I have a friend – a kind, reasonable man – who doesn’t understand anxiety. He’d like to, because he knows I suffer from it and would really like to be supportive, but he just doesn’t get it. Sadness, he could relate to, or anger, but the thing that leaves me huddled in a corner on my bathroom floor, shrieking and crying … that, he can’t quite get. And it’s not his fault, really, because people don’t talk about mental ailments the way they do about other illnesses. They’ll tell you everything you’d like to know about their broken bone, kidney stone or asthma, but nobody really likes to talk about what an anxiety attack feels like, because nobody wants to be looked at like they’re crazy.
So here’s how it goes, for me anyway.
The tiniest, most insignificant thing can set it off. Last time for me, it was stuffing. You know, the bread and whatnot you serve with a turkey at Thanksgiving. I was making a new recipe, and I was concerned that it wasn’t going to turn out just right because even though I’d followed the recipe, it seemed like I had way more broth in there than there probably should’ve been. And that’s all it took, just that one little worry that maybe the stuffing wouldn’t be outstanding.
Yes, I know how absurd that sounds. Who cares if the stuffing is a little mushy? Is life somehow going to be diminished in some large capacity because I misjudged the bread-to-chicken-stock ratio? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. Anxiety isn’t reasonable. It doesn’t consider your logical counterargument and say “Oh, my goodness, silly me. I’ll be going now. So sorry!” It does what it wants, when it wants. I know some things that will trigger it for sure, but every once in a while, it just happens.
It starts with a pounding heart. You know that surge of adrenaline you get when you’re startled by something and you suddenly become aware of your heart? Like, ‘HO, HEY, there’s a whopping great something going baboombaboom in the middle of my chest, how about that?’ And then you get over your fright and you go back to happily ignoring your heartbeat. Well, the thudding just keeps going for me and my hands go cold. Then my neck starts to ache as the muscles around my throat constrict, making it hard for me to breathe. When I’m lucky, that’s as far as it gets, and I just feel physically awful for the rest of the day. When I’m not so lucky, I wind up in a mental feedback loop where the fact that I’m upset – and the knowledge that everything is really just fine, soggy stuffing notwithstanding – makes me even more upset, which just makes the symptoms worse, which ratchets things up another notch until it’s just about all I can do to not run away screaming. And so I start crying and can’t stop, and I hide because I don’t want anyone to see me. Which brings us back to that bathroom floor.
Bathrooms are great for hiding because by definition you can have privacy there. It’s a bit dicey at work, where anyone from the building can walk in at any moment, but so long as you’re in a stall and cover your mouth well enough, people have to really pay attention to notice you’re crying so badly that you’re verging on hyperventilation. Last time I had an anxiety attack at home, I curled up on my bathroom floor, terrified of being a bother, of interrupting someone else’s good day, of being asked questions I didn’t know the answers to, like “What’s wrong?”
Somehow, “The stuffing isn’t perfect” didn’t really feel like an adequate answer for why I was howling as quietly as possible on the floor of my bathroom.
I felt so foolish and ashamed, which just made me cry even harder, because seriously, what the hell was wrong with me? A fierce battle was raging in my brain: The reasonable part calmly told me that I should get up and get some help while the unreasonable part shouted NO DON’T LET ANYONE SEE YOU. This went on for the better part of an hour until eventually, I did something really shocking.
I took a chance that maybe when people say “People want to help you, so let them,” it might not be complete bullshit, and I told someone. And that was a big part of me starting to get help for my anxiety.
It’s a hard thing to understand something so baffling, even when you’re going through it. I don’t know what confluence of events led to me being like this, but this is how I am and I have to deal with it. It’s hard to open up and tell someone what’s going on, and even when you do, they might have no clue how to respond. Try not to hold that against them, or use that as a reason not to open up – this is some really tricky stuff.
Just do the best you can. Even soggy stuffing can be delicious if it’s made with love.