This has come up several times in the last few months and it's starting to wear me out. I am not my anxiety.
It's strange to hear it brought up in conversations: "You have anxiety you can't do this." "How could you ever do that, don't you have anxiety?" or "I don't believe you have anxiety."
I've had it my whole life, my anxiety disorder and I are in a deeply committed relationship. When I was a teenager, a point in my life where success was defined by how well you could assimilate into whatever status quo was (and honey, I am The Strange Goth, how well does anyone think it went?), anxiety made it incredibly easy to not do anything. Or, more honestly, anxiety fueled desperation to find something that was anything but the environment triggering the anxiety.
There are definitely gaps in my memory about my younger years, due to anxiety, depression, and handfuls of sleeping pills (I took them so regularly that my tolerance hit a level where I could take an entire bottle and still be unable to sleep. These were used to create an extended, temporary death so I could sleep entire weeks away). I wrote often though, printed out scores of online conversations, took pictures of everything so while the memory isn't consciously available to me, there's something somewhere that serves as a record. There are memories too, ones that are conjured up more easily because I've replayed them over and over, pains that never healed, ones that are so ridiculous I have to keep, and the ones that are very relevant now.
One I remember distinctly is the experience of being deemed too sick to succeed. Influential adults would tell me to never speak of my anxiety or suicidal ideation. "No one will like you. No one will trust you. No one will want a sick person near them." (A paraphrase, but that attitude is coming up now, hence why we're talking about it.) I saw myself very much as "too sick". So sick that I didn't trust when I was uncomfortable, or able to tell the difference between being the butt of the joke and included (because hey I'm there, they're talking to me somewhat), or worse, any affection from anyone became generous, a gift, because...I was sick, even if that affection was like taking candy from a stranger, so to speak.
The things that changed my whole attitude about being sick were an article, a video, and a letter. The article was when I was 16 and a notable doctor wrote about their experience going through medical school hiding their bipolar disorder and how they overcame the stigma. This gave me hope that even the most "broken" people can still do something. The video was about the last words of cancer patients and the things they wanted to people to know. One of them said "I got cancer, cancer never got me." The person who said that had actually been making funny videos, loads of them, to make people smile even when they knew they were going to die because those videos would still exist after them. This inspired me to write, albeit, some romantic suicidal things at first but I was constantly trying to find ways to disprove my justifications for killing myself (I am a failure, I could never help anyone, I can't even help myself) by proving those thoughts wrong. I find the most pleasure is talking about what got me to tomorrow and people let me know it helps them. The letter, which is actually from the end of January 2019, is from Tara Condell, and you can read it here. Prior to this when I used to write regularly, I was way more open about suicidal ideation, and how I walked myself out of it. I know that detached feeling well, I didn't start to have a sense of self preservation, a true desire to live for myself until the end of 2019.
This is the part of the blog post that some people will dislike and that's fine. It's not for you. But to those who need it: every day is a pain in my ass. Every conversation, from the most benign, the most loving, the most confrontational, makes my skin feels like it's on fire. My body misfires constantly, a rush of adrenaline, my heart fluttering erratically in my chest, and at least one panic attack a day, sometimes triggered by the most innocuous shit. And this current version of myself is all some people will ever see or believe they will ever need to see to know me and I have come to accept it because it used to be so much worse.
Ten years ago it was people pleasing to such an extent I couldn't tell you who I was or what I really wanted. It was rehearsing suicide attempts so it would be efficient when I finally let go (guns weren't a readily available option). It was such a frightening level of apathy, I'm genuinely surprised at how many wrong turns in life did not become dead ends. Five years ago it was arriving to clubs two hours early to have scheduled break downs because I wasn't exactly what we'd call social previously in my life. It was learning to see the love for me from others as valid because if they could see something good in me, isn't it disrespectful to their time, their energy, that love to constantly be tearing myself apart? Two years ago it was eating vegetables, asking for help, and saying when I didn't want to do something. Two months ago, it's admitting I wasn't okay for the last year, letting go of a lot of negative things and giving a fuck about...well, everything.
I feel one of the things we don't talk about often enough with mental health is the odd journey between recognizing something is wrong, getting help/helping ourselves, and the big tada of look how far I've come. I forgot that was one of the useful things of writing about it, this experience, that anyone could look at this evolution, this shedding of the old self and see a new one forming. Sure, I still have a lot of flaws, but I don't have as many as I did in the past. I am, laughably, an introvert, who figured out how to be an extrovert long enough to convince someone, somewhere that I was worth knowing for more than five minutes. And that's BE mind you, not pretend. I learned what parts of conversation I do like and to actually ask for what I need in relationships, to share goals, where I want to improve. I have learned to trick the unhealthy self loathing that was once so innate and immovable to do back flips into sympathy, pirouettes of patience, and a constant tap dance of love. I've learned to believe in myself long enough to try more and more every day even if it seems impossible, and you know what, sometimes it works. On a really good day, I can give myself some goddamn credit for showing up for me, for people I love and putting effort into something even if no one else sees it except you and me. On the lowest days, I can dissect my feelings on one cup of coffee, pinpoint the exact thing that hurt me, bring it up without crying and turn it into something productive, something beautiful and heal without killing myself.
To tell me what I am capable of because of your perception of anxiety in general is to ignore a substantial amount of work. The greatest thing my anxiety gave me is the ability to feel everything, all the time and no escape from it, to constantly Marie Kondo my relationship with everything and everyone who comes into contact with me. I said it before and I'll say it again, I am in a deeply committed relationship with my anxiety. I know what soothes it, what sets it off like poking a dragon, its strengths and its weaknesses, how to expand its limited ideas of the world we inhabit together and mine. You are seeing what comes before the ta da moment. This is not the sexy part, I know, but it is necessary and I've learned to enjoy the every part of this relationship.
"You are not trapped in here with your demons. Your demons are trapped in here with you."
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Don't be hungry for life.
Zakkarrii Edison Daniels