Keep Your Friends Close but Your Anxiety Closer
It's weird to hear someone express sympathy for mental illness in the way they might for a physical illness. Why is that?
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Something weird happened. I asked my editor if it would be OK to write another column about panic attacks, since I don't know how many columns about panic attacks I am allowed to write. While working on my last column, I didn't suffer from any full-blown attacks. But now that it's finished, I'm back in the gauntlet. I guess I'm not done. Maybe I have to write about anxiety forever.
My editor said that would be fine. He also said that he was sorry to hear I'm still having attacks. He hopes I feel better soon.
It was weird to hear someone express sympathy for mental illness in the way that they might for physical illness. I mean, I know my panic disorder is an illness. I take medicine for it (an SSRI). I see doctors: a Psychiatrist monthly and a therapist weekly. The symptoms are palpable. Like a person living with chronic pain, I view every area of my life through the filter of visceral anxiety. From the sensation of suffocating to dizziness and dissociation, my entire nervous system is involved—adrenal glands included. Scientifically, this shit is real.
But there is something about the classification of panic disorder as a mental condition, rather than a purely physical one, which prevents me from extending compassion to myself. If it were solely physical, I might be nicer to me. I might actually have some self-love.
Instead I play the tape of "you're so fucked." I even buy into some antiquated notions around mental illness that it is "all in my head" or that I am "imagining it."
Well so what if it were all in my head? I'd still be suffering. Would I not deserve compassion and self-love? Intellectually I'm like yeah. But emotionally I'm like no fucking way. Buck up, gurl.
Even writing the word "self-love" makes me feel stupid. Is anything more bullshit, kale-eating, juice-fasting contemporary American than the notion of self-love? "Be gentle with yourself, you deserve it." Do I really?
My feelings of shame around the condition create a drive in me to overcompensate, overachieve, and never appear vulnerable. These then serve as a catalyst for the condition. I put pressure on myself to perform like a completely healthy person, lest people find out that I am "not OK." I don't take sick days. I fear my condition and its implications for my life. I'm like "something is very wrong with me" and then I'm like "what the fuck is wrong with me that I feel like something is wrong with me?" None of this is good for the nervous system.
Like, right now I'm scared that I'm not being funny in this column. I'm not wearing my mask, the one that lets you know that shit is fucked up yet also under control. The mask says: You don't have to worry about me. I've still got it together enough to get outside the anxiety and be funny. I'm safe.
Recently, a woman said she likes my writing because I'm not a whiny cunt. I think what she means is that she likes my funny mask. But now, the panic attacks are stripping me of my ability to not be a whiny cunt. I want to be in control of my whiny cunt levels! If I'm going to alienate you, I want to curate that alienation. I want to craft the persona that turns you off. I don't want the real me, my vulnerabilities and humanity, to leak out and make you run. I don't want to have needs.
Like, what if you found out I am really not OK? What if you knew that I am suffering a lot right now and really scared. Would you flee? I don't want to find out. So I deflect my vulnerability into humor or "wise platitudes."
That's what I did when my editor extended his kind words. I was like, "Oh, well, our curses are our blessings. If I didn't have a panic disorder there would be no So Sad Today."
That's sort of true. I mean, So Sad Today wouldn't exist if I never suffered. And I like that So Sad Today exists. But it's also sad that I am afraid to just say thank you, human to human, when someone extends sympathy. Like, to receive compassion means I am weak. And I am terrified of being weak.
I'm also terrified of other people's narratives. I don't want to be perceived as falling apart. Like, it's fine that I'm frightened of me. But if you are frightened of me then the problem is more real. I don't really know how much I am allowed to fall apart. I don't think I want to find out.
At the same time, I kind of do want to find out. After all these years of preserving my facade in daily life, I'm fucking tired. It would probably be a real relief to just crumble. I wish I could trust that the universe has me and that I could just let go. Or, like, even if I don't trust that the universe has me (and I don't), it would be a relief to just surrender anyway. I think my biggest fear and deepest wish is to surrender.
Like, I would love to just stand up at a work meeting and be like "Hi, I'm sorry, I can't do this. I may be talking about 'our brand' but I'm definitely dying. You are too. We all are. But, like, I think I am dying right now. My throat is closing in and my chest is constricted. I have to go. I don't want to die here."
I would love to tell a creative collaborator, "Hey, I know that you want to talk about narrative arc. But I'm actually not inside my body anymore. Did you know that in my head you are the enemy? You have become the enemy, because you've trapped me inside this Starbucks."
I'd like to tell a friend, "I have more panic attacks around you than anyone else. I am supposed to feel comfortable around you, and the fact that I am supposed to be comfortable adds to my shame around not being comfortable. This makes me anxious. I think we should just text for the rest of the friendship. Thanks."
I'd like to tell a lover, "The panic attacks I have around you are more painful than the ones I have around anyone else. This is because I am supposed to feel intimate with you. The pressure to feel close to you, while I am having a panic attack, makes me feel totally and completely alone."
It's probably good that I don't say these things to people. It's probably good that I keep pushing myself to leave the house and maintain my social masks of competence, engagement, and comfort. But what if I did tell people exactly what was going on? What if I valued my own peace of mind more than what other people think of me? Would I end up jobless, friendless, and loveless? Would I vanish entirely?
One time I saw an interview with a female musician whom I greatly admire, someone who is known to suffer from mental illness. She is brilliantly talented and has exhibited some eccentric behavior over the years, including a few rather public breakdowns. She contains both madness and talent.
The interviewer asked her about her typical day. He was like, "Do you wake up and make breakfast? Do you make some eggs?" She looked at him coldly and responded, "I don't eat eggs."
At that moment I realized that the one question I would want to ask her, the only question for me worth asking, would be "Is the talent worth the craziness?"
But I don't know if she could even answer. What if she wants to possess her talent and also be free of torment. What if she doesn't want to have to choose. I think it's OK to just want your blessings to be blessings. It's OK to not be grateful for your curses.
So Sad Today is a never-ending existential crisis played out in 140 characters or less. Its anonymous author has struggled with consciousness since long before the creation of the Twitter feed in 2012, and has finally decided the time has come to project her anxieties on a larger screen, in the form of a biweekly column on this website. Read the first, second, and third installments here and here and here.