By Theresa Tyree
I’m not sure how to start this. What are we even calling anxiety these days? Is it an invisible illness? A mental health condition? A hormonal imbalance? A differently-abled condition? A disability? There are so many words for this thing I live with, but no matter which ones I use, it never seems to accurately convey what I go through to other people.
The first time I tried to tell someone about my anxiety, it was at work. She was my supervisor, and her response was, “Well, we all deal with that. You’ll need to just get over it.”
Thanks, DeeAnn. Really helpful advice there.
One of the things that makes it so difficult to convey what anxiety is with just a word is that it can be brought on by a variety of things. For some, it is a hormonal imbalance. For others, it’s learned from trauma. Depending on the individual, and the stimulus, it can also present in a variety of ways—some that “look” like anxiety, and some that don’t.
“But you’re so put together,” people have said to me. “You’re too functional to really have a mental illness.”
That’s what I thought too! For a long time! Due to harmful stereotypes about mental illness and what it looks like!
The early examples I had of what mental illness looked like were completely different from how my anxiety displayed. My mother and sisters all suffered from depression. Apparently our family was prone to it. My mother had been dealing with it on and off for most of her adult life, but when her father died in the spring of my junior year of college (2012, in May, just before I was about to get out of school and go down to Southern California to visit him and the rest of my maternal family, like I’d done every summer since before I can remember), my mother’s depression was suddenly—and understandably—a lot worse. She wasn’t functional. The smallest thing would set her off, and even the most menial of tasks seemed insurmountable for her. My middle sister, Rebecca, was in a very similar state, and my littlest sister, Sarah, was despondent. All of them withdrew into themselves. My mother let the house get dirty and stopped cooking. My sisters began failing their classes. All around me, mental illness was an inability to carry on, a malady on productivity. This pattern only worsened as we lost three other family members within the year: my uncle, one of his sons, and then finally my grandmother.
While my mother and sisters seemingly decayed around me, I went on “normally.” Even though my grandfather was gone and I missed him very much, his death had set something in me ticking. I needed to survive—for him, as much as for me. He was dead. It was my responsibility to live like he couldn’t anymore. This was how my grief manifested, and the drive to live for those I’d lost only got stronger as I continued to lose family.
My grief manifested actively. Looking back, it’s no wonder my mental illness did as well. When a brain is met with the same response despite different actions, there are a lot of different ways it can respond. No matter what I did, my life continued to fall apart. My mother and sisters turned on me for not grieving the way they did. My father had an affair and tried to get me to keep his secret. My parents got a divorce—which was probably good for them, but hugely painful and traumatic for me as I tried to play parent to everyone in my immediate family. All this, while graduating into an economy that wasn’t set up to get me an entry-level job doing anything I’d studied.
My brain, trying to make sense of the chaos and find a reason for why everything was falling apart, turned to the lowest common denominator: me. It must be me. There was something wrong with me. If only I’d been better, or stronger, or worked harder, none of this would have happened.
The term “high-functioning” is often applied to people who have conditions that might keep them from having a normal life yet pass for having no condition at all. I’m one of those people. At first glance, I seem normal enough. An A-type personality, perfectionist, organized, dependable. But these are symptoms— because I’m terrified all the time that if I don’t have back-up plans for my back-up plans, everything will go wrong and I won’t be good enough to deal with it.
Living in today’s administration as a functioning person would be impossible without the coping mechanisms and support system my therapist helped me build. Because I’m a millennial, my anxiety has me worrying about everything from if I can afford a latte on my break and still make rent to if we can keep global warming from putting most of the continent under water by 2030.
I’m scared that I’ll never have enough money to retire. I’m terrified that when I fight with someone I may never see them again and that will be the last thing we ever said to each other. I’m scared I’ll die in a car crash on my way to work. That even as I write this, it will be too jumbled and unrelatable and the marvelous, talented women at Bi Women Quarterly will tell me I’m not good enough to be in their publication and should give up writing immediately.
These are just some of the things I worry about. My anxiety wants me to be scared of everything. It’s trying to keep me safe, but in the way a parent tries to keep a child safe by locking them up in a room.
Sometimes those fears overwhelm me. Before I was diagnosed, there would be days I would call in sick to work because I was frozen in bed with fear. If I stayed under the covers, nothing bad could happen to me—and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. Sometimes my heart would beat rapidly—like I was being chased by something, like I was having a heart attack. It would be difficult to breathe, and the freezing feeling of being a deer in the headlights got worse and worse. Bed was the only safe place. Nothing bad ever happened to me at home in my bed.
But nothing good ever happened either, and the sick days weren’t helping.
That was when I heard about high-functioning anxiety. The symptoms included perfectionism, constant fear of things going wrong, planning for multiple failures, chest pain, shortness of breath, an inability to rest, heart palpitations, thinking of yourself as “not good enough,” and being propelled forward by fear.
The list went on, but those were the ones that made me realize the load I was bearing was not the same as the neurotypicals around me—like the boss who had told me to “just get over it.” Theresa, continued from pervious page To her, anxiety was just a feeling. For me, it was what made me jump, fearing for my survival if I didn’t take action.
It took me years to realize I had anxiety. And it took years after that to learn it wasn’t something I could fix, but something I had to learn to carry and live with.
My diagnosis has been the difference between barely surviving and beating myself up for it and living a full life where I can manage my condition. Thanks to my doctor, my therapist, and the understanding and support of my family and friends, I live a life where those freezing moments of having a panic attack in bed are few and far between. I wake up every morning, armed with an arsenal of coping mechanisms and people I can call for help. I wake up every morning brave enough to take on the world of horrors my anxiety wants me to fear. And I wake up empowered enough to look my anxiety right between the eyes and tell it we’re okay and we can do this.
Without all that, I might have been the fifth family member my mother and sisters lost.
We owe it to our communities, our families, and ourselves to be educated about mental illness—because it can be as lifesaving as CPR.
It was for me.
Theresa holds an MA in book publishing, and is a freelance writer,
editor, and overall book guru. Check out her website at theresatyree.
This post originally appeared in Bi Women Quarterly in Winter 2019 and is reprinted with permission. Read current and back issues and sign up for a free electronic subscriptions to Bi Women Quarterly at www.biwomenboston.org.