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When Anxiety Makes You a Bad Friend

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I’m walking around a parking lot staring at light reflecting off puddles.

My mission was simple: put away a bag in my roommate Annie’s car, rejoin friends who were waiting in line to see a movie, watch movie.

My reluctance to participate in this friendship hang was apparent from the beginning — at least to myself. I was being quiet and felt inside my own head. When Annie suggested I put my bag in the car, I agreed readily and made my way outside for some alone time and air.

Now, I’m wandering around the parking lot. I can’t find her car and I don’t care. I’m doing laps absently, passing the same rows of cars again and again. But I’m not upset — I feel strangely calm, serene. The puddles are so beautiful in the rain and I love the way the light from the street lamp reflects off of them, playing with the metals of the car and the black tar pavement. My head is fuzzy and far away. I make my way around and around.

Dissociation is “a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity.” An example of mild dissociation is daydreaming, or getting so lost in thought in a familiar car ride you don’t remember the details of the drive. These experiences of mild dissociation are common. For me, I think it happens as a defense mechanism — when my brain is trying to save itself from anxiety, it takes me far away.

Eventually, I gave up and made my way back into the theater, shrugging my shoulders when she asked about where I’d been for the last half hour. Silly Sarah, so forgetful. How typical. We went into the movie.

When the movie was over, a simple question broke my fog. Annie, always the responsible one, asked if I needed dinner. She had some extra food at home.

“I don’t need you to take care of me,” I snapped, visions of puddle reflections shattered by incoming irrational anger, as if by suggesting I needed dinner she was saying I couldn’t take care of myself. That I needed help.

We bickered for a bit, and when we finally made our way back to her car (I must have walked passed it a dozen times) she said to me, “I feel like we’re not even friends anymore. You walk around the house and act like you don’t even care about me.”

I reflected — I couldn’t remember acting like this. In fact, I couldn’t remember any of our past interactions at all. My life at that point had been defined by busy spaces. I was working. I was in class. I was writing. During down time, my brain didn’t know what to do. An anxiety that was always there, but constantly being channeled — constantly being challenged — transformed into a cloud that made me feel numb.

What appeared to be me being really “into myself” was actually me being into myself in a literal sense. I was too into my own head — an internal anxiety zombie who couldn’t see past my immediate needs.

Anxiety had made me a bad friend.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had asked Annie about how her day was going and had actually listened. I couldn’t remember the last time I had shared something with her — something personal, not something that had to do with work or school. Having a genuine conversation posed too much of a risk — like it would take one spot-on question to break me. Like letting someone in would make everything too real.

By keeping her out, keeping our small talk small, I thought I was doing her a favor. But in the process I was distancing myself from her mind and her struggles. I couldn’t fully support her because I wasn’t letting her support me. I couldn’t really listen because I was never telling. I couldn’t be a friend if I was intimidated by her closeness. All it took was one innocent question, a suggestion that I needed assistance, to make me snap.

I cried in the car, although I don’t think I properly explained. Only in hindsight — a year later — I know that anxiety had started to take over my personal relationships, making it hard to feel close to anyone at all. By protecting myself with a coping mechanism I had held so dear, one that took me away to sparkles and fog, I was losing the tangible things I had in front of me. My friends — who would have been a source of support — were getting lost in the fog.

So to Annie, and all my other friends, I want to say this:

When my head is its own little world and the prominent characters are full of self-doubt, it’s hard for me to be available sometimes. If it seems like I’m not paying attention to you, or that I’m spacing out in a middle of a hang, it could be because anxiety has visited. First I feel it physically, then I wonder if you notice. Whatever happens I want you to know I care about you. I want to get better at letting you in. I don’t want to live in fog anymore. I’m so thankful I live in a world where you all exist, and I’ll try to get better at living in it.

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Originally published: December 8, 2015
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