Originally posted September 19, 2017 on the previous Little Mountains Blog website.
For as long as I can remember, I have been making adjustments to keep my anxiety quiet and happy.
I went home early before every pep rally in middle school because they’d make the auditorium dark as it began, and that scared me. I didn’t go to the movie theater for years as a kid for the same reason. I didn’t fly for twelve years of my life because airplanes married my fear of heights and small spaces. When I lived in LA, I often asked my friends to drive because the extensive freeways gave me panic attacks. I’ve never been a big drinker because just the thought of losing control of myself makes me want to throw up.
Even now, every day, I make adjustments. It’s a practice I will keep for the rest of my life. And that’s okay with me.
But I’ve worried for most of my life that it wouldn’t be okay with other people. I’ve kept quiet about why I do the things I do, and hoped that my “quirks,” if you will, would be too minor for people to notice. Most of the time, no one questioned me. And I wouldn’t share the real reasons behind my behavior unless pressed until there was no other justification.
But living like that was exhausting. I was tired of constantly covering my tracks. Tired of coming up with excuses. Tired of adding to the internal battle that already is anxiety by keeping my truth locked up.
Like many, I’ve kept all of this to myself over the years because there’s a stigma involved in admitting the severity of my anxiety. In giving in to mental illness. There’s a shame to it. But lately I’ve been trying to shift my thinking about my disorder. I’ve been looking at it as a health issue, because that’s what it is. Mental illness is a chemical imbalance of the brain. Anxiety (and depression, and OCD, and bipolar disorder, etc.) is very, very real. And it is something I shouldn’t be ashamed about affecting the way I live my life. Something I won’t let control me, but that I must learn to live with every day nonetheless.
In turn, I’ve been trying to be more open about my anxiety disorder to those around me. It’s not something I feel the need to drone on and on about, but I’m becoming more comfortable being up front. Telling people why I have to do things a little differently. Saying it out loud.
Hearing myself say things like “my anxiety” and “panic disorder” feels like having a dream where I show up somewhere important and realize I’ve forgotten to wear pants. It’s exposing and it’s being vulnerable and it’s inviting judgment. But for the most part, I’ve found empathy and connection. For the most part, people are understanding even if they don’t know what I’m going through. I’ve found common ground with people I would have never guessed struggled with the same issues I do. I’ve answered honest questions from people who don’t have experience with mental illness and want to understand better. And I’ve been able to be a resource to people I’ve now let see me in this light.
I’m sure some have judged me, because it’s human nature. To those that don’t experience anxiety every day as a mental disorder, my reasons may sound like excuses. That’s okay. I’ll keep writing and living and speaking out loud because that’s what it’s going to take to help change the stigma. And that is hugely important to me. Changing the stigma that says I’m making excuses, that says I can control my own disorder, that says I’m being dramatic. That says “just calm down.” That says “just be happy.” That says “your feelings aren’t valid.”
I’m finding a kind of power in my attempt at transparency. I’m no longer hiding behind my web of excuses. I’m no longer wondering if people think I’m weird or a loser or dramatic. And if they do, I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m owning my disorder, even though that feels a little weird to write. And in doing so I’m gradually finding a little more peace with the person I am.