Standing Up to the Bully Named Anxiety
“That’s Fred,” my daughter said matter-of-factly to the little basil pot as I placed it on the table.
She names every plant I bring to the house to torture with imperfect growing conditions. And as long as the plant lasts, she will greet it by its given name. Unfortunately, the name also humanizes the little guy and parting becomes such sweet sorrow when his leaves curl up and fall to the floor.
Naming things comes naturally to us. Nomenclature brings understanding and identity to our world. Consider the rapidly growing number of medical diagnoses. In a time of unprecedented expansion of our understanding of the human body, researchers continue to name every tic and trouble we humans face. This can lead us to clarity and better treatment plans.
Defining what ails us, externally and internally, is powerful. It makes us feel seen and understood. It gives us hope for relief or cures. But naming can also hamstring us when we embrace things that were never meant to be part of us. That has been my experience with anxiety.
My anxiety was named by Dr. Soap Opera.
I was 30 years old when I was first told I had anxiety. It was both the most obvious and most shocking thing I had ever heard.
I had struggled with fears and mild bouts of depression since I was a little kid. Back then we called it melancholy or moodiness. We also called it keeping feet on the ground when everyone else rode the roller coasters. But no one had ever named it for me. It was more like a weak part of my character than an illness.
I can still see Dr. Soap Opera, the nickname I mentally gave the young physician that walked into my urgent care room, stopping to sweep his wavy hair back with one hand. His demeanor suggested my racing heartbeat and clammy hands were inconveniencing him.
“You’re having panic attacks,” he said nonchalantly, looking over my chart.
My eyes instantly flooded.
“It’s normal for your age. You have responsibilities. You said you have a new baby, right? It’s stressful.”
I nodded along, dripping salty tears onto the thin table cover.
“I can give you something for it.”
And that was as illuminating as that conversation got.
I had been hoping for a diagnosis more along the lines of “heart defect requiring open heart surgery”, something completely out of my control, sympathetic, and yet solvable. Panic was so embarrassing, a condition I felt I should be able to avoid but certainly couldn’t.
Despite not knowing why my heart raced out of control at inopportune times, I knew this thing had always been with me. I had tried to resolve my pet fears for years and had matured out of the most banal ones, like snakes under the bed. But I still hated to sleep alone.
Now the great beast had a name, Anxiety.
As I left urgent care with head hung low, I assumed that anxiety and I were joined at the hip and should learn how to cope with each other until death do us part. At least I knew what I had.
The seamlessness of anxiety kept it hidden.
Anxiety’s ability to incapacitate me was breathtaking. And yet, its invisibility made it hard to fully see it for what is was. It felt integrated with my life. It was more than an event. Fearful was the way I approached the world, the lens through which I experienced and expected life to be. My mind seemed wired for fear, interpreting benign things as threatening.
When my anxiety was at its worst, the littlest provocation would make my chest tighten and my breathing restrict. It would take hours for these effects to wear away. Sometimes I couldn’t even recall what had caused the reaction. I simply felt everything in my body. Each experience was heightened by an overactive nervous system.
“Just relax!” I was told as a child.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Nope, I felt the same. What was relaxation anyway? Some state of being I had never experienced and had no context for. How could I strive to be different if I didn’t know what that life looked and felt like?
The shame of anxiety kept me quiet.
Anxiety was also hidden behind walls of embarrassment. I hated to feel afraid, to not be able to do things other people could. I felt like a child trapped in an adult body, forever destined to swim in the kiddie pool while the adults cavorted elsewhere. I readily admitted to myself that others were having more fun. They seemed more carefree, able to enjoy themselves, and especially able to do daring things I wouldn’t consider.
I had become a master at hiding my symptoms, seeming to go with the flow when everything inside my body was screaming. As a result, few people knew my struggles.
I prayed. I sought answers. But I couldn’t speak up. If I admitted anxiety was a problem more so than a personality difference, I would be humiliated. It was easier to believe that it was how I was meant to function. I was just a low-capacity human.
My motto: There are brave people and fearful people on this planet earth. And we are all okay.
Until I decided anxiety wasn’t okay anymore.
Even when I felt horribly immobilized by regular panic attacks, there was a stubborn truth that refused to let go of me. Human beings are meant to evolve. I was not a static creature, stuck forever in an inherited mass of genetic predispositions, learned traits, and the immature ways of my youth.
And if I assumed anxiety was forever fixed to me, there would be no opportunity to change. I would become a victim to my life.
The truth was that anxiety was not part of my personhood, like the freckles on my nose or my one leg that’s a wee bit shorter than the other. Anxiety wasn’t my identity but a set of thoughts and behaviors that moved in and through me. It was my problem and my responsibility. I began to visualize it as a chain around my neck, ever tightening, holding me back from my full potential. That fueled my appetite for growth.
Staying the same was a viable option too. I knew that people would love me and life would continue on if I remained locked in my fears. I didn’t have to prove anything to myself or to others in order to be a worthy person. But once I saw anxiety for what it was, how it restrained the fullness of my life, I desperately wanted to live more freely. I wanted to know what life was like on the other side.
That was the beginning of finding a pathway through. I chose to believe one thing — I had something named anxiety, but it was a bully that had no rightful place with me. I was meant for more.
Please note: If you are struggling with anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts, I do encourage you to seek professional help and I support both appropriate medical diagnoses and medications given under a doctor’s care.