You may have noticed that my little corner of the internet has gone through a name-change recently. “A View from the Geek Seats” is no more, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop writing about geek culture. Of course not – I’ve been steeped in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books too long to give that up entirely. However, I’ve realized that I want – I need – to tell another story: my story.
I have clinical anxiety.
There’s something vaguely liberating about seeing those words in black and white, a phantom notion given concrete substance as I write. At the same time, it seems so much smaller than it really is. A four-word sentence seems hardly adequate to describe an emotion that has been at the core of my being for as long as I can remember.
Some of you may not understand or know what clinical anxiety is or how it works. When I say “I have anxiety,” I don’t mean that I get nervous giving speeches, or panic when the nurse gives me a tetanus booster. I don’t mean that I get scared watching scary movies or stressed when my workload is high. All of these situations are normal incidences in which human beings may feel anxiety. I have these reactions, and I bet you have at least some of them. Who wouldn’t feel nervous when a cop pulls them over for speeding? Who wouldn’t feel fear waiting for the results of recent medical tests? Fear and stress are normal human reactions – and they serve a purpose. Fear keeps us from engaging in risky behavior that might endanger themselves. Stress motivates us to accomplish our goals.
No, friends. When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that I lived in the house of fear, with few windows into the outside world. My earliest memories are of waking up and dreading the day ahead because even as a child, I knew – I just knew – that there was some great, unfathomable Bad Thing that could happen to me that day. Have you ever met a fearful child? They go through life knowing in every fiber of their tiny beings that the world is a terrifying place and that they are very, very small. When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that there is a demon on my shoulder and that demon is fear. Imagine falling asleep after a long day. As soon as you begin to drift off, you feel as if you aren’t breathing and you start awake. That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety. All day, every day.
When I tell people that I struggle with anxiety, it usually surprises them. I don’t “look like” someone who is mentally ill. I don’t “talk like” someone who is mentally ill. I was a straight-A student. I have an advanced degree. I have always been a stellar employee and an academic and social leader. I don’t seem like society’s picture of a “crazy person.” But I was good at school. I was good at work. These were controlled environments where if I put in effort, I would receive stability. I got a remarkable amount of work done because I felt like if I stopped or slowed down, then everything would cave in and that omnipresent Bad Thing, the one I had been holding off since childhood, would happen. Can you imagine being on guard your whole life? Feeling the fight-or-flight instinct from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep? It’s exhausting. And about 3/4th of the way through my graduate school career, it became too much. I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown.
So what did I do? I got help. I got counseling. I got medication. I went home to stay with my parents and to start over. This war can be fought, and it must be fought to live a full life – one not shaped by fear. I manage my life now, and I’m in the best mental health I have ever been in. However, I can’t overstate the struggle it has been – and continues to be. I’m not “cured.” I never will be. My anxiety is a part of my life. But it’s not the only part of my life.
I have not been eager to share this part of my life with the people around me. I didn’t want to be judged. I didn’t want to be second-guessed in work situations by people who might tag me as “crazy” or “insecure.” I have labored like Sisyphus to control my reactions to the world around me. My reticence hasn’t helped anyone, least of all me. People – good people, kind people, brave people – lose the battle against their demons every day.
They die, thinking they are alone.
It’s time to open up a conversation about mental health, one that doesn’t go away a few weeks after a publicized suicide fades from the media circus.
Why “24 Steps?” When I was at my worst – jumping at every car horn, compulsively checking the door locks – I would pace in my tiny apartment to calm myself. It took me 24 steps to make the circuit through my kitchen. I will never forget that circuit, pacing like it was the only thing keeping me alive. No one needs to feel as small as I did then.
Let’s change the story.