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Please, Don’t Confuse My Anxiety for Weakness

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“You’re just too sensitive.”

I wish we could stop using this description for anyone with life-altering anxiety. Fragile isn’t better and never ever is weak an acceptable alternative. All of these describe something in a less desirable or nearly broken state. For someone with profound anxiety, it can be impossibly hard to simply get up and go out into the world each day. There is nothing fragile about someone who be tough enough to get up each day and try again with fear and worry as constant companions.

My history is full of these moments. I was a child with chronic stomach aches. I woke up in the morning, wanting to stay home. I did get sick more often than other kids. It was a blessing when I had pneumonia and was out of school for a week.

I was a teenager who learned to survive by befriending adults and keeping a perpetual mask with peers. If I don’t see you, then you won’t make fun of me or see my flaws. I kept my grades high and looked for approval from adults because I didn’t think I would ever get it from my peers. I wanted to be noticed by boys, whom I was interested in, but my fear of failure ruined every dating experience and opportunity. I learned later, at an alumni event,“Everyone thought you were so stuck up!” Mind. Blown.

I was an 18-year-old college student in counseling for the first time, when I was made aware not everyone wakes up in the morning afraid of how they will fail or feels nausea and vomits before school, a presentation or performing with a concert band. I didn’t know this constant hammering in my chest and buzzing in my ears was not everyone’s experience. I just didn’t know. I just thought everyone was better at handling it or not showing it.

I also didn’t know it wasn’t just something I could stop feeling if I were “stronger,” “worked harder” or “just smiled.” “What is wrong with me?” became my mantra in my 20s. I didn’t go to my high school reunion because I didn’t want to show up as the failure I felt I was. I didn’t want to be what I thought my peers already knew me to be.

I kept looking for the thing that would make my life fall into place. I made some good choices. I made some great choices. I made some impulsive choices. I made some unfortunate choices. Trying to get people to like me became my goal, but it wasn’t enough to just get there. I needed to continue to impress them. I had to impress them every day. I allowed myself to make no mistakes. Of course, when they happened, it was devastating and I was a complete failure, all trace of good erased.

My 30s began with my marriage ending. I contemplated staying, just to avoid having to admit I was a failure. I mean I really only had to hold on 70 or so more years. Then, no one would have to know. The reasons for the decline are irrelevant, but by the time I left, I was convinced everyone looked at me with curiosity and “told you so” glances. I dreaded running into people I knew and having to go through the ritual of, “We haven’t seen you and _______ lately.” One woman at church thought my ex-husband was working overtime for two years before my mother finally told her for me.

Still, my heart raced every day. I nearly fainted at church, when I was supposed to lead an observance ritual at the front of the sanctuary. I started car trips only to call someone in a panic. I stopped returning phone calls so I didn’t let anyone down. I became afraid of my own voice. It was too high or too low, depending on the day, and too weak all the time. Plus, I couldn’t see their faces on the other end. So I couldn’t tell how much they disapproved of me. I just knew they did. It never occurred to me maybe all they heard was a voice and thought nothing more of it.

Many years of counseling later, a fourth decade in this body and mind, I can only say it ebbs and flows. I used to think if I got the magic locker combination right, then the flawed part of my brain would simply fall out leaving the “real and good” me behind, finally free.

A combination of brilliant counselors and pharmaceutical advances have helped me to live in the good space a lot of the time. There are still days, and too many really, where I am a scared 6-year-old in a 40-year-old package. I just want to be liked, but I don’t want you to notice me too deeply because then you will see my flaws. Then, I will cease to exist as a good person at all.

I am my most harsh critic. I say things to myself I would never say to anyone else. I live in a verbally abusive relationship with myself. Every day is an opportunity to work on it again. Most days, I rise, able to take on the challenge.

Please know, I am not fragile, or too sensitive, and my backbone is fully formed. I am simply working hard to maintain composure and control in the hopes of blending in. Fitting in, making it, being just like you while being me.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 22, 2016
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