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I Won't Justify My Anxiety Anymore

‚ÄúHuh. Must be a women thing.‚ÄĚ

Said with a dismissive shrug and a grin, this was my supervisor’s response when I tried to¬†explain how my brain works differently with its multiple anxiety disorders.¬†The problem was apparently not with my brain chemistry, but with my ovaries. Give me a fainting¬†couch and some smelling salts because here comes the female hysteria.

It wasn’t the first or last time someone dismissed my disorders, though it was the first time someone¬†attributed it to a gender problem. I’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and panic disorder. They¬†first appeared in my life around the age of 4, and they have been my constant companions ever¬†since.

Unfortunately, because my illnesses are mental, I’ve had to deal with people who think they¬†aren’t real. I’ve had more conversations than I want to defending the fact that disordered anxiety exists.

‚ÄúBut everybody gets anxious,‚ÄĚ is the most common refrain. It’s like telling someone with¬†depression that you’ve ‚Äúbeen sad, too.‚ÄĚ Cell growth happens, and when cell growth becomes¬†disordered it’s cancer. Nobody argues against that because you can show it on an x-ray¬†or MRI¬†or point to a visible tumor. But there is a certain group of people who believe because they’ve¬†never experienced mental illness and there are no medical tests for it that it couldn’t possibly be¬†real. It’s made¬≠-up, a cry for attention, or just plain weakness.

I used to get into long discussions with these people, trying to put them in my shoes and¬†make them see how my brain works. I’ve described vividly the sensations of a panic attack or the¬†deep need to unplug all of my appliances before going to bed because if I don’t an electrical fire¬†will start in the walls and my house with collapse around me while I sleep (obviously). I would¬†endure a painful back-and-forth that invariably ended with them refusing to accept anything other¬†than what they had experienced themselves.

What makes me respond so fiercely to these people is the fact that I used to question the¬†validity of my own experiences. Not so much as to whether or not I had anxiety, but whether or not¬†it ‚Äúcounted.‚ÄĚ Because my illness was not physical, I felt as if I didn’t have a right to claim illness or¬†seek treatment or take care of myself. After all, I managed. I survived. I eked out successes in¬†school and life.

But I fought tooth and nail to do so. I fought the obsessions that made me afraid to do¬†anything and the anxiety that left me deeply depressed on more than one occasion. Everything was¬†a struggle in ways it wasn’t for other people. Eventually, I reached a point where I realized these illnesses were ‚Äúreal enough‚ÄĚ for treatment. Their effects were intense and overwhelming, and¬†I deserved to be taken care of. I deserved to name what wracked my mind with fear and even¬†migrated to my body in the way anxiety can. I can’t see my illness on an x-ray, but it is real¬†and powerful.

After one particularly frustrating conversation about the validity of my illness, I asked¬†myself why I bothered. Why I spent so much time and energy to get these people to admit I¬†have these disorders. I realized I was sick of convincing people and sick of their questions making¬†me question myself (yes, I even get anxiety about my anxiety). I don’t owe anybody an¬†explanation.

It was then that I decided my experience is enough; my diagnoses from professionals¬†in the psychiatric field are enough. I won’t lower myself to try and convince strangers, or even¬†friends, that what’s going on in my brain isn’t just a character failing on my part. I’m done debating¬†whether I get to call myself ill or not and whether I need to be treated.

If someone comes at me¬†with honest curiosity and a desire to learn, I’m open to talking. I’m not ashamed of my disorders,¬†and I think being open about my struggles will help with the stigma of mental illness. But usually¬†if someone questions my disorders, it’s an accusation. Prove it, they’re saying.

I won’t do that again. My word should be proof enough. Among the many things I’m¬†doing to take care of myself, I refuse to argue about my disorders anymore. I have no doubt taking¬†those arguments off the table will make me healthier. I finally learned not to question myself. I will¬†no longer allow others to question me either.

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Related: Mental Health on The Mighty Podcast