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Why I Feel Like I Have No Right to My Anxiety

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“I have anxiety.” It took me a long time to say that phrase but it comes moderately easy to me now. But “I have an anxiety disorder” is a different matter altogether.

You see, I have high-functioning anxiety, and one thing I’ve noticed in other Mighty articles is that those of us who function well often feel like that additional label, “high-functioning,” negates the problem that follows it.

I have struggled with my anxiety for most of my life, but I’ve also been high-functioning most of my life. I went from a straight-A elementary school student who would literally weep over long division problems to the salutatorian of my high school class, who would cry for an hour, lying on the floor of her room, because the pressure of her academics and extracurriculars became too much when the pressure she put on herself was added.

The idea I might have anxiety was never in my mind until my freshman orientation in college. I ended up sobbing and hyperventilating in the office of an advisor who, after all those years, noticed I was not crying because I was a smart student who couldn’t handle something being difficult, but because the pressure I felt to be perfect, the fear I had of failure, the constant comparison of myself to others and the subsequent self-criticism were, in that moment, too much to bear. She wanted to send me to the campus mental health center and said to me “I think you have anxiety.”

I didn’t go to the mental health center then, but I did when classes started in the fall. But even here, even though I had decided I clearly had some issues to address, I couldn’t claim my anxiety. In fact, I couldn’t even bring myself to ask my therapist if he had diagnosed me with anything until well past the half-way point in our sessions. Not being one who focused heavily on diagnoses, he had to look back at his notes, but he told me “anxiety disorder, unspecified.”

Here was confirmation. I’d known all along, since the previous summer when I was doing online research to see if it might be me, but now I had a right to claim it. This was my monster, and it officially had a name: anxiety.

But still, today, four months on from that question, I don’t feel like I have a right to claim my anxiety. Most of the time it doesn’t prevent me from functioning on the high level I do. I’ve made it through my freshman year with a 4.0, I somehow made friends at my out-of-state school, and, though it hasn’t always been easy, I think I’ve figured out how to adult. But my anxiety finds me in the quiet, non-busy moments. It keeps me from speaking up in class unless I have a strong opinion. It makes me hesitate before asking a question. It makes me fear emailing my advisor, who is well-known as kind and supportive, because he once disregarded me when I told him how much credit I had, and I fear the less-helpful person reappearing.

I decided to share all of this today because the statement “I have anxiety” doesn’t mean enough. I’ve become accustomed to saying that one casually to my friends because I’ve mentioned therapy, or in the middle of a crying, hyperventilating breakdown as an explanation to my professor. But “I have anxiety” doesn’t mean to others what it means to me. For me, it is a huge confession, no matter how casually I say it. It is me admitting I am not perfect, that not everything is easy for me, that somewhere inside me something is broken or misaligned. But to most of the people around me, it seems to mean “I feel anxious sometimes” which isn’t exactly incorrect, but it misses the point that my anxiety is a chronic issue. And maybe that’s why it’s relatively easy for me to say this phrase now — because I know it won’t get the reaction I think it warrants.

Sometimes I want people to recognize my anxiety is bigger than that of the average college student. I want them to know it can be severe enough to warrant the title of “disorder.” But I don’t feel like I have the right to say, “I have an anxiety disorder.”

Unless I’ve had an absolutely atrocious week, where everything triggers me and I cry at least daily, I don’t usually feel like my anxiety prevents day-to-day function (which is one of the definitions of a disorder). This is even truer after a year of therapy. I don’t believe in any way that I’ve resolved all of my issues, and I’m not sure I’ll ever solve all of them, but I know I manage things much better than I did before.

So, do I get to say I have an anxiety disorder? On those days when my nervous system is overwhelmed by too much input from the outside world, too many emotions, or a bout of negative self-talk, how can I explain to someone the gravity of the situation? How can I make it clear I’m not just a ridiculously sensitive person?

Am I allowed to say I have anxiety if it comes up in conversation, even if it’s been a good stretch and I haven’t felt much anxiety lately? When I know there are people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder who struggle constantly, while I occasionally get a respite?

But perhaps the biggest question, when it comes to claiming my anxiety, can be directed at my fellow high-functioning, overachieving, anxious people. Part of being who we are involves being determined to constantly improve. Can we claim our anxiety without feeling as if we have given up? Succumbed to the monster by acknowledging its existence? It’s not just the outside world that prevents me from accepting my anxiety … it’s me too.

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Unsplash photo via Jad Limcaco

Originally published: May 30, 2017
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