It’s okay not to be okay. Especially right now.
For the last few years, anyone with anxiety has been tweaking pretty constantly- including me. The uncertainty and chaos in the world (particularly in the US) has provided almost an ambient level of background fear and disquiet.
Then the pandemic hit… then the protests... and now there are massive forest fires blanketing the West Coast in a dirty orange haze of smoke and ash. My wife and I are fine for right now, but if the pandemic wasn’t already giving us cabin fever, choking on the air as soon as we walk outside surely will.
For the last 7 years or so, exercise has been the outlet for my stress and anxiety. Running, especially- the feeling of constant motion, cold air in my lungs, the smell of trees and leaves revitalizes me. And there’s always the “Zone-” the space in a run where your mind blanks and everything goes quiet. You move down an endless trail- your brain falls silent, your train of thought stalls, and all you need to do to maintain this perfect bliss is just keep moving.
It helped keep my demons asleep… but now I can’t go running. Not without feeling like I chainsmoked an entire tobacco plantation. I’m stuck indoors for the time being- and my demons are still there with me.
Names and Faces
One part of the toxic positivity bullshit that seriously gets to me is the (no doubt well-meaning) people that go:
“Stop labeling yourself! Live beyond labels! You shouldn’t be limiting your experience, and all it does is give you excuses!”
Beyond the childishness and paternalism behind the statement, what these people don’t seem to realize (until it hits closer to home for them) is that labels help, because they give your experience a definition and a name.
Imagine suffering from anxiety or depression (or really, being anything other than cis-het, neurotypical person) but not knowing anything about psychology. You don’t know why, for no reason at all, you feel like air stops working for you. You don’t know why someone making an off-hand remark at work about your performance makes your heart beat so fast it feels like it’ll explode. You can’t explain why you hyper-fixate on minutae, or why you feel whether or not a task gets done is a reflection of your worth as a human being.
You don’t know why, for days at a time, getting dressed is a herculean effort. It stresses you out how, even though you want to go out and see friends, you can’t whomp up the energy or will to do anything but watch the same Netflix series over and over again. Your house is a wreck, you know and hate it- but you’re on the couch in your pajamas at 2pm, trying to remind yourself you hate living this way, but you can’t fix it, and you’d rather just not live.
For lack of better descriptors, you’ll turn to the ones the people around you use- or the ones you push on yourself:
Then, one day, you finally go see a therapist- or maybe you read about people like you online, or a book in the self-help section of a library calls to you, and there under “Symptoms” is your entire lived experience, along with new words like:
- Rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts or concepts- rehearsing arguments with people that haven’t happened)
- Chemical imbalances
- Stimming (“Stimulating”- creating sensory input to focus on an calm yourself down, such as humming or rubbing/clenching your hands)
- Triggers (the word used correctly, by the way. Keep the political edgelord horseshit out of my comment section.)
Some you recognize in yourself, and just thought it was a quirky thing you did- or that you were weird. Over all of it, though, in nice headings at say “This is Anxiety.”
“This is Depression.”
“This is ADD.”
From personal experience, I can tell you- the relief is almost palpable. This isn’t just you. These things have names, and other people deal with them. They are identified, and there are things you can do.
You’re not lazy, a slob, a spaz, a freak, or a scaredycat- and you’re definitely not alone.
Face-to-Face With Your Demons
Anxiety and Depression are things with names.
Having names, they can be identified.
Being identified, they can be dealt with.
I recently finished a novel based on a podcast I like called “Alice Isn’t Dead.” The main character suffers from pretty crippling anxiety (already not the best thing for a road trip/thriller adventure heroine to deal with) and- most importantly- she doesn’t “beat” her anxiety. It terrorizes her and stresses her out- and it’s part of her. Over and over in the book, this phrase is used:
“We sat in circles, and described the shape of the monster that was devouring us.”
It gets used for grief and mourning, then anxiety, and (ultimately) a group of actual monsters- but you should read the book/ listen to the podcast for that bit.
For us though, it’s important because once we know what our anxiety and depression look like, we can learn to work and live around it. Being able to recognize things like depression spirals clues you in to how to (safely) distract yourself from them. The day I realized just how I experience anxiety spikes, I started trying to figure out how to ride them out and deal with the aftermath (for me, it looks like agitation for no reason, rumination, and a sudden plunge in energy and motivation- after all, I may have just been piping almond cream at work, but my brain and heart were running a marathon.)
The Anxiety is a Snake, Depression a Cloak
I’m telling you all of this because this is my story too.
I didn’t realize I suffered from Anxiety and Depression until about two years ago. I couldn’t tell you when I started experiencing the behaviors that I now know are symptoms. I always thought that my paranoia, tendency to catastrophize and overprepare for simple things was just me being a “worrywart” or “weird.” The fact that peoples judgments and words weighed so heavy on me was just me being a teenager, “dramatic,” or “sensitive.”
It took meeting and living with my wife to get me to understand what I was going through, and a couple really bad jolts to make me realize something wasn’t right. Emily has dealt with anxiety and depression since she was a teenager. She’s been to therapy, joined groups, and been diagnosed.
Early in our lives together, she would have anxiety and depression spells, and all I could do was just hold and love her through them. I didn’t know how to help- her mother used to carefully talk her down. I didn’t have that magic, so I would just hold her and be there. Not fix anything- I couldn’t- but just sit and be with her through them.
A few years ago, after I was bullied out of a job I loved, I had my first serious bout of anxiety and depression. I remember it as a three-day mental breakdown- though my therapist later wouldn’t refer to it as such. After that, I started to pay attention to my behavior- the patterns I recognized now as Anxiety and Depression. I meditated, I targeted my exercise for dealing with them (previously, it was just “dealing with stress”) and recognizing how they affect my work.
On bad days, the Anxiety feels like a snake- crawling out of my chest and curling around my throat. Its fang hover, just tickling my skin, deciding whether or not to bite, and I can’t even hold my breath. When it releases me and vanishes, I am exhausted and drained from feeling choked. Realizing the snake is there, that it WILL let me go eventually helps make the air work a little better. Exercise, distraction, and projects force the snake to loosen its hold.
The Depression feels like a cloak, lined with lead with a deep hood. It crushes my shoulders and chest, deadens the sound and color of the world outside- all I can hear or see is my own weakness. Nothing can remove it till its ready, and even my wifes love comes through muffled- but she sits and loves me through it, and I focus as much as I can on feeling that.
You Are Not Weak- OR Alone
Mental illnesses are real. They are not excuses, or labels, or limits you place on yourself. You are not weird, or spastic, or weak for needing help- and you should absolutely seek it out when you need it. Get to a therapist, find groups, read up about it.
Mental illnesses are a part of you. They never really go away- but you can manage them. You can learn to live with them and around them- there are therapies, treatments, services and activities you can do to help.
This is a spectacularly shitty time we are living in. You aren’t weak or soft for having a hard time- and you definitely aren’t alone.
Stay Safe, stay well, and