Here’s the thing about anxiety: oftentimes, people assume it’s this vague sense of unease. A slight worry. Normal. Far too often in media, ‘anxiety’ is shorthand for quirky, worrying soul who just needs a hug/shag/romance to change their silly ways. You know, in the same way, ‘bipolar’ tends to be played as either violently deranged (which, hi, unfair) or hyperactive with the occasional moment of sadness to add contrast.
We don’t often talk honestly about what it’s like, and the impact it has.
Let’s take me, for example. I went from ‘omg this festival was AMAZING let me tell you ALL THE THINGS’ to utter radio silence. That’s what it’s like living with anxiety and depression for me.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month for a few more days, and I’ve spent a lot of time watching other people talk openly and compassionately about their experiences with mental illness. And rather than do my usual ad-libbed excuse for bailing on blogging for a while, I’m going to be honest. Like, really honest. Feel free to abandon ship and avoid the potential overshare, but on the other hand, feel free to treat this as a class in writing one form of anxiety. Assume trigger warnings for self harm and suicidal thoughts, and react accordingly.
Also? It needs to be noted that I’m unmedicated because I’m part of the very, very statistically tiny group of people whose reaction to meds is having them ramp up the problem, rather than making life easier. This is not the reaction most people have to meds. A random internet person’s experience is not a valid reason for other people not to be medicated, mmkay?
And, for the record, this is not my banal attempt at an anti-med crusade. Let me be clear: I am 100% totally pro meds if and when they work for you. Please don’t be that person who responds with either a rant about the awesomeness of their particular meds (I’m 100% thrilled they work for you, wish they worked for me, but alas), or a rant about my single-handedly corrupting the med-needing populations of the interwebs (which has happened before, and is why I generally bypass mentioning meds ever).
Like all the best attacks, you don’t see it coming.
It starts off small. You don’t notice the anxiety rising until it makes it hard to breathe, the way a frog doesn’t notice the rising water temperature and sits until it’s flavouring soup.
You don’t notice the way everything changes, even though everything does.
The colours dim around the edges, but there’s so much happening- always so much happening- that it passes, unnoticed. In a constant flood of things to do and be, who notices the tiniest steps they take?
Jokes don’t make you laugh quite as much. Things that are normally simple become ever so slightly harder. Words get harder to find. It’s harder to be around other people, to follow their trains of thought and remember what you’re meant to say in response. It feels like a dance you don’t quite know the steps for. All the while, the things that were easy to overlook start having more and more meaning. Other people’s mistakes start feeling deliberate. Forgetfulness feels malicious. Fear starts feeling logical.
There are shadows in the edges of your vision, and you avoid looking at them. You make a point of pretending they don’t exist. You know what grows there, you’ve been here enough for that flare of instinctive fear, even if you’re still somehow missing the neon warning signs that things are about to go badly (but look what still needs to be done! I’ll just do this, then I’ll step back. Then I’ll rest. Honest). You don’t notice the random moments where your mind begins slowly, quietly, adding a background mix-tape of horribleness to your day. You’re not enough. This is shit- what the hell is wrong with you? You call yourself a writer? Why? You’re not enough. You’re never, ever, actually enough, and you never fucking will be. Holy shit, you’re such an idiot. How does anyone not notice just how stupid you actually are? You know they’re gonna figure it out soon, right?
It’s all so softly spoken, so far in the background of the sideshow carnival of shit needing your attention, that it takes an age to realise it’s there at all. Maybe you notice, once or twice, but the odd brain glitch is easy enough to ignore. Besides, you’re used to that negative soundtrack, used to ignoring it. And maybe you falter, just for a moment, when the expected you’re not enough slides into no one actually cares whether you live or die, but the moment flickers and passes too quickly. You call bullshit, shake it off, and go back to what you were doing.
And if you’re really, really paying attention, that moment of worry is enough to shake you loose from the spiral. You realise something is wrong, and do so soon enough that it’s possible to get off the ride. You’re not always that lucky. Sometimes, you shrug off that worry. You know what suicidal feels like, and this isn’t it. A single, overwhelmed moment isn’t anything to worry about, right?
The colours keep dimming like autumn in reverse. They soften and fade, and your brain takes it in like it’s normal. But sometimes, in the rare moment when reality sets in hard and sudden and you’re faltering and trying to remember how to survive these moments, sometimes you wonder. You wonder if one day you’ll open your eyes and see greyscale. You wonder if one day, you won’t shake that change, and you’ll never get those colours back. And you wonder if it actually matters at all.
There’s helpful advice everywhere, though. Walk it off. Talk to someone. Write it out. And even though the words are everything in your life that you value, the one thing you can usually hold onto, you stare at the page and can’t figure out a single thing to say. So you don’t. At all. Writing used to be like skipping through a field of wildflowers, picking up the words that caught your fancy and resting them on the page. Now it’s a room, its ceiling covered with helium balloons with the words you need emblazoned on their tops so you’ll never actually see them. Now you’re jumping, stretching, straining to grab at words, any words, hoping you’ll somehow manage to grab the one you actually need. Now words are a frustration, a security blanket set on fire and thrown around you.
Now they hurt, and feel unsafe. Now they’re one more thing that makes you feel stupid, and makes it easier to doubt, and hate, yourself.
You spend hours staring at simple messages and emails, trying to figure out a hidden meaning that doesn’t exist. You try and figure out how to sound like everything is fine because you don’t want that worry. You don’t want to be the reason that their smiles dim and falter, the one ruining things for those around you. You don’t want to bother people, and more than that, you don’t want to deal with the niggling doubt that it’s all a lie.
People lie. And you’re so, so bad at picking up on that when there are emotions involved. Your brain can, does, list out the fuck ups you’ve made, the people you trusted when you shouldn’t have, the moments you thought someone cared but then you realised how one-sided it all was. The curse of the people-pleaser. Look at all the screw ups, and tell me you know for sure that you’re not just fucking up again? The mix tape of self-doubt and loathing can’t help but stick the boot in when you’re at your lowest. That hidden track in the back of your mind is brutal, and the longer it plays, unchecked, the worse it gets.
The problem with social hibernation is that everyone is busy, and it’s likely that most of the people you know will wander onward, oblivious. But your brain has been practicing the better off without you monologue in the mirror again, clearly, because people are busy starts becoming they don’t care. So you stare at the occasional email a while longer, then mark them unread. You’ll get back to them tomorrow, when things are less… whatever this is.
You know, though, what this is. And you hate yourself for not catching it sooner, and not having the ability to just walk it the fuck off. You’re a grownup, dammit, and it shouldn’t be this hard to post on freakin’ Facebook. So you go, and you reply to someone’s post, and verbally dissect yourself for hours after because holy shit you sound like an idiot. What the hell is wrong with you? You should never talk to them again, you freak. Now you’ve done it, you’ve shown everyone what a moron you are. Bravo.
Still, you try to keep pretending nothing is wrong. You plaster that shit-eating grin into place, start sounding drunk at social events without ever having touched a drop (don’t let them see. Don’t let them figure out just how fucked you’re feeling right now. Don’t make their smiles fall away, because then you’re ruining their night too, and being selfish. Just fucking smile and survive). And if your jokes are a little ragged or just the wrong side of sharp? Well, it’s not like people don’t already know you’re a snarky little shit, and there are precious few people in the firing line, anyway.
Every time it feels normal and easy to be around other people, your brain tells you it’s a fluke, or that you’re clearly missing something, something that’ll show you why it’s all actually going horribly wrong. And every time you screw up (always you, never them), it’s further proof that you’re a shitty human being who can’t even manage basic conversation.
You can’t remember what you sound like, or who you are, when you’re not drowning in anxiety. And the meds don’t work for you- leave you actively, compulsively suicidal, and hallucinating things that left you terrified of the kitchen for months after. They took the soft rumble of that mix tape and left it screaming in your head days after you stopped taking the tablets.
You’re terrified of hearing that screaming again. Terrified of how little control you had in those moments, when your brain told you that survival meant you had to feel something, anything, and the only option left was pain and the desperate, all consuming need to escape that sense of nothingness that stole your breath and your sanity and left you shaken and more terrified of yourself than any monster in any story you’ve read.
Your luck held through two attempts at medicating, and people stopped you before you went too far. But luck runs out, and you’re not ready to sign on for a voluntary suicidal phase. So you grit your teeth and struggle through because your life expectancy is higher that way.
You grit your teeth, and you force yourself through the basics: eat, sleep, drink things that aren’t coffee or alcohol. Shower. Call your mother. Get out of bed. For fucks sake, it’s not climbing Everest you lazy shit.
You survive, as best you can. You force yourself to keep on working (because the work, you prioritise. The work is a port in the storm, even if only for a few hours). You grit your teeth and remember that this shit doesn’t last forever (are you sure? Do you really, honestly believe that? Luck runs out, kiddo.)
Then comes the bad day. Too much is asked of you, too many unkind thoughts or frustrations get wedged down deep instead of vocalised, and the human body isn’t meant to cope with that kind of stress. You feel it first in your chest.
You don’t notice your heartbeat until it changes, don’t notice the act of breathing until you can’t fucking breathe. You feel it building like a summer storm in Brisbane. Your chest tightens, lungs start to strain even though there’s nothing stopping you breathing. For fuck’s sake, you’re not running a marathon here. You disgust me. Can’t even fucking breathe right. Your heart responds by beating faster. And your brain, your beautiful, messed up, glitching brain, freaks the fuck out.
Sometimes, it’s telling you that something bad is going to happen. Sometimes, it’s that mix tape blaring louder than you can stand it. And sometimes, everything shorts out and it’s white noise and nothingness, and that’s the worst. It reminds you of the white noise of the meds, of the inability to feel, and your first instinct is to do something, anything, to remind yourself that you can actually feel and this is not like those very bad days.
It’s like an asthma attack, but so much worse. A shift from breathing to not, from fine to freaking the hell out in the span of moments. If you’re lucky, you’re near enough to a bathroom to hide in a stall and wait it out. If you’re unlucky? You’re sitting in the gutter four doors from your house, pretending to tie up your shoes (they zip up, dumbass) or pretending to be sending a text (no one shakes like that sending a text, moron. They probably think you’re some drunk having a tantrum), face hidden by hair as you try and remind your body that breathing is important.
This time, though, you find a public bathroom, and hide in there and try not to acknowledge that the picture on the back of the toilet door is trying its damndest to make eye contact with you. And maybe there’ll be a day where you can laugh about freaking out about the staring gaze of an ad about the symptoms of panic attacks, but right now breathing is a problem. And having someone- even a photograph of a someone- watching really isn’t helping.
There comes a point where you start crying, which really, really doesn’t help. Adding another difficulty to breathing is the worst kind of idea, but apparently your body hates you right now because you’re crying and you can’t stop. And through it all, there’s a quiet mumble in the back of your mind that you can’t breathe and that won’t change, and they’re gonna find your corpse sitting on a toilet lid and drowning in tears and snot. It doesn’t help, either. You hear people wander into the bathroom, force a hand over your mouth (it’s too hard to breathe, they don’t care anyway, why bother?) until they’re gone. You don’t want someone knocking, know you can’t answer if someone asks if you’re okay.
Finally, though, you breathe. You drag in oxygen like it’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever encountered (which, come on, you’re in a bathroom, it’s not). You hide until the tears stop, and the shaking fades to acceptable levels. It takes a while, and you’re exhausted by the time it’s finally, finally possible to leave. You stagger home, fall into bed, and get up as little as possible for as long as you can stand.
Slowly, the colours come back. The constant thrum of that mix tape fades and vanishes. You laugh again, and it feels rusted and strange at first but it gets easier after a while. The words come back, and you cling to them tightly.
But you hesitate, wary of trying to be social. It’s hard to step up, to find a way to apologise for vanishing, harder to pretend it won’t happen again when you know damn well it probably will. You feel broken, exhausted; a wide gaping wound flinching at the slightest pressure. It’s hard to remember that people are generally awesome, and tend to shrug off the occasional vanishing act. So you overcompensate, trying to be better in the moments you’re there to make up for the drama that shows up eventually. You compliment those around you (that’s what people do, right? They make other people feel good about themselves and now it’s awkward isn’t it and oh gods why am I so freakin’ bad at this?), you exhaust yourself trying to make up a slight that precious few even noticed, and no one actually cares about. For a while, you’re hyper-vigilant about anything that could bring that mix tape back into focus, but then life gets busy again, and overdoing it just this once won’t matter, right?