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A Series of Unfortunate Anxiety Stereotypes

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In Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Snicket’s Aunt Josephine is terrified of everything. Estate agents, leeches, the telephone, Count Olaf. And then, when faced with her fear, the Count pushes her into the water, where the leeches devour her to her very death…

I love that film, but my God, that’s no motivation for someone who lives with anxiety.

And while I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of fan of those self-help books made popular thanks to Bridget Jones in the early 90s, I am on board with the notion of taking action upon feeling the fear.

In my story, Aunt Josephine, following some rather effective therapy sessions, jumps in that rowing boat, casts a net and catches those pesky leeches, saving herself and the rest of Lemony Snicket’s fantastical world from death by nasty little bloodsuckers. Oh, and she just ignores the evil Count Olaf. I mean, who is he anyway?

You see, having anxiety doesn’t make me a mouse (ugh, stereotype city; Jerry wasn’t exactly a wuss, was he? *slaps wrists*). But both friend and foe seem to think it does. Why, when there’s a mental health issue, do people assume you’re weak?

If I can’t breathe properly because my lungs are chocka full of pneumonia, no one’s like, “Wow, that girl really can’t cope with life.” But if I can’t breathe properly because I’m mid-panic attack, it’s seen as a weakness.

Oh, and of course, all I need to do is “calm down!” Easy peasy! Sure thing. As soon as you just suck that infected gunk right out of your lungs and breathe, you wheezing fool. Pull yourself together! It’s no easier for me to pull my head together when my brain’s going at a million miles an hour than it is for someone to tackle a physical illness. So how similar are they?

Well, look at it this way: both can benefit from medication, and both can benefit from self-preservation.

Back in 1995, I did in fact have pneumonia. And if I had taken all my antibiotics and stayed in the house instead of going out clubbing in my platform heels and shiny shift dress from Bay Trading Co., I would have probably made it back to college a week earlier. Similarly, if I take my antidepressants, and practiced mindfulness and counseling techniques, my panic attacks are not as intense and the recovery time quickly diminishes.

And that’s another thing. I have health anxiety. I am a hypochondriac. But as you can see, that didn’t stop me hitting the dancefloor to be all consumed by Fatboy Slim and The Violent Femmes. No. As soon as the X-ray confirmed I didn’t have a life-threatening disease, I relaxed and continued in my mission to snog a 19-year-old while smoking a John Player Special and drinking a Taboo and lemonade.

Anxiety isn’t about being afraid of what’s directly in front of us. It’s about the unknown. Did I put the dryer on with my beloved cats trapped inside? Are they being burned alive? Is my throat closing up? Am I going to die this very night? How will he feel when he sees a dead body lying next to him? I haven’t got life insurance: how will my family survive?

Catastrophizing. Worry chains. Imagining the worst. Building a picture in my head that wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese horror movie. But when I know what I’m dealing with, I’m actually OK with it.

Well-meaning friends will warn me not to push myself. To look after myself. And I know it’s born out of love, but that’s another thing that people may not know about people with anxiety (well, me anyway): I am so anxious about the fact that somebody might be taking advantage of me that I meet them head-on.

In fact, I’m known at the local vet as the only client who managed to overturn an insurance decision. Well proud of that one! (But I still miss Trevor the cat, who, thanks to my successful fight with the insurance company, was given every possible chance to live.)

When I’m seen as weak and it is used to undermine me, it can be pretty catastrophic. Tell me I’m self-indulgent; tell me I am having a bad effect on the people around me; tell me I am self-obsessed. It just makes things worse. Because I really enjoy thinking I have a fatal illness or that the bus I am on is about to topple over and scatter my body in pieces on the central motorway. And it goes without saying, I am doing it with the sole purpose of irritating you and wasting everyone’s time.

Just as you’re not much use with your head over the netty when you’ve been struck down with a virus, I’m not much use mid-panic attack. But just like that virus, the symptoms disappear. And you come out the other side ready to take the world on.

I am not anxiety, I am me. Do not look at me and see Aunt Josephine, and I will not look at you and see Slimer from Ghostbusters just because you once had the snots.

It’s 2017, and we are getting there. But we’re not quite there yet. It’s time we bigged up those who have survived mental distress. Because seriously, can you imagine how it feels to think you’re dying, to hear threatening voices or to feel like there is no point going on? I can’t imagine the latter two things myself, but big respect to those who can.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Originally published: June 12, 2017
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