I'm almost three years out of journalism school, on my second job, and hold a position of leadership. So, as per my personal targets, I'm doing fairly alright. I'm always on time everywhere, meet all my deadlines, multi-task like my life depends on it, my work has good impact, and the quality remains intact.
Everything is fine. Everything is fine, except in my head.
On some days, I fall apart, panic, and it feels like multiple volcanoes exploding in my insides, and my body becomes lava. On other days, it feels like I’m underwater, struggling to come up for air. I fight the lava and the waves that keep me in, but sometimes I just want to give up. I want to let it all consume me because then at least it will be over.
This is high-functioning anxiety. This is what makes me finish every single thing on my to-do list even as I am crumbling on the inside. After all, getting my work done and achieving these targets is the only way I find meaning during my internal chaos. Globally, around 3.8 percent of the world population lives with an anxiety disorder. While for this particular form of anxiety, one may not receive a clinical diagnosis, high-functioning anxiety is very real and affects more people than you would think. Plus, it comes with negative effects on one’s health and relationships.
Oh, and did I mention I work in the field of mental health? A large part of my job as a development professional in community mental health has been to listen to other young people's struggles with their mental health and to refer them to professionals, if required. Before I decided to get help, there would be a voice that would speak from the back of my head and would constantly refute me, make fun of me—especially while speaking to a group of young people as part of my job.
Who am I to be talking about these issues, when I’m the one who’s drowning?
Who am I to give advice when I never practise what I preach?
Who am I to have a platform like this to build conversation when I don’t deserve to be here at all?
How long do I think will my facade last, because one day they’ll know about me and abandon me too?
In May 2018, I had a minor panic attack while taking a workshop. But nobody could tell; only I knew what was happening inside me, and that made me feel terrible and worthless. And that's when I decided to seek professional help myself.
Through my sessions with a counsellor, I was able to realise the deep seeds that have been buried inside me for years, that brought upon anxiety, depression and a constant feeling of not being enough. I learned about my patterns, and how I would constantly want to prove my worth to myself and others. This had slowly started creeping into my personal relationships too. I was constantly putting others before myself, both at work and among friends. I would feel that if I don’t ‘perform’ in my social and professional engagements, I will be abandoned. Yet at the same time, nobody is able to understand the struggles I have with mental health since I don’t ‘perform’ my mental health issues either.
What would seem like being detail-oriented is masked overthinking, what presents itself as being hardworking and super helpful is actually having trouble saying no, and an innate fear of failure. Sometimes, when there is overachievement, it’s just coming out of a place of not being able to relax or take a break. And the problem is that none of this sounds like a problem.
People around me have said that I am heavily focused, committed and all those so-called excellent qualities one strives for. However, underneath all that is a bundle of insecurities. What I used to call pushing myself ended up becoming something which would drain me or make me feel worthless if I didn’t get to the top. And this took me years to realise.
The problem, I’ve come to realise, lies in the way we look at productivity. Behaviours like not taking leave from work, working too hard, studying to always stand first, to always have to be someone, and the celebration of a so-called perfect life on social media definitely affects the way we look at ourselves and put pressure on ourselves. Nobody recognises this because you don’t look like the textbook definition of what a mental health issue is. So everyone ends up thinking how you have it all together. Often, what gets lost is at what costs people like me get things done.
I’m getting better, but there are many years’ worth of damage to acknowledge, accept and work on. But meanwhile, let it be known that there are people around you who deal with a lot more than you think. And it's important to just understand, empathise, and know that not everything is as it seems.