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The Fear of Fear Itself

My therapist has a gray suit and gray ponytail — no tie. “How are you feeling today?” he asks. Gray, I want to say, like your hair. Or maybe blue, like the faded 1970’s wallpaper crackling off the walls. Instead, I just say, “Better this week!” I hope my smile was convincing enough. At that point I wonder why I’m even here if I’m not going to tell him the whole truth. I think about how pathetic I am that I need to embellish my life for this old man who probably sees people regularly who are way “worse” than me. The anxiety, always present these days, bubbles up from my stomach and takes its place solemnly in my throat.

I never thought I’d be a person who has to go to a weekly therapy session. I grew up comfortably middle class. My parents were together. I had healthy friendships. I did well in school. I graduated Cum Laude from college while juggling internships and a job toasting bagels and calming down outraged customers at Panera Bread. I was “stable.” I was a calming presence most of the time. A friend even once told me, “Laura, you’re like the chillest person I’ve ever met.” I considered myself someone with my life put together. As I glanced over at the hideous wood paneling on one of the other walls in the room, I thought about how I earned As in grad school, had a great full-time job, was married to a wonderful man, and also struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression.

A dog barks outside. Incessant and unrelenting, over and over. It just won’t shut up. I’m painfully reminded of my mental illness as the therapist asks if I was able to make time this past weekend for anything fun and stress relieving. I talk about visiting an old friend, spending time with my horse, and finally getting my house cleaned up. I purposely neglect to mention the fact that I retreated to my bedroom and closed the door at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night without saying a word to my husband. “I’ve just been feeling a little tired,” I offer guiltily.

“I’m sure it’s hard,” my therapist responds. He closes his eyes and smiles. He is always closing his eyes when he is speaking to me. It’s terribly distracting. The thought flickers through my head that maybe he just can’t stand to look at me, but it fizzles out quickly. I know it’s silly, but anxiety does things like that to you. “You’re almost finished school though, right? Just a few more months to go!” I wait for him to open his eyes and look at me before telling him I’m worried my anxiety will get even worse after my graduation. The nagging feeling that I have something I’m forgetting to do will probably worsen when I have more free time. I don’t know how to cope when I don’t have a million things on my mind, either. “I know that feeling,” my therapist says gloomily.

A clock tick-tocks above my head. I hear it in between the shrill barks of the dog outside. I desperately look around the small room for an escape. Therapy sessions aren’t like what you see portrayed on TV or in the movies. You don’t lie down on a couch in a stark white room. For someone with anxiety, it’s not even particularly relaxing. I’ve been seeing this man for weeks now and still have to fight panic when I enter that building. I wonder why they don’t try to make the environment more comfortable for their patients. I wonder what I’d even consider to be a comfortable environment to undergo counseling for my anxiety disorder and decide to give them a break. There is no place I could imagine that would make the experience more pleasant.

Anxiety feels like that moment when your chair is about to tip over backwards and you don’t know if you’ll be able to catch yourself or not. It feels like when you check your pockets — phone, keys, wallet? — and they’re not there. Anxiety lights your mind ablaze, making you wonder if you’re adequate enough, if you can make it through another day. It forces you to relive that one embarrassing thing you did three months ago on a nightly basis. The worst part is that you know the entire time that you’re overreacting — like when I had to pull my car over to calm down when I thought about how I really needed to buy a new toaster oven and the thought of going to the store and picking one out sent me over the edge. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best: “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Anxiety is the fear of fear itself.

I told my therapist about my struggle to buy a toaster oven last week, knowing it was his job not to judge me for it, but still internally cringing at myself for bringing it up. I never actually did go buy one. I thought about my therapist going home after our session and laughing with his wife about the patient he saw today who was anxious about driving to Walmart and picking out a new toaster oven. “I can’t believe I get paid to coach this poor mentally ill girl on how to handle her life. She can’t even walk into a Walmart without feeling anxious. What a joke!” he would say to her. Of course, I knew that was absurd of me to think, but the thoughts rose up and exploded in my head like dynamite all the same.

My therapist was closing his eyes again. I looked down at the floor. “Sometimes,” he told me, “we often push our stress aside, to the back of our minds. When we do that, we are able to cope with our day-to-day activities. However, the stress doesn’t go away. It just piles up higher and higher back there until suddenly it spills out at inopportune or inappropriate moments. That’s why you feel anxious about these tiny, everyday events.” It was a sensical thing to say. I weighed his words in my mind and felt a little part of the anxiety nestled in my throat make its way back to the pile of stress sitting in the back of my head. Maybe it wasn’t a quick fix, but it felt good to have my anxiety validated out loud. So often I punished myself for being unable to do simple tasks. My therapist was telling me it was OK — he understood me.

The dog was still barking and the clock was still ticking and the wallpaper was still peeling but my mind had stopped racing. At least for now. When you’re living with anxiety, it can be difficult to explain yourself to people, both figuratively and literally. Sometimes, getting up the strength to make a simple phone call can take all day. It took me months before I was able to pick up the phone and schedule myself an appointment with a therapist. And because there is such a stigma still surrounding mental illness, it can be embarrassing and scary to explain to people why you canceled plans or why you’re crying hysterically for no apparent reason. So to just have simple validation and a valid explanation offered for why I simply could not handle my life felt — dare I say it? — therapeutic. I had been craving it all this time without really knowing.

“Thank you for not saying, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ or ‘Calm down,’ or ‘It’s not that serious,’” I told my therapist. I hear all of those phrases a lot. Mostly, it’s me speaking to myself. But occasionally, it’s a friend or family member. All those cliche phrases — Think positive! Live each day like it’s your last! Don’t worry, be happy! — are the absolute worst. Anxiety manifests without warning and sometimes without cause, and once it takes its hold on me, no amount of positive thinking can pry me from its grasp.

“Well, it looks like our time is up today,” my therapist said, rising from his chair. I followed him obediently to the door, still eager to get the hell out of that room. As I stepped out into the hallway, fresh air hit me and filled my body. I’m not generally a claustrophobic person, but that room brought out the worst in me. I tell the receptionist outside, “Same time next week!” and thank my therapist before quickly exiting the building. While walking to my car, I thought about the session. Was being stuffed into that terrible blue room with that gloomy gray man really helping me? It was nice to have a stranger validate my feelings, but what I really needed was self-validation. I thought about dropping out of school. I thought about adopting another cat. I wondered if my husband ever thought about divorcing me. I thought about how much food I was going to stress-eat when I got home. I sat down in my car and practiced my deep breaths that my therapist had taught me before turning the key in the ignition and driving away.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure