I’ll be honest: A lot of the behaviors caused by my particular brand of anxiety have gotten me into trouble in my life because, for a long time, I had no idea that they were symptoms of a bigger mental issue and not, you know, how everyone else operates. Because our society’s definition of depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (which is, I recently learned, an anxiety disorder that has its own spectrum) are so limited, I often found myself reacting in ways that felt totally normal at the time to the confusion, frustration, and sometimes disdain of those around me.
Here are a few of those things:
1) Within 30 minutes of leaving anyone’s company, I’ve convinced myself that I ruined it. Involuntarily, I will replay everything I said during the entire interaction and I will even physically flinch when I remember a particularly awkward misstep (I do the flinching-at-a-bad-memory thing all the time, btw. Even in public. More on that in a minute). I will then apologize for generally existing afterward and copiously thank whomever I was with for inviting me along, no matter how close I am to the person and how often we see each other.
2) I apologize constantly. Not only will I profusely apologize for missteps in the moment (real or imagined), but I used to feel compelled to go back and apologize for mistakes of mine that happened so long ago nobody remembers them but me. I used to think that this was a virtue, but the more I did it, the more I realized I was just mentally convincing myself that I shouldn’t be around other people and perpetuating my own delusion that all I do is ruin things. This lead to a lot of self-hatred toward my current and past selves (I’ve burned journals in hopes of purging memories of my darkest moments. It doesn’t work.) and has only exacerbated my anxiety toward having real social interactions. Basically, my brain was just painting me into a corner. While a lot of people have made fun of or scolded me for my overzealous apologies, the best of my friends know how to acknowledge them and let me know they aren’t necessary in a gentle and understanding way. These are massive blessings.
2b) I Obsessively Revise Everything even after I submit it. My second-guessing means I obsessively re-edit every single thing that gets published of mine for hours – sometimes days, even after its gone live…even FB status updates and comments. No, I’m not kidding. This post is on its 27th draft according to my updates and it went live an hour ago..
3) Isolation is my M.O. This is weird, because I’m an extrovert who wilts without a little daily social interaction. Unfortunately, my cycle of anxiety makes it so that I can rarely relax and act like myself around most people without my nerves going nuts in the moment and making me act all erratic, and then berating myself for acting like a normal, flawed human afterward. After awhile, I will convince myself that nobody wants to put up with my nonsense anymore, which leads to me flaking out on people I care about a lot – something that has gotten me chewed out by a lot of friends over the years who seem to think I’m blowing them off for something better. (If this applies to you, please know that I probably spent the evening in my bed listening to music or watching reruns of some Graham Linehan show to distract myself from my rambling brain. It was not awesome.) As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at communicating where I am mentally and why I’m hesitant to reach out, but I still keep my Friends Lists very small as a means to temper my self-doubt about taking up space in general. And I’ve straight-up blocked people just because I know seeing their faces will put me into a tailspin, even if they’ve done nothing wrong to me recently. There are a few people who can ruin my week just by saying “Hi!” through zero fault of theirs. Simply put: Usually when I disappear without saying anything, it really is me, not you.
4) My intrusive thoughts make silence unbearable. There is no zen with doing menial tasks as promised by generations of monks; instead, my mind will involuntarily ruminate on traumatic memories until I am completely overwhelmed with emotion as though I am back in the moment all over again. It is like walking around with raw nerves exposed all the time. This is when the physically-flinching-while-remembering-a-bad-interaction comes in, which happens at least once every day. Sometimes, I’ll even make a little noise as a response. Again, none of this is on purpose. On any given day, I could be reliving any trauma from my past, from a sexual assault that happened a couple years ago to a violent instance of bullying in my youth to something hurtful someone casually said the week prior – my mind just likes dredging crap up from any era to make me feel terrible. Luckily, I’ve learned to recognize that these are just obsessive cycles, and that I shouldn’t act on whatever feeling I’m immersed in, but they’re still pretty torturous to endure every week. So, as much as I enjoy being alone, I do best when I have music or a podcast going. Similarly, I can only meditate with audio guidance.
5) …But Sensory Overload Pisses Me Off. I had no idea why I got so crabby when there was too much going on around me, but as my anxiety disorder progressed, so did my inability to tolerate even the gentlest of chaos. I can go to places like movies, concerts, or even clubs because there’s one usually major focal point, but often when it’s too loud and there are too many things attempting to get my attention, I magically morph into a megabitch. As aforementioned, anxiety is the body’s tendency to go into fight-or-flight mode when there isn’t any actual threat (a remnant from the days when humans did have to be on alert all the time in order to survive), so someone with the disorder already has heightened sensitivity in those moments; if the sensations get too elevated, it can cause disaster. I’ve had a meltdown just trying to narrow down my clothing choices for a trip to the grocery store before, so the idea of two people trying to talk to me at once while in a bright, noisy area can cause my inner survivalist warrior to unleash her wrath in the moment, to the confusion and irritation of those around me.
6) Traditional talk therapy is counterproductive. Because I didn’t understand that my compulsive ruminations were a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I never ever assumed that I was on the spectrum because I’m not a tidy person, I don’t have any tangible rituals, and I don’t exhibit any of the other socially-recognized OCD behaviors. Naturally, I assumed that me remembering all this pain meant I needed to “work on it”, so I went to therapy to talk about the trauma I couldn’t seem to get past. And I talked about all of it. Repeatedly. With multiple doctors. For 12 years. And it still tortured me almost daily. It was only after I learned more about intrusive thoughts in conjunction with anxiety disorders did I realize that this type of cognitive therapy exacerbates the problem by forcing me to focus on it, assign it importance, and allowing it to drain my time and energy while dominating my emotions. Meanwhile, what I should have been learning was how to recognize which of my emotions were warranted and which were fabricated by anxiety’s tendency to put me in fight-or-flight mode for no reason.
7) I’d Rather Drink Than Take Anti-Anxiety Pills. Alright, listen, I’m not endorsing spending one’s life in a drunken stupor. I’m a fan of yoga and meditation and long hikes in the woods and naps and orgasms to temper my anxiety; they’re my go-tos. However, I do recognize that, when those things aren’t available in a hyper-stimulating social environment, it only takes one drink to shut down my nagging, abusive inner voices and let me be present in the moment without the torture of self-doubt or hyper-analysis ruining my time. This realization was, of course, what first allowed me to self-medicate my undiagnosed depression and anxiety when I was a minor and had no one willing to take me to a mental health professional, and, as a result, I way, waaay overdid it to embarrassing, crippling extremes. Later, I tried Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan (NOT all at once!) as prescribed to try to temper my anxiety, but each quickly ate away at my short-term memory and ability to function day to day. I felt like a zombie with no drive anymore who couldn’t focus or remember anything. When I tried to stop taking any of them for even a day, my anxiety would come back stronger and with more physical symptoms than it had ever been naturally; these medications made me feel dependent on them more quickly than any other substance I’ve ever tried. I quit as soon as I could, despite being desperate for reprieve. These days, I’m not on anything at all for my depression, anxiety, OCD, or suicidal ideation, and I don’t drink daily or even weekly, but I do recognize that, for me, grabbing a beer or a glass of wine in a social environment when my demons get too loud is the most manageable, reliable means to actually enjoy myself. It’s not a truth I’m happy with, but it’s one I recognize so I can keep it in check.
8) Oh, and Weed Doesn’t Work on Me at All. To answer your next question: No, Mary J is not my friend. For more than a decade now, I’ve only ever had overwhelming anxiety and paranoia when I try to smoke or eat any strain of the stuff, and in my case, it’s best just to skip it. Yes, I understand that it’s great for a lot of people’s anxiety and many other mental disorders. I am not one of those people, unfortunately.
9) Education Only Helps So Much. It took a LOT of research for me to figure all this stuff out about myself. I know more about psychology, psychiatry, endocrinology, and reproductive health than anyone with a BA English and no aspirations to work in the medical field really should. Even 15 years of seeing therapists and psychiatrists didn’t educate me about what I was going through as well as reading others’ stories and learning to delineate which of my symptoms were “normal” and which were indicative of a disorder. Many of the tendencies I’ve always had were never addressed or asked about by specialists, so I always assumed that everyone dealt with what I do but could just handle it better than I did… which lead to a lot of self-hatred and self-medication. However, even all these years later of proactively educating myself and chasing treatments (and relief), I’ve had to realize that there’s a lot of this I may always have to live with for forever. Learning how to recognize, manage, and coexist with this is the only DIY project I haven’t abandoned halfway through. While I’m better than ever, I see that this has the potential to continue shifting and changing and I’ll have to navigate it as it evolves.
It’s the full-time job I never applied for but somehow haven’t managed to quit yet. For that, I’m still grateful.