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Coming to Terms With 'High-Functioning' Anxiety When It Doesn’t Go Away

Here’s a parable:

A mother stands over a sink of dishes while a father cleans up the remaining toddler droppings from breakfast: egg chunks on the floor, a coating of peanut butter on the table. The toddler enters the kitchen with a mournful refrain — ”Ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma” — and launches himself at the mother’s legs, begging to be picked up.

The mother continues washing the dishes and remarks, “He only ever says ‘mama’ when he’s upset. It’s always mama’s fault when things go wrong.”

“Jesus Nikki,” says the father. “That’s really dark. Is that what you honestly think?”

The mother looks at him blankly. “Well, yeah.”

“I was thinking it’s because he knows Mama can fix anything!”

“Oh,” says the mother. “Yeah I guess it could be that too.” And she returns to the dishes, feeling better and worse at the same time.

What The Hell, Brain?

That kitchen conversation took place about three months after my decision to start seeing a therapist — after coming to terms with the fact my anxiety was ripping me to shreds and playing the fibers like a badly-tuned violin. In reality, what happened was: I went to therapy once, “got busy,” felt a little better, and pronounced myself cured. My fellow therapy-resenters know this charming little fantasy well. I was also navigating my first year in a leadership role at my job, so I launched myself headlong at the grueling character work that begins the moment you step into something new and hard and ends… well, probably never, and definitely not half a year in. I threw every tertiary element of my life — my writing workshop, my blog, regular showers — into the back seat of the speeding bullet train known as Get Good At Your Job. Or more accurately, since we’re talking about me here: Don’t Screw This Up.

And somewhere along the way, in the thick of the haze cloud of Fall 2017, I found a kind of stasis. Work felt hard, but manageable. The kids were exhausting, but healthy and happy. My daughter got almost all As on her first report card, my son started sleeping through the night and my husband and I maintained a steady three-date-night-a-month average. So, why was I still falling to pieces the moment I got a day behind on laundry? Why was I interpreting my toddler son’s whining as a judgment on my worth as a mother and a human being? Why was I still unable to read a book for longer than five minutes without my heart racing because I feel like I should be doing something more important? In essence: What the hell, brain?

This deferment of happiness — the idea that everything will be fine when X, Y, Z happens — is a particularly insidious one for people living with mental illness because it’s a half-truth. When our external circumstances improve, we do feel better. But if that were the end of it, then post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wouldn’t exist. Temporary things can permanently alter our brains. We don’t just moonwalk out of survival mode the moment danger has passed, even if at first it feels that way. The work — the vital, boring, beautiful, infuriating, transformational work — is waiting for us as soon as the honeymoon is over.

Hall of Mirrors

Are you the same person you were five years ago? 10? 15? Before and after marriage, or divorce? Before and after chronic illness? College? Abuse? Kids? How do you reconcile the serial selves of your life into an identity that feels whole and true?

Asking for a friend.

Until recently, I didn’t think of my anxiety as something hardwired in me. I thought it was a tendency I had when times were stressful. On the road trip of life, I would pass in and out of anxiety, like those obnoxious stretches where there’s nothing but pop country and sermons on the radio. I’m realizing I’ve done this a lot. The ways I changed during my 20s are profound and numerous — good, bad and complicated. But they haven’t felt permanent. In my own head, my “real self” is lagging a decade behind, and I’m just acting in these theatrical productions called Mother and Educator and Ex-Evangelical until the curtain closes and I take off my makeup and go back to being a plucky undergrad who reads two novels a week, creates elaborate handmade birthday presents, and desperately seeks validation from a curated cabinet of left-leaning Christian mentors. That Nikki didn’t have chronic anxiety.

But this Nikki does, and it’s not going to go away when the last kid is out of diapers or when my husband’s work schedule changes. Apparently, it’s going to creep into even the most innocuous of daily events like doing dishes after breakfast and warp my thinking so much I don’t even recognize it until my partner points it out. So that’ll be fun to talk about in my next therapy session. Because this Nikki also goes to therapy, even when she secretly thinks she doesn’t need it.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash