A few days ago, the lovely Lauren DeStefano did something incredibly brave. She wrote a blog post about living with anxiety. Knowing you aren’t the only person in the world with a problem is one thing. To have someone else — a New York Times bestselling author, no less — step forward and say, “This is my story. You aren’t alone,” is simply incredible. To pay it forward, so to speak, I want to share my own story in hopes it will strike a chord with others.
This is kind of a long, winding story. Sorry for that. It’s how my brain works. That’s why I’m so thankful for critique partners. Every story has to start somewhere, though, so I suppose I’ll start mine here:
As a child I was diagnosed with severe ADHD, which is completely accurate and why I get so angry when people bash parents of ADHD kids as lazy and lacking discipline. Are there over-diagnosed kids out there? Absolutely! But some of us have legitimate biological and mental problems. The worse the ADHD, the worse the accompanying issues.
It started off fairly simple. I have the attention span of a goldfish on a sugar rush. True story. I can be explaining something to someone and halfway through my own conversation completely lose track. It’s the most amazing accomplishment of my life that I made it through two undergraduate degrees and part of a masters. When I was a kid, my first therapist figured out that I responded well to anxiety. I don’t mean I didn’t get anxious. I mean, she learned my attention could be kept if I was alarmed by something. Call my name sharply and you have my undivided attention. Threaten me with certain punishments, and I’m captivated. Often times, the fear of situations worked far better than the actual punishments. Fuck you, 1-2-3 MAGIC.
I want to be clear right now that I don’t blame my parents for anything. They were doing what they were told by experts to do. They had no idea, and probably still don’t, of the far reaching implications. Of how everything in a child’s brain is so tightly wired together. I would bet money, though, that those were the seeds planted in my already fertile genetic fields of craziness.
I didn’t know I had a problem at first. I thought everybody got sad. Everybody got scared for no reason. Everybody replayed random bits of conversation over and over in their head until they became physically ill. Nobody talked about it, though, so I shouldn’t talk about it either. Everyone gets constipated sometimes, but we don’t discuss it over dinner.
In high school, I did a little bit of everything. I don’t play sports, but my limited pool of friends did. I kept score for volleyball, was the videographer for basketball, did pepsquad for football, concessions for softball, edited the school newspaper, volunteered in the library, stayed after school for whatever. My senior year I was given the school’s laptop and asked to create a presentation for the annual Athletics Award Banquet. I did this happily. I turned everything back in and was asked to go to said banquet and A) click through the slides and B) take notes for the paper. Sure! I was actually pretty excited.
An hour before, my father found me sitting on the stairwell, all dressed up, crying and hyperventilating into a panic attack. Why? Everything was done. I was about to be fed and get to show off all my hard work. But, there I was, unable to speak through the gasps and the tears. Daddy had to call them and tell them I was “sick” and couldn’t make it.
This is just one example. There are literally hundreds for my 27 short years of life. There doesn’t have to be an obvious trigger. Fear of a situation, however slight, can be enough. And it isn’t always consistent. I’ve had to stand up and do things in front of hundreds of people. I’ve lead meetings, been in management, participated in big events, and I’ve been fine. But (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)…
That’s because like Lauren’s OCD, anxiety often “helps” you create a new standard of living. One that will “help” you avoid the panic attacks. The jumbled wires in your brain tell you that if you just do this or only do that then everything will be alright this time.
It usually starts off small. You find that your busted eardrum can only tolerate Florence + the Machine at volume level 7. You begin to fear that screechy-buzzy noise that music set to something like 8 brings. Pretty soon, your volume dial must always be on an odd number.
For me, exacting standards and the need for control became my “helpers.” It’s what I jokingly refer to as my Supergirl Complex. I joke about it, even though it isn’t funny, because it helps me cope. I tag everything with Supergirl these days. My tumblr, my booklikes, my twitter, even my forum accounts. In this digital age where life is mostly lived online, it reminds me to be strong.
I often feel like the entire world depends on me. Sometimes that’s hyperbole. Most of the time it isn’t. Many people, even those I’m particularly close to, don’t understand that I don’t take on projects and responsibilities because I’m a control freak. I take them on because I’m afraid. So, I run two businesses, act in management at another, cook all our meals, pack my husband’s lunch, run all the errands, pay the bills, do the shopping, compulsively schedule the doctor’s appointments (that I then want second opinions on), create the websites, write the books, take on the critique partners, and somehow still keep up all the social media. Because in my mind, if I don’t get everything done to exacting standards the world just might possibly end. And I’m the only one that knows those exacting standards. It’s like being the only person who knows how to diffuse an atomic bomb. Do you explain it to someone else and hope they do it right, or do you do it yourself and hope you can get everything done before it goes off?
I’ve been accused of upholding “busy culture” with this, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am busy. I never stop. Even when I’m sitting on the couch staring into space, I never stop. Because for a person with this particular kind of anxiety, you can’t stop. If you stop, everything falls apart. The world ends. Game over.
The spirals grow out from there, though. There’s the depression. It began as seasonal, mostly triggered by bad things that had happened in cooler months. Now it’s chronic. There’s the anger. I’m always angry. Everything makes me angry. I’m on a constant quest to become Marmee. Calm, collected, and in control of both myself and my surroundings. It isn’t working, but it’s nice to have something to aspire to. There’s the weight problems. Part of it is my thyroid. Part of it is my bad knees that make many exercises difficult for me. Part of it is working all the time. But part of it is mental. I eat fairly healthy, but I eat fairly constantly. It’s a comfort thing. I’m not anxious or depressed or angry or really anything but happy (and usually absorbed in a book) when I’m eating.
Becoming an author has made everything even worse, though I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m under constant scrutiny, much of it from myself. I’m honestly surprised I’ve gotten as far as I have. Normally I wad things up and throw them away because they’re never good enough. Now look at me. I’m soon to be published and I have several more books in the works. That’s Ah-Maze-Ing. And UTTERLY TERRIFYING. Now I’m saving both the real world and a fictional one. Not only that, but somehow a bug got worked in my ear that started a whole new chain of anxiety: People waste hours, days even, of their lives reading a single book. Is my book worthy of that time they’ll never get back? That precious, precious time when they could be playing golf, or debating Plato, or snuggling their children… Am I worthy?
So I work harder. I sleep less. I schedule an extra appointment with my therapist that I then cancel in favor of a few more vitamins in the morning and telling myself that everything is going to be okay as soon as I finish this chapter. And my friends think I’m crazy, and my husband gives me a hug, and my cats hide in the spare room because Mom’s lost it again, but this is my life. I deal with it every nanosecond of every day. And I’m tired of being ashamed that the fear of fear rules my life. And I’m tired of the misconceptions. And I’m tired of people just not getting what it’s like to live with this horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad monster in my brain.
And most importantly, for all my 1600 rambling words, I want you — you there at the LCD screen with the problems that you think mean you’re crazy — I want you to know something. I want you to stare at it, reread it, memorize it, burn it into the parts of your brain that won’t shut up at 3 AM on a chilly Thursday morning: