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'Fake It 'Til You Make It' Takes on a New Meaning When You Have 'High-Functioning' Anxiety

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It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night. Our family of five had pretty much settled in for the evening since it was getting towards the typical bedtime. My brother and sister were relaxing in their rooms, my dad routinely ended his day with the latest SportsCenter reel and a nice glass of scotch after he bid us good night, I may have been reading a graphic novel — all normal nightly activities. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until I heard bath water being drawn. My siblings and I normally don’t bathe this late at night. Maybe someone forgot to shower and I didn’t notice. Again, strange, but not alarming. Then, accompanied by the running water, I heard scrubbing. Deep damp swishes that can only come from hard bristles muffled through my wall. Now I’m intrigued. Is Mom cleaning the bathroom this late? It’s not Saturday and I don’t hear any Anita Baker playing anywhere in the vicinity. I left my bed making my way to the bathroom.

Yep. Bleach bucket, gloves, scrub brush, hunched woman on knee pads. Mom was cleaning our tub. Leaning on the door frame I asked, “Why are you cleaning our tub at 10:30?” with a cheesy Nickelodeon grin. She swiveled around and gave an uncharacteristically dim smile back. She seemed out of breath. Something was off. My preteen understanding of body language and human behavior was severely undeveloped, but I could tell something was off.

“You three are dirty and I figured I would clean it now,” left her lips casually. Her words didn’t tremble, her hands didn’t shake, her hair was a bit tossed, but it’s the end of a mother’s day. The cleaning this late at night, however, that was strange. Not strange enough for me to ask any follow up questions though — it convinced me. You know, three kids living in southern suburban Jersey, we always smelled like the outside.

That was the first time I noticed my mother’s odd stress cleaning habits. It didn’t happen often, but often enough for me to notice a pattern. My mother was a woman who knew how to run the show. There was always a solution no matter the problem. If my mom could pick a role out of any Quentin Tarantino movie, she would be Mr. Wolf. “Never let them see you sweat” was one of her many mottos she instilled early — like once I realized I had potential to lead an elementary school line early. Outside of, “the object is not to get caught,” that was probably one of the best pieces of advice my mother ever imparted to me. As anyone who knows the two of us well, I am my mother’s mirror. What I recently learned, however, is that she may have imparted more than just her words. Something a little more inherent.

Now, I cannot speak on behalf of my mother, but after researching this subject for well over a year, I have come to terms with this fact — I have “high-functioning” anxiety. For me, it’s appearing perfect while feeling petrified. Staying busy to escape lingering on anxious thoughts. “Fake it until you make it” takes on an entirely new meaning when it comes to individuals who struggle like me. I relate to the quote, “pretend like you’re as adequate as the world sees you and maybe you’ll believe it yourself.” My panic attacks aren’t bouts of manic emotion or hyperventilating. It’s a complete shutdown of myself. It’s silence, it’s isolation, it’s dark.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed? It comes in the form of cleaning my room, rearranging the bedroom layout, sorting papers that should have been thrown out, organizing my desk, playing Tetris for hours. Socially? I’m over the moon you invited me, but maybe it’s out of pity or obligation. Did you text me? I’ll respond in a week. Did you respond to my message? Must be to end the conversation or for me to feel satisfied. It’s me reaching out to friends to make sure everyone else is OK because I know how to comfort other people, just not myself. My work? It’s nothing notable, why would anybody work with me?

I shouldn’t think like this. I should take pride in the work I do. I should take advantage of the people who want to spend time with me. I should make myself a meal because I deserve to eat. But I don’t. Anxiety warps the rationality sector of my brain and transforms it into this ugly monster that hisses and whispers in my ear constantly, all while attempting to appear as if there is nothing wrong daily because that’s who I am. I’m being the bullhorn for the oppressed, the life of the party, a professional stronghold and when it needs to happen — I get it done. The brute of an ox, feet like a tap dancer, “Never let them see you sweat,” all while the monster sits on top of my back — a monster conditioned to never allow you any real pleasure.

It was around four in the morning. An intimate individual and I were engaged in a lengthy, emotional conversation that seemed to have lasted hours. During our discussion, they had dropped an anxiety laced megaton bomb that sent me into a panic attack unexpectedly. I froze and stopped talking. I couldn’t speak even if I had found the words to say. I picked up their bag and moved it to the side. I picked up mine and moved it as well. This lead to me cleaning my room in the dead of night, dark as the shadows outside the apartment. Once I had finished my cleaning, I sat in silence. They asked me, “Say something, please. Anything.”

With all of that being said, my mother never hindered my personality or suppressed my ability to emote or become vulnerable at all. She always allowed me to break down, gave me the encouragement to get back up and work hard to celebrate my success. However, that is my “high-functioning” anxiety. As of this very moment, I am having a fantastic day. The monster on my back might be sleeping and the sun allowed me to bask in its warmth for an early morning walk. Not all days are terrible, but not all days are fantastic. I’m sharing this story in the hopes that anybody else who struggles with high-functioning anxiety can see its normality. The strongest woman I’ve ever known has even demonstrated symptoms of this illness and it’s OK.

If you demonstrate symptoms of “high-functioning” anxiety, please know it’s normal and it’s OK. Please take a mental health day when needed. Eat, please for the love of God, eat. If you’re invited by your friends, please know you’re welcomed. It’s all easier said than done, especially when your monster is louder than any person’s words. It’s OK to “never let them see you sweat,” but when you need a break, allow yourself the care you need.

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Thinkstock photo via g-stockstudio.

Originally published: June 30, 2017
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