The Anxiety Police

“But you don’t act like you have anxiety”

I shudder at my co-workers response to me saying my anxiety is the reason I am trying to drink less coffee. I don’t know whether she expected such an honest answer to that question. But she got one.

I could have been more honest. I could have told her that I have crippling, often paralyzing anxiety and that lately it has gotten worse. That I’ve been having a hard time sleeping, when I do I have graphic nightmares, and when I wake up I’m exhausted and shaky.

But I can’t just say that. Social norms prevent a work-kitchen interaction from you opening up like you’re being psychoanalyzed. But the word anxiety in and of itself is becoming less stigmatized, so I thought it safe enough to blurt out that quick explanation.

Nevertheless, when my co-worker said I don’t act like I have anxiety, she questioned my condition, and my state of being. I’d like to think she didn’t understand the gravity of her statement. Because to someone suffering from anxiety, that is just about the worst thing you can hear.

A statement like that makes it seem as though you, in your suffering, must express textbook symptoms of your condition, or your disorder. Not only must you express textbook symptoms, but these must be symptoms other people can pick up on, sense, and see.

A person with anxiety is visibly nervous or worried, and clearly comes off this way in their interactions with other people. They might even express symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or a combination of the two. You can tell when a person has anxiety.

Wrong.

Those are hallmark signs of a disorder, ailment, or disease. Its visibility.

However, anxiety is often invisible.

“But you don’t act like you have anxiety”

How do I answer that, I thought to myself hurriedly. How do I explain that I have had horrible anxiety for the majority of my life, and that it’s gotten to a point where my outer “chill” is a coping mechanism for the train running through my brain, the nails prickling at my skin. How do I explain that the calm facade has taken me years to master. That it’s the only thing stopping a public display of anxiety, which for me is actually harmful. For me, publicly expressing my anxiety creates a positive feedback loop of making me more and more anxious, often to the brink of panic attacks.

I don’t express my anxiety outwardly because it breeds more anxiety within me.

Yes, I’ve heard it’s bad to “bottle things up” and yes, I’ve seen a therapist about this. I’ve learned to not judge myself for the coping mechanisms that help me to live my life with more ease.

So, I turned to my co-worker and said, “Yeah, I don’t really show it.”

I almost got away answering that question with just the amount of detail I desired. If only I had stopped after “I don’t really show it,” what’s possibly the shortest, safest, and most socially acceptable version of the story of a girl with a lifelong struggle with anxiety.

But, after a silence slightly too long I quickly added “but I’m medicated for it.”

Anxious that my answer wasn’t a good enough explanation. Anxious that I needed to justify myself and my anxiety.

Being on medication makes your anxiety a medical issue and when your anxiety is a medical issue it’s valid. Not only valid, but it’s visible, because you take a tangible medication, a pill, to aid with the symptoms of your anxiety, and ultimately bring visibility to that disorder.

But why do we need to legitimize anxiety, and other mental illness? Those of us suffering need to legitimize our disorders because people without them don’t understand them. Medicalizing anxiety is a way of translating that anxiety into a widely-understandable “American” language, an America where smiling will cure your depression and a good night’s sleep will heal your insomnia.

My co-worker let out a long “ooh, I see.”

I turned away promptly, exited the kitchen, and made a B-line for my desk.

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