This is a post I’ve been sitting on for a while. What you’re about to read has been in my drafts folder for close to six months and through at least a dozen revisions.
No one would ever have described me as “fearless”. I can’t remember when my problems with severe anxiety started, but I’m almost certain it was before high school…perhaps even before middle school. And it went on for years, totally unchecked, until my now-husband convinced me to talk to a doctor about it. The medication has helped a ton, and I don’t think I could be where I am now without that pharmaceutical intervention. However, in the eleven months since I accepted that my anxiety was not normal and began treatment, I’ve been trying to think about it differently.
Can anxiety be both a burden and a blessing?
I don’t think anyone with an anxiety disorder (or anyone who knows or loves someone with an anxiety disorder) would disagree that it’s an incredible burden to bear. If you suffer from any anxiety disorder, you and I and millions of our fellow Americans have that in common. We are a huge group, making up about 18% of the population. And only about a third of us are getting any sort of treatment (medicine, therapy, etc.).
Anxiety has a terrible cost–I’m not just talking about all those bills, though yes, a lot of us spend a lot of time and money seeking medical and psychiatric care. Severe anxiety can cost sufferers friendships, relationships, jobs, educational opportunities…and all those things can compound each other and make life miserable at best. I would consider my anxiety to be moderate to severe most of the time, and I realize how fortunate I am to have never become unemployed or homeless as a result of the way my brain is wired. I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress since last September, but there are still days when the idea of leaving the house makes my heart drop right into my stomach. There are still days at work where I dread interacting with customers because they might yell at me for something that’s totally out of my hands or was never my fault in the first place.
However, I think part of why my life has turned out the way it has so far has a lot to do with my anxiety. One of the things I feared most growing up was disappointing my parents in some way (even today, I’m a people pleaser, and I cringe at the thought of giving someone bad news or letting them down in even the tiniest, most superficial ways). I honestly think that is a lot of why I did so well in school, and why I’ve grown up to be an extraordinarily cautious person. I pay near-obsessive attention to detail, which means I learn new things quickly. In sharp contrast to my teenage and younger adult years, I don’t obsess over making something absolutely perfect–I try to make it as perfect as possible the first time, then move on. But back then (even up through grad school), I would write dozens of pages of term papers, re-read them, decide they sucked, and totally rewrite them. Perhaps it was counterproductive, but it was the only thing that satisfied my anxious need for everything to be just so.
This will sound strange, but I think it’s helped me to understand Dallas more than I might have otherwise. If you’re going by the DSM, we’re both mentally ill. The fear of not knowing how best to help and support him has led me to read literally dozens of scientific articles and books about bipolar disorder since we first started dating. He’s told me since then that only one woman he was previously involved with had ever tried to understand him and his mental state, and she’s now in medical school. Some of those he’d been involved with had known about his illness and pretty much tried to manipulate him into caring for them in some way or another, knowing that it would have a negative effect on his mental health–then made themselves unavailable when he needed emotional support. I told him from the very start of our relationship that I was not going to do that to him, and I feel like I’m staying true to that promise. I feel like my anxiety makes me a little more in-tune with his emotions and more sensitive to what’s going on around me, and even when he’s telling me he’s fine, I can tell when he’s not and can start seeking out ways to support him without making him feel smothered. If my brain was “normal”, I’m not sure I’d be able to pick up on those little cues.
At any rate, I do feel like my anxiety has shaped me in a lot of ways, both good and bad. It gives me a lot more positive outlook to see the good and useful traits my anxiety has led me to develop, rather than just the negatives. A year ago, when I thought everyone felt this way, that I just was too weak to handle it like everyone else was, and like nothing would ever make it better, it was very hard to have a good day. Now, with treatment, knowledge, and a little broader outlook, I have far more good days than bad, and I feel like a useful and productive member of society, not someone who’s letting every opportunity for happiness slip away because everything is scary and I don’t even know what to do.