What It’s Really Like to Have Anxiety
“People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.” -Glennon Doyle
I can’t say with any certainty that I am viewed as having it all together. I have, however, been complimented for my ability to remain calm or to calm others. In my days as a project manager, it was a strength often highlighted in my performance reviews. One supervisor actually used to mistake my calm attitude for a lack of understanding the urgency of the issue, until he learned I very much understand the urgency, but can’t address it if I get frantic.
During my application process to become a Hospice volunteer, the coordinator told me after speaking to my three references that she had never seen a single word used so consistently to describe someone. What word is that, I asked. “Calm. Every single person commented on how calm you are.”
Calm. That is a marvelous state.
Imagine how it must feel to be known for being calm and to hold a diagnosis of anxiety. It sometimes feels that my entire self has been taken from me.
How does anxiety present in me? My body feels tight. My breathing becomes really short. My heart thuds faster. I awake at 2 a.m. and remain awake until 5 a.m. That is assuming I even got to sleep in the first place. Every possible decision — from what action to take to what shirt to wear — becomes steeped with dread of making the “wrong” choice.
Then, when I lie in bed in the wee hours of the morning worrying about how I can’t sleep and noticing how short and fast my breaths are, I remember that my mother’s heart attack was preceded by shortness of breath (side note: women’s symptoms are often different than men’s; know your tells!). So I tell myself that it’s likely “only” anxiety. Calm yourself. I put on soothing music with nature sounds, I focus on my breath — which is oh my goodness, really short and rapid. What if it really is a heart attack? which, of course, only antagonizes the anxiety, which speeds up the heart, which shortens the breath, which… you see where this is going.
I have had two EKGs in the past 14 months. It’s not a heart attack (though I will still be mindful of signs). When I received the diagnosis of “general anxiety” last year, the doctor asked if there had been any changes in my life recently. I laughed a nervous, short-breathed laugh. In the previous year? Marriage ended. Single motherhood. New home — that I had to take care of all by myself. New town — where I knew no one when I arrived. New job. Ex-husband’s new girlfriend. New school for my son — who was starting kindergarten. New puppy. Nothing major there!
I thought I had been handling things rather well, all things considered. Sure, I had moments where I broke down and cried. That was to be expected. Most of those occurred behind closed doors, mostly so my son wouldn’t worry. People kept telling me how well I looked, how they would have been a wreck, how calm I was.
And mostly I was. Except when I wasn’t.
I got through all of that. I came out the other side. I used every tool in my arsenal to battle anxiety: medication, therapy, the gym, healthier food choices, yoga, early bedtimes, time with friends, time alone to unwind, prayer, meditation, gratitude. I beat it.
The thing about anxiety is that the other side is a bit of a myth. You don’t beat anxiety. You handle it. You manage it. You have really great days. You look calm. Because you are calm. Until one day you aren’t.
Anxiety doesn’t care that “calm” is your thing. It wants to know why you’re not frantic about any of the millions of things that could be going wrong right now. You could be having a heart attack! How can you just lie there? You can’t wear a t-shirt. What if it gets cold? During an anxiety attack, these worries carry equal weight.
It’s not easy, and it’s even less easy to talk about it, because what if people think you’re crazy? What if you are crazy? And some people will wonder what you have to be so anxious about. And some people will tell you to shake it off, which will make you want to shake them. But you won’t, because you’ll be too worried that maybe they are right and maybe this should be much easier to shake off.
This is what it’s like to have anxiety.
Someone you know and love may have this, and you may not even know. Because sometimes the people who need help look a whole lot like people who have it all together.
And honestly, that’s where I’ve been recently. So, I’m back to embracing the many tools in my arsenal. Anxiety isn’t a one-time battle. It’s a war, and I intend to win. Preferably, as calmly as possible.