weight of problems that are a result of real issues like low self-esteem, perfectionism, and from other issues that stem from just being a gosh darn human being. And we need someone to help us sift through the trivial “it’s okay to let it go problems” and the legitimate problems that will truly affect our lives if we waste time and energy on the ones that our ghost creates and instigates for us.
Yes, anxiety can be a mental disorder. I know that sounds scary and unattractive to others that don’t understand what this form of thinking entails. However, I think everyone has a little bit of anxiety. Everyone just has a different aspect in their life that provokes it. And I think anxiety can be a good thing from time to time. If you aren’t anxious about anything at all during your lifetime, it means you don’t care about anything enough to get worked up about it in a way that might seem compulsive and toxic at times (and we wouldn’t want to think that you are a psychopath). The funny and ironic thing about anxiety is having the need to control everything, while not being able to control your need to control everything. But in order to truly live as someone who suffers from anxiety, you have to let go of this need to control the future in order to exist in the present, which is the location in time where we truly love, feel, and experience the beautiful, the tragic, and the anxiety-inducing dilemmas of life.