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What It's Like to Live One Day With an Anxiety Disorder

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I wake up. I stare at the ceiling, knowing I have a full day ahead of me I must face.

Most of the people reading this are probably thinking, so what? We all have responsibilities we can’t run away from. That is part of being an adult. However, if you struggle with a mental illness like me, you know it is much more complicated than simply not wanting to get out of bed.

You can’t move. You physically cannot move, because the thought of making simple decisions makes you freeze. Your brain goes into overdrive, thinking of all the outcomes that could possibly happen, realistic or not. You start to feel the heaviness setting into your chest just thinking about getting ready for work on time. It’s 7:00 and you have laid in bed for an hour, just trying to force yourself to get in the shower.

If you can recognize yourself in this scenario, you might, like me, have an anxiety disorder. For those fortunate enough to not endure this struggle every day, put yourself in someone else’s shoes for just a few minutes.

It’s 7:30, and I have finally gotten myself into the shower and dressed for the day. I walk into the kitchen, knowing I have about 20 minutes to grab a bowl of cereal and pack my lunch for the day. Before I can get my bowl, I see there is a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. In the corner of my eye, I see a pile of crumbs on the counter that another household member did not bother to clean up. I see the ants marching in one by one, taking over the kitchen until there are thousands of them invading like an army. Now, I know this sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration. I don’t actually see the ants. Rather, my brain jumps to the conclusion that, if I leave one crumb on the counter, an entire colony of ants will come out of nowhere and surround me. This will happen if I don’t clean up the crumbs right at this exact minute. The rational part of my brain knows that bug infestations happen over time, and if I eat my breakfast before cleaning up the mess it will all be OK, an entire ant colony won’t come out of the walls. But part of having an anxiety disorder is the part of your brain that thinks rationally shuts down, and the irrational fear takes over. The icky feeling washes over me, and I have the impulse to clean the entire kitchen before getting my breakfast down my throat to prevent any bug infestations. The cleaning takes about 10 minutes, leaving me with about 10 minutes to eat a granola bar and a banana before running out the door.

My commute to work takes about 20 minutes with morning traffic. I could take the highway, but I convince myself it probably would take just as long due to the backup on 295. I avoid the highway whenever possible, because my palms get sweaty and my legs start to shake whenever I have to merge onto the freeway. I stay in the right lane and refuse to change lanes unless it is absolutely necessary because changing lanes is how I got into my first car accident. When I first get into the car, I picture my destination and plan the safest route in my head. Usually, it is the route that lets me avoid the highway and has the least amount of left turns. Even if I must go out of my way, at least I know I am getting there safely.

I get to work on time, which means I get there late. I am the most punctual person I know, mostly because my fear of being late causes me to leave the house five minutes earlier than I need to. I pass a coworker in the hall, a coworker who I am not particularly close with but seems friendly enough. Normally, I would smile and say good morning, but today I am focused on getting to my classroom in time for the kids to arrive, so I skip the good morning and walk past her.

“Good morning too you, too,” she sneers in a nasty sarcastic tone. The guilt starts to creep in. Did I do something wrong? Does she hate me? It doesn’t occur to me that maybe she, too, was having a rough morning. It’s not like we were friends. Her opinion of me shouldn’t matter. But it does. Another part of having an anxiety disorder is feeling guilty for things that are not your fault. You feel as if you have the power to control the universe, and if you make one mistake, the whole universe will collapse into chaos all because of you. You can’t let the little things go, and it affects your whole day. I spend the rest of the day making sure I am extra nice to all my coworkers so they don’t think I hate them. It is absolutely exhausting. I just want to curl up on my couch and watch television by myself. But I fake conversation about topics I could care less about so that the rest of the world sees me as “normal.”

They don’t see the thousands of thoughts rushing through my head. Did I lock my car? Did I unplug the toaster? Is my shirt on inside out today? How much money is in my bank account? All normal things to worry about, except they all come at me at once at the most inconvenient times. It’s not enough that I lock my car, I need to double check on my lunch break that my car is locked because it’s all I’ve been thinking about since I got to work. I need to double check that the toaster is unplugged before I leave the house because I fear it will burn the house down. If I forget to double check, I will turn the car around and go back. I constantly check my clothes because I feel that everyone is judging me if my shirt is on backward (it happens more often than I want to admit, but usually no one notices but me). I check my phone at least 20 times an hour on my lunch break to see my bank account (as if money will magically appear), emails (all junk) and social media updates which leave me feeling depressed because all I do is compare my life to a girl I went to college with who is sunning herself on a beach in Jamaica while I am stuck here. It’s not that I don’t love my job, but I often find myself wondering, is this what I am supposed to be doing with my life? Is it enough? Should I be doing more?

Finally, the work day is done and I can come home and relax. But there is still a pile of dishes in the sink that need to be washed. I need to figure out what to make for dinner. I refuse to use the oven because of my irrational fear that the stove will burst into flames if I turn the oven on. Every meal is either stove top, microwavable or take out. It sounds as over-the-top ridiculous as avoiding the highway to prevent a car accident. Avoidance is my first line of defense against anxiety. Therefore, making simple decisions, such as what to eat for dinner, can be difficult. My anxiety makes me breakdown when I have to make a choice. If I choose to do takeout, I am faced with so many options that it can seem overwhelming. Chinese? Indian? Italian? Which is healthier? Which is cheaper? Which is faster? There are so many factors to consider. This is even before I need to look at the menu and decide on an order. If I choose stove top or microwave, I don’t have as big of a selection. I only buy what is on sale or what I have coupons for. I limit myself so that I don’t have to think about all the other options. I make a specific list and stick to it. No impulse buys at the last minute. Naturally, I almost never choose to get takeout. Choices are easy when they are made for you. When you are faced with too many options and not enough structure, the anxiety takes over.

Making big life decisions can be so daunting that usually I avoid them entirely. When I applied to grad schools, I could not compete the applications. I wrote the essay, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again because every time I read it, I founds flaws. I couldn’t get the nerve to ask for recommendations for fear that I would be rejected. I couldn’t submit the application because I could not be sure I was applying to the right program. What if I got in and hated it? What if I flunked out because the work was too hard? What if I got accepted into a program that wasn’t in state and I had to move? Could I afford it? The what-ifs because so overwhelming that it just became easier not to think about it. I let the application dates slip by without submitting them, feeling guilty that I couldn’t push past my doubts and insecurities.

When I finally lay my head down on the pillow, my brain still does not shut off. The events of the day play over and over in my head. Did I do enough? Does my boss think I am doing a good enough job? What about the kids I couldn’t help today? Is there something I could be doing differently? I don’t know how to stop the doubts from flooding my brain, so instead of trying to fight it, I just stare at the ceiling. The guilt of not being able to fill out my grad school application eats me alive. I start to feel a panic rise up in my chest. Suddenly, I am 30 years old living in my parent’s basement, unable to move out because I couldn’t get promoted. I am suffocated by indecision. It’s too late. All I can do is stare at the ceiling until the panic passes and I collapse into a fitful sleep.

6:00 a.m. The alarm goes off. I force myself to do it all over again.

All over the world, there are thousands of people facing the same battle with themselves every day. The internal struggle is not visible, but it is just as valid. Please, be kind. Be patient with us. We are trying our best. And if you are fortunate enough not to have a mental illness, walk a day in our shoes before jumping to conclusions about us, for we are stronger than you know.

Getty image via LSOphoto

Originally published: May 16, 2019
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