So. Anxiety and I have been playing a little get-to-know-you game in my brain recently, even though we’ve clearly actually known each other for quite some time. And basically I’ve come to find that anxiety is just really fucking weird.
Having been diagnosed with clinical depression at age 11, that became my identity when considering my mental health. It only became apparent to me (and my therapist) in the past few years that I suffer from crippling anxiety in addition to depression, and probably have for a very, very long time.
As he pointed out, anxiety causes depression, whereas depression does not cause anxiety. And that was pretty fucking mind-blowing to me (as good therapy should be) because it immediately made me review my early childhood, before I was diagnosed with depression, as well as my life in general, through the lens of anxiety instead and, well…
Suddenly all these canon stories and memories of my childhood took on whole new meaning. Having mysterious and intense stomach aches as a toddler after my mom went back to work, the reality of which my pediatrician explained to my mom by saying there was nothing physically wrong with me, but I was in very real pain. Making myself physically ill for two weeks upon finding out my mom was pregnant with my brother when I was four, which has always been described through a lens of jealousy, but could easily be explained by anxiety as well. The anxious habits I displayed as an older child, common ones like severe nail and cuticle-biting, as well as bizarre things like scraping my upper lip with the rim of my cup after every sip of a drink to make sure I didn’t leave a mustache of any kind, eventually leaving it raw from the slightly rough edges of our classic 80s Tupperware.
And when my mental health crisis came to a head in my tweens, the most obvious symptom was that I so completely dreaded going to school, I began skipping, unbeknownst at first to my parents because we were latchkey kids and almost completely unsupervised most of the time. But it was the day my dad, working from home, caught me, that my mom finally took me to the doctor, which led to a referral for a child psychologist, which led to a diagnosis of clinical depression, months of therapy, and eventual hospitalization and, briefly, medication.
And it’s true. I was depressed. I went from being an outgoing, popular girl at the head of every class academically, who took dance classes and played soccer and softball, to a girl who suddenly wore all black, spent nearly all her free time alone in her room, stopped seeing friends and participating in extracurricular activities, stopped bathing regularly, and traded her Paula Abdul, Belinda Carlisle, and Janet Jackson for Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Pearl Jam. It was classic depression. I cared about absolutely nothing and literally did not want to exist anymore.
But in the year or so preceding the breaking point, I had experienced some significant changes and transitions at school. I had been with the same students at the same school from the end of 1st grade through 4th grade (so already my second school, third if you count preschool), and I had a really tight-knit coed group of friends. But in the fast-developing Orange County of the 80s, new schools were popping up everywhere to serve the incoming families populating the myriad new housing tracts. However, when it came time to open one of these new schools, they found they didn’t quite have enough students yet to fill it, so they carved out a slice of the neighbouring district, which basically consisted of my entire meandering street, plus a few off-shoots. So instead of starting 5th grade with my longtime friends and well-known school staff at a school a few blocks from my house, I started all over again at a new school miles away. And that year happened to be the last year 6th graders were at elementary schools because the junior high was being converted to a middle school for the next school year, so I spent one year at this new elementary school and was then sent off to middle school, where things completely fell apart.
Now add into the background of all this change and upheaval, the fact that I developed obnoxiously early. I was almost always the tallest in my class regardless of gender my entire childhood, had noticeable breasts by age seven, got my period at age nine (nine, folks…4th grade, elementary school…NINE), and absolutely no one guessed my age within several years, ever. My sister is two and a half years older and everyone always assumed I was the oldest. And to be that far off from the norm, both physically and mentally, almost always leads to bullying, and although I was always pretty popular in school, I was most definitely bullied.
Sounds like a recipe for some severe anxiety, no?
But, sadly, none of this was recognized by the adults in my life because I prided myself on being unaffected, at least outwardly. I always, always wanted to be seen as strong and smart and capable, and treated accordingly, starting at a very young age. Apparently by the age of two or so, I was demanding to be treated exactly the same as my older sister, including the responsibilities. I was an extremely responsible, dependable, conscientious child in most respects, and could always be counted on to know what was going on, what needed to happen next, how to handle unexpected occurrences, etc. By age nine or ten, I had a sizable number of babysitting clients, some of whom were trusting me alone for hours at a time with their babies, changing diapers, preparing and giving bottles, putting them to bed. I was viewed as unflappable by the adults in my life, shrugging off stress and uncertainty and even pain, aiming for stoicism in all things, seemingly.
Only now can I look back and see this behaviour for the coping mechanism it truly was.
And so this has become a thing for me now, looking back through my life knowing I have obviously been dealing with undiagnosed anxiety for a very, very long time, and having all these revelations about past and current behaviour.
I avoided parties and dances like the plague as a teenager, even though friends were always begging me to go. In college, I would get extremely loud and painful stomach issues, but only during classes held in large lecture halls, where I felt totally exposed. When hanging out with my sister and her friends, many a comment was made in a teasing manner that it was okay if I spoke, they wouldn’t bite, in response to my amiable but often mute company. When my husband and I were first together and we lived with my brother and two other roommates, we would be hanging out watching a movie or playing a game in the living room, but if someone came to the door (which happened frequently, as it was a house full of 20-somethings in a college town), I would quite literally run down the hall to our room to hide before someone answered the door. And there I would often stay, even after whomever it was left, foregoing finishing the movie or game or whatever we had been involved in for fear someone else might come to the door.
What’s been super fascinating (and bizarre and unsettling somewhat terrifying) is realizing the internal anxious monologue that goes on almost constantly in my brain that I’ve never truly, consciously noticed. Apparently I have an extraordinarily guilty conscience at all times. Why? Who the fuck knows. I’m actually a very play-by-the-rules type of person for the most part, to the point that my much more carefree husband makes fun of me for it, so I am rarely actually guilty of anything. But if my mom sends a text that she needs me to call her, I am immediately riddled with guilt over whatever it is I assume I’m in trouble for–and the stakes go way up if she says my dad needs to talk to me. Holy shit. And they call me a nickname 99.9% of the time, but gods forbid they randomly use my actual name. I’m for sure in trouble then.
And I am a grown-ass fucking woman with a husband and children and house of my own, and I STILL think this way, even though I am, somewhat obviously, never in trouble with my parents anymore.
And things get much worse when I’m out in public, as I clearly feel that at any given moment, someone, somewhere will basically question my right to even exist. I have a continuous affirmation running in my head while out and about reminding myself that I am allowed to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, and that nothing I’m doing is illegal or questionable. And because I’m expecting this confrontation at any and all moments, I’m continually practicing phrases and explanations in my head in anticipation of having to defend myself.
I walked into a store and left with nothing because they didn’t have what I needed? I am ready with a description of exactly what I was looking for and what they had instead that I didn’t want and why just in case someone stops me on the way out because, of course, they’ll assume I was shoplifting. I brought my own shopping bags to the store but they’re not actual reusable ones, they’re just paper ones from the same store I purchased on a previous trip (yes, we pay $0.10 a bag here to help encourage people to reuse)? I am ready to explain that no, I didn’t use these without paying for them at the self-checkout, I brought them from home, using as evidence the greasy stains on the bottoms from where I set them down on my dirty-ass kitchen floor after the last shopping trip.
Driving is definitely a source of anxiety for me, even though I actually really enjoy driving in general and consider myself an excellent driver. I am always scrutinizing and memorizing car orders at intersections, especially four-way stops, so I can defend myself should another driver think I went out of turn. Cop in the rearview mirror? He is definitely coming for me. No matter that I am going the speed limit and using my blinkers and following the law to a fucking T and have literally NEVER gotten a ticket. I get severe anxious stomach until that cop passes me. Every. Damn. Time.
(Ironically, though, I’m generally only going the speed limit when there’s a cop behind me somewhere because I mostly just prefer to speed and have developed various methods for making sure I never get pulled over when I actually am disobeying the law, like being able to spot cops well behind me, even at night just by their headlights and whether or not I can see the shadow of the ubiquitous shotgun between the front seats. I can be weird and contradictory like that sometimes–much like anxiety itself.)
Looking at it all laid out like this, it’s more than obvious that I have probably always dealt with some fairly major anxiety. But anxiety is, again, weird and can be oddly insidious and not always apparent in the moment or for a particular individual. In fact, many, MANY people have and would at this very minute describe me as both outgoing and easygoing, two very accurate descriptors for me. Sometimes. At least on the outside. For that version of myself I prefer to present to the world, often even including those in my inner circle.
And sometimes, the narrative we’ve created for ourselves makes it difficult, if not impossible, to actually see the reality of ourselves. I have always admired individuals and characters who were unflappable–cool, calm, collected–regardless of what life threw at them. And I clearly decided to emulate those traits early on, eventually getting so completely caught up in the narrative I created for myself, that it’s taken many years and countless hours of self-reflection to realize that, while I do indeed possess those traits to an extent, they aren’t the entire story. I am far more nuanced than that, as are we all.
And because we can’t get to where we want to go until we understand precisely where we’re starting from, these revelations, while jarring and painful, are good things. I mean, I don’t particularly want to be someone who deals with anxiety, but I certainly feel vastly less unmoored now that I know that about myself.
It’s a lot easier to set the sails when you know where the wind is coming from, you know?