What does it mean to have anxiety?
For my best friend, it means pulling over to the side of the road when you’re five minutes away from the house. It means walking. And walking. And breathing. And walking. It means trying to listen to the voice of your best friend over the voice in your head that tells you you’re dying. It means resisting the urge to dial 9-1-1 when your heart is pounding and your chest is aching as the panic launches its full-fledged attack on your body. It comes without reason, without warning. It just . . . is.
For my boyfriend, it means cowering at the mention of a double date. It means shaking hands with sweaty palms and forcing out a shaky “Hey.” It means fighting against your body to have a “normal” social encounter, every moment resisting the urge to flee. It means constantly racking your brain for the next acceptable excuse as to why you can’t come to that party, because “I have social anxiety” just isn’t a good enough reason.
But for me, anxiety looks a little different. Anxiety means straight A’s. It means Editor-in-chief, internships and making the Dean’s list. “It means, “Wow, you’re going to be famous one day,” “You killed that interview,” and “Keep up the good work!”
At least, that’s what they tell me. But those voices are but whispers compared to the monster that no one else hears.
“You’ll never be good enough.” “You’re a bad [friend] [daughter] [sister] [girlfriend].” “No one will ever really love you.”
The monster that is my anxiety first reared its ugly head in grade school. My mom gave it a name: perfectionist. I guess that’s what you call a five-year-old who throws away coloring pages when she barely goes outside the lines. Or an eight-year-old that crumples up her paper and throws in the trash, screaming because she misspelled one word and now has to start all over because having one scratched-out word is unacceptable.
The monster grew as I entered my teen years. This time, they named it Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. “They” being the counselor my mom made me start seeing when she heard my bedroom door banging against its frame over and over as I made sure it was closed every night.
The door was just one part of the nightly ritual that included closing and locking all the upstairs windows – ten times to be exact – as well as all the upstairs doors. This, of course, would be after the routine stretching, push-ups and sit-ups that also had to be done in the same order and the same number of times every night. This would last until the early hours of the morning, but it had to be done. Otherwise, any attempt to sleep would be as pointless as ordering a Diet Coke with your Big Mac.
While the counseling helped with the severe OCD, the anxiety remained, and, as I entered my early 20s, led to drug and alcohol use. It started with smoking pot and drinking at parties, but soon evolved to other narcotics – my favorite of which was Xanax.
Nothing could make me feel more at peace than those four white squares of freedom. That is, until one night when the Xanax mixed with a God-knows-what-else cocktail caused me to black out in an unsafe place. I was awake enough to know what was happening to me, but too out of it to be able to stop it.
Six years later, I wish I could say I was free, but the truth is, I never really will be. At least now I know what to call the monster inside my head. It’s called anxiety, high-functioning anxiety to be exact.
High-functioning anxiety doesn’t mean panic attacks like my best friend. And it doesn’t mean social avoidance like my boyfriend.
It means late nights under the harsh glow of a computer screen. It means another cup of coffee. It means saying yes to writing a book as a full-time student with a full-time job. It means hiding behind a smile and a 3.5 GPA. It means fighting the urge to quiet the monster with a little pill and a glass of wine.
I don’t write this for pity. I don’t write this for attention. I write this because I know I am not alone. I’m not the only one who battles the monster every day – sometimes winning, sometimes losing.
According to a 2012 survey on mental health conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 11 percent of college students nationwide have been diagnosed with anxiety.
Just like me, these students battle not only their illness, but the fear that no one understands the war that wages inside their head. Understanding might not cure anxiety, but it sure beats the hell out of:
“You’re just stressed.” “Why don’t you go home and take day off?” “Why are you freaking out?” “Just relax.”
As if it were only that easy.
If you were born without the monster, be thankful. But if someone trusts you enough to confide in you about their monster, don’t think for one second you’re consoling them in your attempts to belittle it. Instead, recognize that their illness is as real as the flu you caught last winter. They might not show it on the outside or be contagious, like you were with your runny nose, coughing and sneezing, but it’s there, and it never goes away.
Understanding might not cure anxiety, but it can cure the feelings of loneliness and unacceptance that accompany it – and it might just be the thing that prevents someone who’s losing the battle from taking their life.