How Anxiety Dimmed My Sparkle
Clothes have been a locus of empowerment my whole life, a glittering axe I’d wield imposingly as I strode through the world. So it alarmed me greatly when, at age nineteen, a shift in my mental health made it feel like I’d turned that once-badass weapon on myself. I’d cultivated my femme presentation to amuse and impress onlookers and to intimidate clueless dudebros; now, it merely intimidated me.
See, when I was nineteen, I started on the birth control pill for the first time — and it warped my personality into something I did not recognize. Depression wracked me, coming in waves; once or twice a month, I’d collapse in my then-boyfriend’s arms and soak through his shirt with tears that confused both of us. My once-frequent rushes of hypomania slowed to a trickle, and so too did my creative output and my zest for life. But most troubling was the anxiety: I’d always been a shy kid, but this was on another level.
In my new psychological state — which felt so pervasive, I took to viewing it as simply my new personality — I was constantly convinced everyone was staring at me and judging me. As you might expect, this made it difficult to go to school, family events, comedy shows, and lots of other settings I’d once enjoyed. Everywhere I went, a creeping feeling followed me: judgmental eyes I could not see, and critical whispers I could not hear. My “sane brain” tried to explain away this sensation with logic — No one actually hates you! You have no evidence of that! — but my anxiety-brain always won out. Those dark rumblings felt more real than any compliments or reassurances I’d receive from real people, standing right in front of me.
Anxiety gradually became the pilot of my life. It decided which places I could and could not go, which activities I could and could not partake in, and — to the horror of my wilting femme heart — which clothes I could and could not wear.
In high school, I’d been known for my wild, colorful outfits. It was common for me to strut down the hall in a purple tutu, or a gold sequined dress, or blue iridescent Doc Martens. Now, all my eclectic trappings got shoved to the back of the closet. It felt safer to swathe myself in baggy hoodies, dark jeans, and oversize toques. I pulled scarves up high to hide my face, and wore my hair in a shapeless frizzy cloud. I shoved my hands into fleecy hoodie pockets, and walked with an abashed slouch. I worked hard to make myself as invisible and indistinct as possible, in an effort to silence the critics I thought were panning me behind my back. If I am nothing and no one, I thought, then no one can speak ill of me.
Worst of all, this strategy didn’t even work. Instead of being “that weird girl who wears wacky clothes,” I became “that weird girl who always sits at the back of the classroom and never talks to anyone.” It felt like the solution, but it didn’t actually solve anything. It just made me sadder, though by this point I was so depressed that I could scarcely tell the difference.
One memorable day, I felt strong enough to wear a colorful outfit to school for the first time in months. I showed up at my literature lecture in a blue dress layered under a red V-neck top, with a matching red purse in tow. But I could feel those creeping eyes on me — imagined or not — so, halfway through class, I began to cry. Silent tears fell down my cheeks and cranked the volume on my anxiety. Everyone can see that I’m crying, I thought. They probably think I’m SO WEIRD for crying in class. And that thought just made me cry harder. I couldn’t even get up to leave and go home, because that would just draw more attention to me. So I stayed in my seat, quietly soaking my notebook with tears, until the lecture came to a close. Still to this day, I have no idea if anyone even noticed at all.
After three and a half years, my relationship ended, and I decided to quit birth control because I saw no sexual prospects in my immediate future. And to my surprise, my old personality drifted back into view. I rediscovered the feeling of reasonless happiness. I started writing and singing and painting again. It felt possible for me to attend events again, albeit with friends as chaperones. And I began to take my weirdo-femme regalia out of storage, because being noticed and seen no longer terrified me. In fact, some days, I wanted it.
Months after quitting the pill, I stood in front of my mirror in a bright green, polka-dotted, form-fitting dress, the likes of which might be worn by Joan Holloway in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. I was expected that night at a queer dance party, a fundraiser for a local organization. The dress made me feel foxier than I’d felt in literal years, but I nonetheless eyed my reflection with mild trepidation. Would I be able to walk into a big room full of people wearing this? Would I dissolve into tears if I sensed someone talking about me behind my back? Would I shrink like a salted slug under all those pairs of eyes?
But I grabbed my purse and jacket and walked out the door. I made it to the party. And when I walked into the room, I felt aglow. Powerful. I even got up on stage and played some songs on my ukulele. And I knew, with an earthy certainty I hadn’t felt in years, that if people in the crowd were talking about me, they were saying good things.