Anxiety doesn’t need permission to wrap its skeletal fingers around your heart and squeeze. Anxiety ignores the social cues you give off that let it know it’s unwanted. Anxiety never learned the word "no."
Now, I don’t mean that night-before-a-big-exam type of anxiety that keeps you up late studying, or even the wow-that’s-really-far-down anxiety right before you take a dive. I mean the kind that has no reason to exist. The kind that sneaks its hateful tendrils through your chest and refuses to let go. I mean the kind that is trying to stop me from writing this by twisting my heart and stalling my breath as I type these words into being.
Anxiety doesn’t like you talking about it.
When I was in high school, I thought I knew what anxiety was. We, my classmates and I, would use it synonymously with the word ‘nervous,’ thinking that we were intelligent.
But none of us knew any different, or if we did we didn’t feel comfortable sharing. We would talk about how some people used anxiety as a reason to get drugs—but anxiety wasn’t really that bad, they must just be doing it for attention. After all, if we high schoolers could handle it, full grown adults certainly should have been able to (and at that age, anyone older than us counted as “adults.”) All you had to do was take deep breaths and try to relax. It never lasted very long—you just had to make it until the stimuli had passed. It really wasn’t that bad.
School kids always think they know everything.
In college I started learning more about mental disorders and how detrimental even a minor case of one can be. Depression isn’t just something that you can fix with positive thinking, and even medication doesn’t necessarily help. However, in some small, quiet part of my mind, I guess I still thought that, if you were strong enough, you could fight anything. I still thought myself invincible—I had never needed anyone or anything before; I was the strongest person I knew. I would never have these problems because I could simply decide to be happy, or calm, or “normal” and I would be. Mind over matter and all that.
Then came the summer before junior year.
I didn’t know what was happening, at first. I woke up to my heart pounding out an unrecognizable rhythm against my breastbone. My body was tense with an energy I never possessed that early in the morning. My breath was coming in painful, short gasps. My lungs were constricted with air.
I decided to take a shower.
As the hot water poured over my face and body, my heart stopped pounding that tribal beat. Without my conscious knowledge my lungs started working normally again. All the energy that had had me so tense circled in the water around the drain before following it down and out. By the time I turned off the taps I had forgotten, or, at least, decided to ignore, the event.
A few weeks later this same feeling came over me, this time with the added benefit of trembling appendages, while I was cooking dinner with my parents. I sat down, but continued conversation as if nothing was wrong. But something was wrong—I hurt, and I didn’t know why. I checked my hands under the table, away from their prying eyes, and saw the extremity to which they were shaking.
But shaking hands were not new to me. I decided I was simply dehydrated and asked my mother for a glass of water, telling her I was light-headed. This was normal for me when I was younger, so there were no questions asked. I continued on with my day until, after about half an hour, the shaking finally went away.
These episodes continued for the next few months, sometimes while I was conscious, others I woke up to. Since I couldn’t figure out what it was or what caused it, I ignored it. I told myself that if I pretended it didn’t exist, if I didn’t give it that power, it would go away. But it never did.
Instead, it grew.
By the time school started up again the worst that had ever happened was tension, difficulty breathing, and a painful heartbeat—but they were much more common now. : Nno longer once or twice a week, but once or twice a day for hours at a time. I started googling my symptoms and found the answer— anxiety. That was the stalker that watched me during the day, the rude neighbor who woke me much too early every morning.
But I was strong, so I didn’t need to see or talk to anyone about it. I had been managing all summer; I could keep living through it. After all, I had gotten this far on my own. I couldn’t allow it to control my life. I would recognize when it started happening and ignore it. Simple.
Until it got worse.
One warm September day I was at work when I felt anxiety begin its slow creep into my system. It started from the center of my being—my chest. I had been working on homework when I felt the copper wire twist around the most protected organ in the human body. It spiraled round and round and tied its end to its beginning, conducting the energy in a continuous circle that made my heart rattle harder against its bone cage than it ever had before. I felt the dark tendrils of smoke whirl their way around my lungs, making camp in the tissue, leaving little room for oxygen. I quickly thrust my hands into my lap to keep the patron in front of me from noticing their quiver. My foot started to unconsciously tap against the floor.
Two hours later I was on my way home, still filled with this tension I couldn’t shake. When I finally reached my door it was with extreme relief; in my dorm I could relax. It would all go away. But this time, nothing. Anxiety churned in my stomach, and I could feel it trying to reach its acidic hand up my throat. It burned everything it touched and left me with a horrible taste in my mouth. I hadn’t realized a mental problem could make you physically ill until then. That was also when I realized that I was not in control of my problem. It had been playing me all along, letting me think that I had some semblance of power in our relationship.
I knew that it was laughing at my stupidity.
After that I saw a psychiatrist. We were unable to discover the root of my anxiety and he refused to give me medication.
I haven’t gone back.
I’m lucky, I suppose—sometimes it leaves me alone for days, never once seeking my resentful company. Other times it binges on me, taking all it wants and leaving me with nothing for weeks, seemingly, without end. When this happens, I still force myself through the motions of everyday life. I refuse to see another psychiatrist.
Am I broken?
Society would tell me that I am.
Anxiety lounges on my shoulder, licking its fingers, tasting the turmoil it stirs within me. Yes, it whispers, yes, you are.
And at times, I believe it.