Let me start by clarifying something. When I refer to my “anxiety,” I’m not simply talking about my fears or situations that make me nervous. I’m not talking about the kind of anxiousness that everyone experiences throughout their life. I’m talking about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — a mental condition that affects nearly every aspect of my life in one way or another.
You’ve probably noticed my nervous behaviors: Bailing on plans last minute. Making excuses to stay at home. Chewed nails and sudden crying. Shortness of breath, restlessness, fearing new situations, the inability to go to places alone and panic attacks.
I try to hide my struggles but I know you see it. You see it because you care. And because you care, you often try to help. You tell me to take deep breaths. You tell me to calm down or to stop worrying. With good intentions, you quote Philippians 4:6 to me. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” You try very hard to diffuse the situation. But it has never worked. Not even once.
I’m writing this letter because I want to be fair to you. I want you to understand what my anxiety is and what it feels like, because I want you to know I’m not ignoring your advice. I know my emotions can be hard for you to deal with and our relationship isn’t an easy one. For that reason, I feel like I owe you an explanation.
Anxiety feels like an ocean. When it hits, I struggle to keep my head above water. It’s overwhelming and every single moment feels like I’m one breathe away from drowning. It’s so big, so vast and extends further than I can see. The water is dark and heavy. And the more I struggle against it all, the higher the waters gets.
The words “calm down” force me to struggle against my anxiety. And the water rises just a little more.
It should be obvious, but please remember: If I could stop my anxiety, I would have done so by now. These emotions are not a choice, or something I’ve invited into my life. I’m not a victim, but I’m certainly not a willing participant. So please stop telling me to calm down. Please stop using phrases that imply I should be able to control my anxiety.
I know you want to help me — you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t — and I love you for that. But you need to stop trying to help me rationalize the feelings I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand. Irrational fears and emotions cannot be understood. Instead, try this: When my anxiety is pulling me under, let me know you see my struggle, even if you don’t understand it. Pray for me, but don’t ask me to do the praying. Listen to me, but don’t offer “easy” solutions. Most importantly, know that you don’t have to fix me or make my anxiety go away. I want you to be my friend, not my therapist. I will never put those kinds of expectations on you.
I wish you didn’t have to deal with this. Ironically, you seem to feel the same way about me. So this is a learning process for both of us. I promise to keep trying to find new ways to cope with my anxiety. In return, I simply ask you keep being my friend. Friendships like ours are often what keep my head just above the water. And that means everything to me.
For more on anxiety disorders, visit Mental Health America.
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