The Mighty Logo

The Changing Colors of Anxiety

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I want to tell you a short story. It’s rather condensed and doesn’t cover the development of my anxiety or what it’s like to live with it now, but it’ll give you an idea. It’s quite scary to open up and share something like this, which I’ve not done before. It’s about not feeling embarrassed or ashamed, it’s about knowing you’re not alone.

When I was a little girl, I was “quirky” in a way that was seen to be more bizarre than cute. Not everyone noticed it, and some things I would do would be classified as “just a phase” and something I “would grow out of.” Back then, things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety weren’t really even recognized, let alone understood. For a child to experience OCD-type behaviors was unheard of. My mother hadn’t come across it before. It wasn’t until I was much older that I drew parallels between my behavior as an adult, and my behavior as a teen and as a child.

One of my earlier memories is the before-school shoe debacle. Before I was old enough to get ready by myself, my mum would spend a considerable amount of time and patience attempting to get my socks and shoes on. The process would be repeated a few times until everything was just right. The problem was, the socks had to fit the same on each foot, and the shoes has to be the same tightness. When the other shoe was adjusted to match, it was adjusted just a little too much and the other one had to come off. Then the socks were messed up because they had skewed so those had to be started again too. It would go on like this for a while.

Then there were things like childhood face pulling, a repetitive and constant thing which just made me seem odd and peculiar. It was an obsessive habit, something I wasn’t even aware I was doing. But tell me not to do it, and I would itch to need to do it. Then there was the double tap; not with everything I touched, but when the need arose, it would be incessant and get under my skin. Touch something once on one side and I’d need to touch it on the other, to “even it up.” Tapped too hard on that side? Start again and tap the other side, just the right place and just the right pressure. Whether it was a book or a table, it didn’t matter.

A little later came things like wanting a certain spoon for certain foods, a certain cup for certain drinks (I still have this but instead revel in the “peculiarity” as it means I have an awesome mug and glass selection!), and needed food laid out just so on a plate, certain foods not able to touch others. It was a matter of control, a calming mechanism. I was also a fussy eater for various reasons, but trying new foods made me gag and panic. Then there was going in to high school a bit later and facing a whole heap of self-doubt, self-consciousness, an eating disorder and bullying. I was, at first, very reserved and had a form of social anxiety, where I couldn’t even eat or drink in front of others. Social occasions and even participation in class were both avoided to a good extent, with any such event causing a flood of worry and fretting. Sometimes I worried myself sick, and this was before I was even 16.

A few years later, and I experience my first crushing panic attack. I was running late for psych class at college, something I never did. I got outside the door and could see everyone inside, the lesson already having started. I couldn’t calm my breathing; I was sweating, shaking, my heartbeat racing wildly. I turned around and headed for the toilets, where my breathing just got worse and I was struggling to take a breath. It was terrifying as I had no idea what was happening. Then I passed out, on the floor in the toilets. All because I didn’t want to face walking into a room of people a few minutes late. Over the years since, my confidence and sense of self-improved in a slow but gradual way. But the OCD type behaviors I used to have started to fade and be replaced by others.

Fast forward to now, and while I still get the “double tap” urgency sometimes and a few other childhood remnants, they don’t have such a great imprint on my life. I wouldn’t say I have OCD, just some OCD-type tendencies along with anxiety, which I manage. I grew increasingly more confident, able to speak up, to laugh at myself, to be assertive. It’s hard to think of how I used to be now, compared to the person I am today. But instead of the other myriad of things I used to do, I developed a need for perfection in small things, for things to be “just so;” a need for planning, control, overthinking and an anxiety that can cause an itch underneath my skin.

I don’t want to say that once you have something like OCD or anxiety they will never “go away,” but I wanted to highlight that they can change and develop in different ways over the years, especially if the root causes and reasons behind them aren’t addressed. I think I always cared too much about what other people thought of me, felt like I was never living up to expectations, felt like I had no control over the things around me. I had no way of calming myself down nor somewhere to turn for the sort of support I needed. Now, I deal with obsessive thinking and a need for planning. The other part of it is the anxiety; the sizzle under the skin, a biological and neurological itch that’s beyond my reach.

I do believe that for me, over the years, there has been a metamorphosis of OCD and a changing of the colors of my anxiety.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via NataliaDeriabina

Originally published: April 6, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home