I knew the words “separation anxiety” before I knew how to spell my last name.
Even as a child, long words with heavy meanings were the only way I knew how to describe the bone-crushing terror I felt at the most mundane events. Loud noises were the worst, but I was known to jump at the sound of keys clacking, heavy footsteps, and even an ill-timed cough. I was frequently kept awake by intrusive thoughts of my beloved pets dying horrible deaths, and the nightmares that echoed these visions felt so real that I often had trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. I have a vivid memory of Googling “worried all the time why” when I got my first computer at age 10.
When I was old enough to understand that these illogical reactions were a result of childhood trauma, I was better able to counteract my panic attacks. I sought therapy, took meds religiously, and practiced all grades of “alternative” science in my free time: mindfulness, deep breathing, grounding, crystals, you name it.
I’ve found plenty of things to help me cope with my anxiety, but have never found a cure. This used to frustrate me to no end. While my friends all enjoyed skydiving and rollercoasters, I couldn’t even drive past an airport or theme park without breaking into a cold sweat. Some people chew on ginger or peppermints to help with motion sickness, but I use it to keep myself from panic-vomiting every time I get in a moving vehicle.
I hate elevators because I’m scared of them falling. I hate stairs because I’m scared of being locked in the stairwell. I’m scared of staying in my house because I don’t want all my friends to get bored and leave me. I’m scared of going outside because…well, it’s the outside. I’m scared of strangers’ dogs because I’ve been attacked by them in the past. I love cats but I’m scared of having pets because when they die I’m afraid it’ll destroy my heart.
I’m terrified of everything. This is a trait that defines me. My parents, sister, friends, and boyfriend don’t understand it, but they respect it. After turning down an exotic, once-in-a-lifetime vacation (all expenses paid) because it would require getting on a plane, everyone just stopped bothering to invite me anywhere. When my boyfriend and I get married, we’ll have to plan our honeymoon around my anxiety. This is my reality.
I often read articles on holistic remedies for anxiety or personal essays about how people have managed to overcome their biggest fears and become the people they were always meant to be. For a long time, I believed that if I just paid enough money, practiced enough yoga, or read the right books my anxiety would disappear and I would live a carefree life and travel the world, taking cutesy Instagram photos of the back of my boyfriend’s head in front of a jaw-dropping sunset. I don’t know how these nameless, faceless people have conquered their anxiety, but if I ever met them, there’s only one question I’d ask them:
Not how, but why?
Why is our anxiety something to be conquered? Why does it have to be a disease, a disorder, a syndrome to stigmatize and warn against? Why can’t it live alongside us like an annoying roommate who occasionally takes out trash but mostly just leaves more trash in the process?
Yes, my anxiety is bad for my body. It causes me to break out, makes me gain weight, screws up my digestion, and I have to take meds for it which prevents me from being able to drink as much as I’d like to. These meds also cause acne and weight gain, which of course just makes me more stressed. Anxiety can have long-term effects as well, including high blood pressure and heart disease. I actively treat my anxiety with meds and therapy and highly recommend that others do the same.
It would be irresponsible for me to suggest that anxiety should ever go untreated, or that it’s impossible to cure. But my experience is that even with my anxiety tamed with a nightly dose of antipsychotics and a major cutback on caffeine, it still slithers under the surface and informs just about everything I do. I’m still terrified of everything — I just don’t get as many panic attacks as I used to before I began treatment.
I treat my anxiety because I don’t like the way it makes me feel. Not because I feel that it’s anything to be ashamed or afraid of, so to speak.
I believe that my anxiety is my friend. At its very core, all it’s trying to do is keep me safe. It was borne out of necessity. Who am I to tell it that it’s not necessary anymore? When the office on the floor above mine drops what sounds like a bowling ball on the floor (repeatedly, and always at weird hours of the day) and I’m the only one to jump out of my skin, I remind myself that my anxiety is just preparing me in case that noise is the building crumbling to the ground. All my coworkers who stayed calmly seated? They’d be crushed while I’d be the first out the door.
My biggest trigger is loud male voices. When I’m watching a Michael Bay movie (which is a rare occasion, believe me) and a gaggle of men are screaming at each other about some technology or the world ending or whatever, my anxiety screams back, telling me to ready myself for the inevitable abuse that surely will follow. Maybe I’ll have to leave the theatre for a few moments to calm myself down, but guess who’s the first to react when a male bar employee is yelling out questions at Trivia Night? Me.
I picture my anxiety as a tiny, sentient, yellow squeak toy. When something steps on it, it lets out a little shriek. The longer it’s stepped on, the more the shriek turns into a whine and whimper. Likewise, the longer I feel panicked and triggered, the more my anxiety turns from a knee-jerk reaction to a mumbled plea for the trigger to end. It’s unpleasant, and I wish it would end, but I’m not screaming in terror.
It has also prevented me from making stupid decisions. Many people my age have experimented with all sorts of pills and potions. I’ve always watched from afar, too scared of throwing up to participate. After one bad marijuana trip, I decided never to try out the “fun” drugs like LSD and ecstasy, let alone the harder stuff. I’ve never blacked out from drinking, never given myself a stick-and-poke tattoo, and never pierced my own eyebrow. That’s more than I can say for some of my more steel-willed friends.
I wish I could say that this decision to appreciate and embrace my anxiety was a conscious one, but in reality I just got sick of hearing phrases like “just don’t think about it!” or “face your fears!” or the worst: “just calm down”. It became exhausting to have to repeatedly explain why these things were far easier said than done, and eventually I just stopped explaining myself. I talk about being frightened of slammed doors and airplanes as casually as I talk about what I did last weekend (hid inside and played calming video games).
When I practice self-care, usually in the form of face masks and bubble baths, I don’t do so with the intention of erasing my anxiety and “getting over” whatever is bothering me. I practice self-care because it feels nice. It’s not a reprieve, but a reward. My anxiety and I got through the day together — here’s a glass of wine and something expensive from LUSH.
In many ways, my anxiety has been there for me when no one else was. I converse with it internally and it helps me justify decisions that fair-weather friends have scoffed at. “Of course it’s okay that we got an Uber home instead of walking, it’s dark and dangerous outside.” “There’s nothing wrong with turning down plans to go swimming, there’s poisonous jellyfish at the beach this time of year.”
Does my anxiety hold me back? Absolutely. But how can I blame it for doing the very thing it’s supposed to do? At its core, anxiety is just a chemical reaction that’s been naturally programmed as a result of external situations. It’s a survival mechanism. In the same way that I can’t blame my eyes for watering when I get cayenne pepper in them, I can’t blame my anxiety for deciding to put me on high alert when it’s reminded of something that had formerly caused me great pain.
When I’m presented with a situation that absolutely cannot be avoided, which happens multiple times a day, every single day, I’m always able to tell my anxiety that it’s not as important as what needs to get done. I’ve overcome slightly more serious fears (the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios was NOT worth it) and have consistently been able to identify when I’m being unreasonable (refusing treatment for a condition because it would require taking a new medication…never again). I know when I need to seek emergency help and when anxiety is turning into paralyzing panic. I know who I am and what my body is doing. I’m comfortable in my relationship with my anxiety.
Don’t feel bad for me or condescendingly rub my arm when you see I’m feeling uneasy. Don’t “ooh” and “aww” me when I nervously bite my lip or my eyes get large and watery. Don’t make me feel like my anxiety is anything less than a naturally-occurring reaction based on the environment I lived in during my most vulnerable, formative years. For the love of God, don’t tell me to “chill”.
Don’t tell me “it’s okay”. I already know it is.