When you live with anxiety, you are accustomed to the incessant hum of adrenaline in your veins and the prickly spiders-walking-over-your-skin sensation at the back of your neck. You tell yourself this is the disorder. There are no bogeymen tucked behind closed doors or curled beneath the couch. There is no looming cataclysm waiting to be triggered by the wrong choice of outfit or the failure to triple check the doors and light switches. You know – you know – that the delicate cocktail of chemicals in your brain is off and that your mind, like a credulous child, is telling itself stories to make sense of what it is feeling. You’re okay. You say the words to yourself quietly, and then more firmly: “You’re okay.” You just need to get through the next few minutes, the next hour, the rest of the day. Tomorrow might be better. You coax and cajole and outright trick yourself into performing the necessary functions of your life.
The thing about anxiety is that you cannot see it unless you know exactly what to look for and are watching with the unflagging, microscopic scrutiny of a red carpet fashion critic at an awards show. And possibly not even then. For example, if you saw me in a full-fledged panic attack, you might simply register a twitchy, frazzle-haired woman with a possible sweat gland malfunction. Oddly, no one has ever guessed that a shiny helium balloon bobbing in the wind sets off a response in my body as though I’ve just been told a category 5 hurricane is about to make landfall in the grocery store parking lot.
My husband describes me as a duck: on the surface everything looks serene, but under the water, I’m paddling furiously.
What you see: Me, wearing dark glasses, even though it’s a cloudy day.
Deduction: Maybe my eyes are sensitive. Maybe I have contacts and I don’t want dust to get in them. Maybe I don’t want people to see how tired my unmade-up eyes look.
Reality: Dark glasses are a magic shield that protects me from having to make eye contact with you.
What you see: Me, at a social event, being extra attentive and focused on my husband and children.
Deduction: What a happy family! Look how we all enjoy each other!
Reality: We do enjoy each other, but when my social anxiety is high, I hyper focus on my family because they are my safe place. Also, see previous point about not having to make eye contact with others.
What you see: Me, exercising.
Deduction: Now, there’s a woman who cares about physical fitness and is taking care of herself.
Reality: Yes, fitness, blah blah blah. More importantly, I want the endorphins that come after a good workout. Medicine helps. Therapy helps. But without regular exercise, my mental state rapidly deteriorates. I’d like a nice ass, but mostly, I’d like to not feel and act like one. Working out keeps me balanced.
What you see: Me, in sweatpants, a fine-knit jersey tee that feels like something you’d snuggle a baby in, and maybe a pair of Uggs.
Deduction: Someone can’t be bothered to put on grownup clothes.
Reality: One of the best ways to calm my free-floating anxiety is to basically swaddle myself in softness. If I could get away with wrapping myself from head to toe in a blankie on my worst days, I would. I realize this often gives me the appearance of having raided a sorority girl’s closet, to which I say, in the appropriate vernacular, “Whatevs.”
What you see: Me, carrying a bottle of water and drinking frequently.
Deduction: So health conscious! Hydration is important.
Reality: Anxiety makes my mouth go dry. Drinking water alleviates the dryness and also gives me something concrete to do while my brain is whizzing like a Ninja blender. I hear it’s good for your complexion, too.
What you see: Me, brow furrowed with concentration, tapping away at my phone.
Deduction: Workaholic! Can’t even pull her head out of the phone for a second.
Reality: There could actually be a few things going on here. 1) I really am working. Or just screwing around on Facebook. 2) I am writing something down because stress and anxiety make things fall out of my head and I have problems with short-term memory. This means I forget to do things like keep appointments, pick up my kid on time, and respond to emails. I used to keep a million lists until my therapist told me to keep only one. I do, and I add to it and check it frequently. 3) I’m pulling the old George Costanza con. Remember on Seinfeld when George is working for the Yankees but he doesn’t know what the hell he is doing and he figures out that if he just acts busy and a little bit pissed off all the time, people assume he is doing something important and they leave him alone? Like that. See also: avoiding eye contact.
What you see: Me, acting completely normal.
Deduction: It’s all good.
Reality: Possible Def Con 1 level panic attack in progress. You would never fucking know. I might have slipped a Xanax in my mouth like a breath mint and now I’m just waiting for it to kick in.
There are other times when it is impossible to hide what is happening because of all the shaking and crying, but those are few and far between these days. What I know from talking about this openly (and by openly, I mean here, in the privacy of the Internet – don’t come up to me in person and try to discuss this, for godsakes) is that there are a lot more of us ducks out there than you can imagine. To my fellow sufferers of atypical brain chemistry, I offer a shy, sweaty-handed salute of solidarity.
Photo credit: “I miss you, death makes angels of us all” by Jack is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.