This Is What It’s Like to Live With Chronic Anxiety


This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

Every time my husband leaves the house, I worry he is going to die. (He obviously leaves, quite often, without me saying a word about it. He’s not, like, my prisoner. Yet, this is how my brain works.)

That is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

I imagine him getting into a car accident. The engine of his plane exploding . Would he be able to call me in his final moments? Would our goodbye be tearful or frantic? What would we say? Will he be hit by some texting teen as he crosses the street on the way to the market because I wanted sprinkles for my ice cream. F*ck, I’m so selfish! I wanted sprinkles, and now he’s dead!

I resist the urge to call him and ask him to come home. Breathe. Everyone goes to the supermarket.

Yes, but he could die.

I also have various apocalyptic safe plans in place. If sh*t goes down, then call me. I am excellent in crises ranging from hamster death to back pain to zombie invasion.

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

As awareness of mental health has expanded, it’s also been co-opted. It’s become a fad. This is both positive and negative. It’s positive because awareness means there are more resources. It’s negative because people are over-using terms that actually mean something serious.

No, needing to match your socks isn’t OCD. This is a serious disorder. Everyone has anxiety over tests and job interviews. This is not a panic attack. No, you’re not suicidal over Brangelina. Shut up.

I wish my mental health were trendy, something to cure with daily yoga and a life coach, an elimination of dairy and/or gluten, walking out my door with an empowered step as I remember my daily affirmation, taped to my mirror: “You can choose to not be anxious.” Can you please tell that to my neurons? Because they said f*ck you.

When I’m feeling positive, I think people are trying to help. When I’m feeling cynical, maybe they’re self-righteous a**holes trying to help themselves and sell stuff by offering solutions to other people’s problems, whether they be of the mental, physical, emotional or financial nature , things that aren’t going on in their minds, bodies, hearts and lives.

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“I heard lemons cure cancer.”

“Yoga cured my insomnia.”

“I cut out X and Z happened.”

I get it. Sometimes, I appreciate it. More than likely, I’ve tried it.  Haven’t we all, those of us with “a problem?” Wouldn’t you? If there were something that was an active menace to your everyday work, relationships, mind and, possibly, your life? Wouldn’t you drink the juice, eat the superfood berries, sleep with the special pillow, not eat the thing and exercise like the ancient whoevers did?

Of course, you would. Of course, I did. Some of it has even helped, a little, but I’ve been this way since I was 4. Maybe since before then, but that’s as early as I can remember feeling an overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread.

I shouldn’t be here. This is wrong. This is dangerous, somehow. The feeling of your body not being big enough, or small enough, to contain you. You start to shrink in. You can feel your nerves start to recede away from the muscles and bones. Your heart speeds up until it’s the only thing that can fit inside your body: not your thoughts, not your tools, not your coping strategies.

You can feel your eyes start to slightly bug. Your tongue feels too big for your mouth. Your breath is coming faster and faster. Do I run? Do I freeze? I need to get out, now.

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

This is supposed to happen in situations where we are in imminent danger. Historically, when we were being chased by bears. It’s not supposed to happen when we’re at the shopping mall, considering whether black gloves are more practical than brown for the winter. Or when we’re having a lovely family dinner and Uncle Ted brings up the presidential race. Fight or flight is not an appropriate reaction to these scenarios.

When a child experiences trauma, their brains are trained to think they will experience it again. For us lucky ones, we’re set on a path of frayed nerve endings and literal missed connections. We’re in constant fight or flight mode: set on the balls of our feet, poised for the next shoe to drop, our senses always primed, trying to anticipate it, to prepare, to protect.

That’s why I can’t f*cking sleep at night. That’s why I constantly imagine my husband’s death. That’s why I’ve imagined everyone I loved’s death.

Because death is my trauma, and my brain is still trying to protect itself. It’s evolutionary, dear Watson. My brain is actually a miracle of adaptability.

My miracle isn’t cured by calming teas and fortune cookie wisdom , although we wish it were. (Trust me, I’m on the inside track, and no one pays me to stay anxious.) It’s a combination of biological, psychological and cultural or philosophical factors. To grossly oversimplify it: Nature is the slingshot we’re given, psychology is the rock, life (culture/philosophy) is how hard , if at all ,  the band gets pulled back and our psyches ejected.

There is research pointing to an inter-generational component. Can my anxiety be traced to anxiety throughout my family? It certainly exists. Is there a genetic component? Or do we simply pass on coping strategies and pain patterns (unhealthy ways of dealing with stress that no one ever learned how to break)?

I don’t know. All I know is it is a deep hurt, a complex pain that cannot be easily soothed with platitudes and plywood. It is too complicated to be soothed by acupuncture, mantras, anxiety medication, sex, alcohol, drugs, yoga, sleeping pills, avoidance, writing, reading, walking in nature, learning a new hobby, cutting out caffeine, going vegan, seeing a therapist, antidepressants, surfing, breathing in and out with that little Facebook meme or just living in the moment. All of which, are things I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success.

I wish it were different. I wish it were easy, a lot of the time. Most of the time, in fact. Don’t you?

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

This brain,  this evolutionary wonder of adaptation , holds me back a lot. I have a lot of fear, apart from the obvious fears about death, of course. I fear being a burden. This thing that I have, that I deal with every day, isn’t a f*cking picnic. It’s not even a f*cking picnic in a fresh nuclear war zone. So why would I bring people along for the ride?

I fear sharing my experiences. I want to help others, like me, who struggle, but how much is too much? Will people hold it against me? Future employers? Present friends?

“We don’t want her . She could freak out at any moment.”

I fear not sharing. I don’t want to be so alone in this thing anymore. Can we talk about it, without it consuming us? Can it be a part of what we are and not everything? I don’t want it to be everything, but it is a part.

I fear being seen, in entirety. This thing, this miracle, this nuclear picnic, it can be ugly. A naked, shriveled and twisted thing. It has made me ugly, at times. It has made me small and scared, when I dream of being big and brave. I fear feeling like this forever because, as my friend Leigh Shulman says, “When we talk about mental health what we’re really saying is, ‘I f*cking hate the way I feel.’”

I fear.

And this is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety: I fear.

Image via Thinkstock.

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