This is your anxiety speaking

I happened on a series of quotes about anxiety this week. The speakers were longtime sufferers, psychiatric outpatients, veterans of talk therapy. One said, “Imagine if every decision you made had life-or-death consequences.” Another said that her anxiety meant that all day, every day, felt like the moment right after you trip, when all your muscles seize up because you aren’t sure whether or not you’re going to fall.

Anxiety, like most of the great and gruesome stuff, is different for everybody. For me, it doesn’t feel like a series of life-and-death decisions. It’s not the breathless stasis between losing your balance and hitting the ground, the myoclonic jerk that yanks you out of sleep. For me, anxiety is a voice — not a literal one, hardy har har — that refuses to let me sink into the moment I’m in.

It says:

That’s a beautiful picture of you, except for the planet-sized zit on your forehead.

He may have said he loves getting texts from you when he’s at work, but it’s much more likely that he rolls his eyes when he sees your name and thinks, Jesus, not her again, what does she want.

You know those windowsills you just dusted? I bet they’re dusty again. You should go downstairs and clean them. Right now. No, now.

You look like a whale from this angle. Just so you know.

If you leave that window open while you’re gone, someone will sneak into your house and wait in your cavernous basement and then murder you and your family after you come home.

You will hate yourself tonight if you eat that.

If there’s a fire while you’re out, your cats will die.

You’re so comfortable on the couch with your Kindle and your tea. But wouldn’t it be even better if you straightened that picture on the wall? Wait, did you turn off the oven? You have to pee, don’t you?

Your father is calling you before nine AM, which absolutely, without a doubt, means that someone has died.

Your friend who always texts is calling, which also absolutely, without a doubt, means that someone has died.

Your manager scheduled a meeting with you. The only possibility is that you will be fired.

You are only allowed to enjoy this moment — the last chapter of a book, an engrossing conversation with your best friend, a sweet moment with your husband — if your house is clean and organized and purged of clothes not worn in the last six months and books you’ll never actually read and aspirational jeans and lidless Tupperware containers and dry highlighters and old Christmas cards.

And on, and on. Maybe you’re really, really bad in bed. Look at all that cat hair behind the bathroom door. What if you never, ever publish anything again? Why are you still in bed reading about the Manson Family when you could be dusting the insides of your kitchen cabinets with a microfiber cloth?

My anxiety is background noise, an endless muttering reproach of You should, What if, Why can’t you just. This year, I shut off some of the muttering by stopping, for the first time in at least 12 years, counting calories. I’m not sure when I last chose what to eat based on what I wanted, rather than what I thought I should have (or what I was craving, in a forbidden-love sort of way), but my age was probably a single digit. I ate more or less what I wanted in middle school, but I had already learned to feel guilty about it, especially since it was very clear to me that I wasn’t one of the slim girls. Once I became a high school and then a college athlete, I was counting calories and weighing myself like a pro. I either ate one Clif Bar for lunch or, less frequently, ate an entire bread bowl and all of its contents because I was literally starving. I had panic attacks if I threw off my calorie count by trying a bite of someone else’s dinner.

I think about all the energy I wasted. Not to mention all the pie. All the months and years I spent feeling ohsofat when I weighed approximately a kindergartener less than I do now.

Swearing off calorie counting worked for me. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, swear off human relationships. My problem in this department is that it can take me a long time to believe someone when they say something along the lines of, “I don’t think you’re garbage, and I can more or less stand to be around you.” The trouble I have believing them is, of course, directly proportionate to how much I like them. I assume that casual acquaintances adore me. When I meet someone I really like, I assume that they find me frivolous or arrogant or overly talkative or too blonde or whatever.

I’m not sure how to assuage this social anxiety, other than reminding myself that my own mind is not to be trusted. And to beg my friends to reassure me, once in a while, that they don’t just like me for my extremely clean hardwood floors or impressive command of Harry Potter trivia.

The solution to my OCD is pretty straightforward. It’s 60 milligrams of Prozac, once daily. That keeps the ceaseless murmuring about how I need to wipe down the insides of the cabinets or throw away anything I haven’t used in the last 16 seconds down to a dull roar. The result is that I can eat dinner and watch TV with my husband before we do the dishes. (I still can’t go to bed before we do the dishes. Don’t ask for the impossible.) It means I can postpone cleaning the house if something comes up — a date with a friend, an emergency at work. (Postponing cleaning the house was all but literally impossible two years ago.) It means, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m not tempted to clean the bathroom at three AM before I go back to bed. (Really. I did that.)

It took me 12 years to stop counting calories and standing on scales and to give up on the whole bullshit notion of wanting my body to look substantially different from how it has always looked. It took me my twenties to realize that wanting to clean the whole house every other day was not a charming quirk but an actual mental illness that also affected at least the two previous generations of women in my family.

The social anxiety is probably a combination of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and owning a smartphone. Until I learn to live without my phone, I’m going to keep using my words. They are all I have.

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