I Didn't Understand People with Anxiety Until It Happened to Me
I used to think people with anxiety could talk themselves out of it. Now I know better.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I sauntered down Adelaide Street in Toronto's financial district. It was midsummer and I had just gotten my hair done. It was longer than it had been in years, and blonder than ever. I felt like Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality, after she emerges from her makeover in that periwinkle bodycon dress (just before she trips).
Half an hour later, I was sitting on the hard, sticky vinyl chair in my doctor's office answering a series of questions.
"Have you been feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen? Are you having trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching TV?"
She pelted the questions at me one after the other before pronouncing my fate: "You have severe anxiety and moderate depression." I cried. Hard. Like, mouth-stretched-open bawling. Because I knew it.
The reason I was in that doctor's office in the first place was so that I could finally hear it said aloud and begin to deal with it. This was the first doctor to take my complaints seriously. I wanted to sit on the floor of her office for the rest of the day and bury my face in her shoulder and have someone listen to me. But that costs money, and it's not her job. I asked her for a prescription for Ativan, so I could stop the more aggressive symptoms and still focus on my work. She gave me one, along with a box of Kleenex, a link to some therapists, and a blue Post-It with the name of a book on it.
I left feeling worse than I had going in. I thought I would feel relieved, but I felt like a failure. I felt broken into two: there was the beautiful, healthy, capable me, who seemed to have deserted sick, ugly, helpless me. I felt like there was no gluing us together again.
So I unravelled some more. I prescribed to my depression. I stopped getting things done. I stopped pitching stories. I felt anxious about it. There were days last summer when I didn't leave the house. I was self-medicating. I would smoke a joint and come out of it tingling with paranoia. It felt like rolling on molly but without the pleasure: the energy was all-consuming, but the thoughts were all bad. I wanted to slaughter, in the messiest kind of way, people who blasted Pharrell's "Happy." Happy people, clearly, were intentionally trying to annoy me. But I still bought into the cultural demand that we need to be happy if we expect to be loved. Because I couldn't be happy, I stayed in the house.
My phone didn't help. It was a diseased appendage. I'd wake up to its alarm and spend an hour scrolling, burning with envy over other people's accomplishments. People, as we know, lose their manners entirely on the internet and outwardly brag about their every triumph. I mean, I do it too, but it's excruciating to look at when you're mentally suffering and don't feel capable of producing anything worthwhile. "Fuck, that person I can't stand got to be on TV. That basic-ass person got a book deal. That person is so much skinnier than me." You tell yourself you'll never be smart enough or worthy enough, so you might as well just give up.
I know I'm not alone in these feelings. About 12 percent of Canadians deal with anxiety.
But I couldn't look away. The anxiety kept me glued to the screen for hours at a time, afraid I'd miss out on something crucial.
This irritability was compounded by the fact that I could never get enough sleep. Even if I slept for ten or 12 hours, I woke up feeling exhausted. I was writing, but a lot of it made no sense. I couldn't bear to edit it because I had convinced myself that I wasn't a real writer.
I know I'm not alone in these feelings. About 12 percent of Canadians deal with anxiety. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in every ten of us deals with anxiety disorders, like phobias and panic disorders. (I would say that's actually on the low end, as it takes a certain amount of financial privilege to be able to access medical care.)
Despite the fact that it's such a common illness, I didn't always know what people felt when they described having anxiety. In my experience, most people don't. When I was in university, a friend in her final year decided not to finish her degree. She had only a few credits left. She said she couldn't deal with the anxiety school was causing, and described feeling sick to her stomach, crying, and being unable to finish papers. I listened and nodded where appropriate, but privately, I felt she should really just suck it up and finish the last few credits.
I felt the same thing later, when another friend would describe her dating-related anxiety. Again, I listened... but sort of thought she should get a grip.
Anxiousness wasn't a foreign feeling to me, but when I felt it, it was always mild. It was also always about something, so it was short-lived: I was going to miss a deadline, I was fighting with a friend. I would get through whatever was bothering me and my panic would subside. I wasn't a constant sufferer.
When I get anxiety, my hands shake and go clammy, my heart crawls up into my throat, it becomes hard to breathe, and I spend every minute catastrophizing.
The severe anxiousness came a few years ago. Here's what happens: An editor emails to say they need me to call them. I immediately jump to the conclusion that they've discovered I'm actually a horrible writer and they never want to hear from me again. That, or I'm being sued. It's emotional pandemonium.
The illness isn't just worries on loop, either. There are physical symptoms too, and those are often what makes it so difficult to function. My hands shake and go clammy, my heart crawls up into my throat, it becomes hard to breathe, and I spend every minute catastrophizing until the phone call is over and done with.
These feelings take me over in various situations, but it's mostly work-related. When I first realized I had anxiety, I worked for a media company at the time, and my boss was an asshole. He was always trying to bully me into doing more work than was possible in the run of a day, even a 12-hour-plus one. I had a quota of articles I had to write each month and no contract. The guy was deliberately intimidating, and the subtext each time we had a meeting was that I could be fired at any moment.
Since being diagnosed, I've spent a lot of time listening to myself and trying to pinpoint the root of this disorder on my own. I now realize my anxiety mostly has to do with fear of failure. I hate even the word anxiety. To me it sounds like giving up, like weakness. Like being unable to handle yourself. My Scottish family's pull-up-your-bootstraps mentality has a lot to do with this train of thought. My family doesn't believe in therapy. They don't believe in anxiety disorders, either. My grandfather was a counsellor in a prison, and my stepdad has a military background. He's famous for saying people with mental health issues just need "coping skills." Let's just say there was no room for anything less than a B+ and being home exactly at curfew in my house. Fucking up was not an option.
The hardest aspects of having anxiety have been the lack of understanding from others and the feeling that I don't actually deserve to be suffering from these afflictions.
Since developing more severe anxiety, I've tried to explain to people what it is I've been dealing with. I find people react much the same way my family does: They either think I'm being theatrical, or they ask what is causing the anxiety. People will usually immediately ask "why," as though if you could only identify the reason, you'd be all better! There. Is. Usually. No. Why. This question is maddening. Everything is the reason. There are triggers sometimes, but usually, you wake up and know that day is going to be a write-off because your own mind has betrayed you and the reason is wholly unclear. As Eleanor Morgan wrote this week for VICE, "Anxiety is the 'what if disease.'"
It's actually really offensive to suggest that if a person would just get out of their own way and just identify what is causing such a complicated condition and think happy thoughts, they would be cured. If I can't identify what's making me worry, it just makes me all the more anxious because a) that thing is hiding in the dark and b) I must be more of a failure than I thought if I can't identify my own emotions.
But the hardest aspects of this illness, for me, have been the lack of understanding from others and the feeling that I don't actually deserve to be suffering from these afflictions.
My employers didn't get it. Against my better judgment, I've told several of them because I felt like my illness was affecting my work. I told one publisher I needed a raise because my pay barely covered rent and basic necessities, and that I was sick and needed meds. He said I'd have to work longer hours (I was already expected to be available at all hours). I told another I was sick, and could really use the odd day working from home. She said I was a lazy journalist, and unproductive.
I was terrified to write this piece for the longest time. I didn't want to be stigmatized by future employers as someone who 'couldn't cope.'
Doctors didn't get it, either. I went to see my family doctor when I was about 19 and first realized I probably had depression. She was out on maternity leave. I told the woman standing in for her that I thought about killing myself. "Honey," she said, "you need more sleep." About two years ago, I went to a walk-in to see if I could get some meds to help me deal with the anxiety. The doctor there said tough, we all deal with feelings like this at some point. Work less. Get more sleep. (I was a grad student, and I had to work full-time).
My partners also failed to hear what I was saying. That same year, I spent a crisp fall afternoon in Toronto crying, face down, on the kitchen floor of my basement apartment. I called my boyfriend at the time and told him I thought about killing myself a lot. He told me that he had a party to plan, and that he thought I was being melodramatic.
I scraped myself off the floor, put some makeup on, and went out to party. I told myself I needed to get a grip. What cause did I have to be feeling so wretched? I've benefited from just about every privilege there is, and so many others have greater cause to be anxious and depressive than I do. I rationalized that I would be wasting a mental healthcare provider's time by coming to them with my concerns.
Because of the responses I've received when I "confessed" these conditions, I was terrified to write this piece for the longest time. I didn't want to be stigmatized by future employers as someone who "couldn't cope." But then I realized, actually, fuck it, I don't want to work for someone who doesn't have compassion for people with mental illness. I wanted to share this because we present only our best selves to the outside world, but we all struggle in some way. No matter how happy I may seem, I have dark days where all I can do is grapple with myself. If you're in the same boat, you are not alone.
I'll never be without these conditions—there is no cure. But there is management, and I'm making progress.
I've also decided to deal with this on my own for the time being. At the time I was diagnosed, I couldn't afford therapy, and I wasn't ready for it. And now, I'm making progress at managing these issues. I've been working hard to figure out what my triggers are. I've been writing about the experiences that have made me feel like I'm falling apart. I've given up recreational drug use (mostly). I've stopped taking the pill, which I felt was exacerbating my symptoms. I've recommitted to meditating, and to yoga. Mostly, I've learned to be compassionate with myself. I'll never be without these conditions—there is no cure. But there is management, and I'm making progress.
These tactics won't work for everyone. And therapy isn't out of the question for me. But right now, learning to show up for myself is the most important thing.
And I find I no longer feel the need to disembowel happy people—on a good day, at least.
If you are worried about the mental health of you or someone you know, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website.
Follow Sarah Ratchford on Twitter.