What You Need to Know About My Anxiety & More

Although I appreciate the majestic stillness of an early morning sunrise, I’m not a morning person, nor have I ever been. On a typical weekday morning, I awaken between 6:45 and 7:15 a.m., rush to get a bath (because baths are for winners!), get dressed, grab my previously-made lunch, jump in my car, and then head to work. Depending on the day, my morning prep lasts 15 to 45 minutes and involves varying degrees of routine, flavors of self-talk, and feelings about the day to come. On my better mornings, I feel well-rested, confident, and ready to take on the day. On my challenging mornings, I feel quite the opposite: fatigued, self-doubtful, and worried—due to what, or about what, I often don’t know. Or, if I do know, I would almost certainly sound silly and illogical if uttered these worries aloud. But hold on, there will be more on that later. First, let me get some thoughts and goals off my chest…

I haven’t published anything for eight months, and so I have a lot to say. But I’ll work to keep my thoughts brief—brief for me at least! This piece describes my relationship with anxiety, correcting commonly-held misconceptions, detailing how anxiety shapes my life, and explaining why I feel hopeful about my ability and our society’s ability to navigate our mental health epidemic. To be sure, I am not a clinical practitioner—again, I am not a mental health expert—however, I have 15+ years of experience navigating clinical anxiety and approximately five years of experience intentionally reframing my thoughts with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). As such, I have the life experience and background knowledge necessary to speak my truths and know that my story will resonate with more people than I can imagine.

I hope my words empower you to better understand and care for those in your life—most importantly yourself, especially, in this case, if you live with anxiety. May these words inspire you to openly and courageously discuss your mental health with those you trust, because mental health is health. We all have it, and therefore we all need to discuss it. And finally, may these words grant you hope, because, despite our challenges, trials, and tribulations, we all have so much potential—so many reasons to believe in ourselves and our abilities to persevere and grow resilience. We also have so many reasons to trust our communities to fill in our gaps when we feel overwhelmed and stretched to the limit. No one can or should fill their every need. We are stronger and greater together, but this wisdom must be practiced if we are to collectively overcome and acheive.

Alas, I was talking about my anxiety…

***

To live with clinical anxiety, or as it’s medically-known “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” (GAD), is to frequently experience moments of deep, irrational, and intrusive fear. Fear that wells up from your body’s every nook, cranny, and sinew. Fear that prompts you to believe that the other shoe will certainly drop…and soon: You will be fired, or dumped, or humiliated, or have your deepest secret discovered, or—to follow this logical train of thought—you will probably die. Right here, right now. This. Is. It. Game set match. You lost.

To anyone reading this who has not experienced clinical anxiety, these words may seem hyperbolic, but I assure you they are not. On average, I think about my own death and destruction at least daily. Sometimes twice a day. Or five times a day. Or who knows…maybe more. It really depends on where my mind’s at, my current situation, and my current support system. The duration of these thoughts varies, too. Thankfully, I am most often able to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, reframe them, and then carry on with my day, knowing damn well that, by nature, everything I think and feel isn’t logical or justified by present circumstances. Sometimes I’m not so fortunate, however.

When my anxiety’s most intense, I spend large portions of days or weeks in a state of mental and physical turmoil, fear lording over me like an ominous rain cloud. My stomach is perpetually upset, and TUMs become my best friend. I can’t sleep, or I can’t sleep enough. I may feel full, or I may feel continuously hungry. I may feel hyperproductive or not productive at all. Then, of course, there’s crude paranoia. In the most difficult moments, I de-realize or de-personalize, entering a phase where, as the Mayo Clinic puts it, I feel that I am “Observing [my]self from outside my own body, or [I] sense that the things around [me] aren’t real, or both.” I often experience this phenomenon while in public places—grocery stores, malls, schools, and churches—thus, momentarily, forgetting my name, my location, and my reason for doing whatever it is I’m currently doing.

All of these symptoms suck, and the latter one is scary as shit!! If you de-realize or de-personalize, you surely understand. What’s more, if you’re like me, you’ve had long these freaky, out-of-body experiences that you couldn’t explain, couldn’t put words to, and surely couldn’t talk about, for fear of being gaslighted by those who haven’t known (or don’t know) this feeling, this phenomenon. Of course, others’ ignorance doesn’t invalidate your experience, but it hurts.

Regardless, you are a badass, and you are almost certainly doing your best with the tools you have at your disposal, or those that you know of. Plus, as you grow, you will learn how to better cope and adapt. For now, though, give yourself mounds of grace and know that these biological responses are, actually, defense mechanisms—ways for your body to self-preserve when under stress or when (re)-experiencing trauma. In no small way, your body is a badass, too, though it probably doesn’t feel this way in the heat of the moment.

***

As you can now see, clinical anxiety is NO JOKE. It’s more than just feeling stressed—that’s not even the half of it. Thankfully, clinical anxiety can be treated (notice I didn’t say “cured”) in many ways, including but not limited to: practicing mindfulness, CBT, talk therapy, grounding exercises, working out, spending time outside, and developing healthy hobbies. Like anything, you need to find what works best for you. Surely, you will still have your tough moments and days, but they can become fewer and further between if you are willing to do the work necessary to make this so. Building your resilience tool box will enable you overcome difficult situations by solving tangible problems, so that you can lead the life you desire. (I use my resilience tool box every single day!)

Again, some moments will be challenging—heart wrenching even—but I know you can endure… Hell, you’ve done it already. You’ve reached where you are, and surely, some people [read “you”] didn’t expect you would get there, wherever that may be. But you did!

Let’s not forget one very important variable, however…

You reached wherever you are today thanks to tremendous support. For as the old adage goes, “It takes a village to…” beat cancer, raise a child, make a community more welcoming, or you name it! Nothing important or long-lasting can be accomplished without support. And I mean nothing—not health, or education, or joy, learning how to cook the best god damn vegetable curry on this side of the Mississippi, or, in the case of this argument, achieving strong mental health.

Nevertheless, contemporary American society far too commonly views health, wealth, and prosperity in different terms. Popular belief explains that it’s my fault if I didn’t accomplish my goals; systems and communities are not responsible for facilitating my success. And while I wholeheartedly believe in personal responsibility—that I need to do everything possible to lead my best life—I know that this logic is completely, well…illogical. In a word: bullshit.

Again, let’s not forget the importance of social support for everyone’s mental health.

Recently, I have grown increasingly frustrated by inability to discuss my mental health—more specifically, my anxiety—in the places I inhabit: my work, various social circles, professional circles, you name it. Others have treated discussions of my mental health with bug-eyed disgust, even after they have gotten to know me, my humanness, my compassion, and the power of my voice and my abilities. To be sure, my vulnerability has been rebuffed not because I have done anything wrong, but because I remind others of their own insecurities, fears, frailties—issues that they would much rather sweep under the rug than deal with or see the light of day. Put another way, people aren’t afraid of me so much as they are afraid about what my identity might say about theirs’.

Additionally, I’ve found that most people still feel uncomfortable discussing mental health, even as national mental health discourse has become more widespread and normalized. This especially seems to be the case where I live in Sioux Falls, SD—a demographically older, conservative city, whose innate Midwesterness maintains that “If people don’t talk about their problems, then these problems must not exist.” Hmmmm…strong logic there, Johnny. I wonder if my parents would have fallen for that same reasoning when I was a kid and didn’t do my laundry?!

I’m different, of course. I am an open book about my mental health, just like I am with most things. Over the past couple years, though, I’ve been markedly better at establishing relational trust: knowing who I can be vulnerable with, with what information, and when—all of which is paramount. But I won’t bullshit you, either—unless, of course, I don’t trust you or feel safe around you. If this is the case, I’ll probably recoil and return to the places and activities in which I feel safe, known, and completely able to be myself: cooking, playing basketball, telling stories, laughing, or talking to loved ones. And naturally, as all of my friends know, I’d much rather spend time socializing than in solitude, but I have become more comfortable with alone time, especially during the COVID pandemic. Still, living a life in which I, too often, feel unheard and unseen can easily produce negative consequences, especially when catalyzed by a force like anxiety.

When I don’t feel heard, seen, supported, or appreciated, self-destructive behavior becomes progressively easier for me to commit. After all, I just want to feel good, like most people out there, right? And, if I’m not going to feel good in the near future by taking the “high road,” then there’s a good chance I’ll do whatever need to feel better now, even if I know that behavior isn’t the healthiest.

Of course, it surely doesn’t help that I live in the world’s most addicted country, either (at least when it pertains to opioid use, and I wager this holds true for other drugs and behaviors as well.) Practicing unhealthy behavior can feel like a rite of passage in America—a country so addicted to booze, prescription drugs, street drugs, food, work, sex, porn, and consumerism that these behaviors have largely become normalized across everyday life. Keeping up with tradition, American society rarely calls these things by name, choosing to use coded, sometime celebratory language instead. Frequent happy hours and 12-hour days become socially acceptable and encouraged means of numbing our pain and ignoring underlying issues.

American addiction culture isn’t victimless, of course. I think everyone suffers because of it—if for no other reason than because most Americans are addicts. Surely, I’ve suffered from it, too. Food and work have always been my drugs. I also had an intermittently, unhealthy relationship with booze during and shortly after college, which is why rarely drink anymore. I always felt like I had to be someone else when I drank, and that’s just unhealthy, especially given my mental health challenges.

Moreover, instead of creating supportive spaces where all people are welcome, where no challenges are too taboo to process or problem solve, popular American culture often shames those who are vulnerable and speak up about their problems as they strive to overcome them. In so doing, Americans far too often offer these same people drug-mediated spaces to achieve instant highs, which don’t solve their original issues and, surely, give rise to new problems and dependencies.

By discouraging vulnerability, withholding empathy, perpetuating shame and judgement, and failing to provide safe spaces to all to be, Americans prevent entire sectors of its people from achieving their full personal and professional potential. As such, Americans lose out on some of its brightest, most creative, most resilient thinkers and doers, who have gained valuable perspectives and experiences from being battle-tested well beyond the societal norm. Put another way, you lose out when I lose out, when people with mental health diagnoses aren’t afforded the space and dignity that others are. (This is true for many sectors of the population, I should note: POC, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, people who have disabilities, etc.)

Thankfully, there’s a simple, not easy solution: empathy. By eschewing pity and providing spaces for people to authentically be themselves, receive support, and solve problems, you empower everyone involved. You can create the “rising tide that lifts all boats,” but you can only achieve this if you mindfully strive to do so.  

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