“Anxiety” is a word I’ve thrown around a lot in these parts. Like–a lot. I call myself “The Worrier” for Pete’s sake. (But also, who the eff is Pete anyways?) Sometimes I poke fun at myself because I recognize that I can be neurotic, paranoid, hypervigilant, etc.
But despite my attempts at humor and flippancy, anxiety is a real problem, and so I want to share a little bit/a lotta bit about my own experiences with it. So, with no further ado, allow me to unleash a couple decades of my own brand of crazy* on ya!
*I am using the word “crazy” purely in a light, humorous way, and I intend zero offense by it. I just tend toward self-deprecation!
Early Memories of Anxiety
My earliest memory is crawling around on the floor at my grandparents house. But my earliest memory of anxiety? Harder to pinpoint.
I remember the separation anxiety of my first day of preschool. I remember separation anxiety when a babysitter would watch for a few hours while my parents had a date night. I remember separation anxiety throughout my childhood, basically every time I was away from my mom for more than a couple of hours. As for a really specific memory though, of a specific moment and a specific source of anxiety, I would have to say that my first memory of that would be the kindergarten fire alarm.
Days before the first fire drill went off in my kindergarten classroom–which was actually a single-wide trailer–the teacher did her best to prepare us for the drill.
“The alarm sounds like a loud bird,” she informed us. “Like a loud, squawking bird.”
I went home and threw a tearful fit for my mom. “I’m scared of it!” I wailed.
“You haven’t even heard it yet,” she said, not unreasonably.
But that was it–I hadn’t heard it yet. So how was I supposed to believe that it sounded like a bird? And even if it did sound like a loud, squawking bird, that sounded effing terrifying to my five-year-old mind.
Our teacher warned us about the fire alarm days in advance, so I had days to worry about it and work myself into quite a frenzy. I also had time to convince my mom to come into the classroom for the fire alarm in order to assuage my terror. (Sidenote: my mom was a stay-at-home mom until I was six, and sometimes I wonder if I would be more or less functional if that had not been the case.)
The actual fire drill was anticlimactic. My mom came, as did a secretary from the school. Luckily, I was too young and panicked to be embarrassed. But when the alarm went off it was–shocker–not that bad. I mean, I didn’t love the loud noise, but it wasn’t as bad as I had made it out to be in my imagination.
Turns out, that’s kind of been the M.O. of my life. “I didn’t love _________, but it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be beforehand.”
There’s that innate defensive pessimism of mine! Also, in addition to being the first incident of anxiety that I vividly remember, it is also the first example of myself as a highly sensitive person. (While I no longer need my mom to accompany me to all events that involve loud noises, I do hate them. Along with fluorescent lighting. And large groups of people. And cluttered rooms. And about 1000 other things.)
Elementary, My Dear Worrier
If I could go back to my elementary school self and give her one piece of wisdom, it would be this: Missing one question on a test is not the end of the world.
Clearly, despite being an apparently smart little kid, I did not understand how grading systems work. I thought that missing one or two questions on a test was enough to drop me from an A to an F. I would get out of bed late at night (as in, 10 pm) and go downstairs to seek reassurance from my mom. When I had these bouts of worry at my dad’s house, I’d just stay in bed. Only the unceasing comfort of an authority figure/grown-up could soothe my fears, and he didn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of my worries long enough to offer that.
But my mom would assure me that I would be alright even if I got a B on one test. My future would, in fact, not be ruined. And even after she told me all of that, she would still sit by and let me vent my worries to her. At the end, she would always promise to talk to the teacher if something went horribly awry. It never did, but the promise that someone other than me would step up always calmed me down enough to go back to bed and to go out and get 50 more A’s in the morning.
Oh, what I wouldn’t do today for the motivation and drive of my seven-year-old self. If each of us only gets a limited number of shits to give in our lives, I probably used 80% of mine before I was in double digits.
The Goldilocks Zone
I probably hit the ideal level of anxiety in high school. Anxious enough to be motivated to get good grades, be an editor for the school paper, and work at a bagel place on weekends, but laid back enough to not drive my suddenly high number of friends crazy.
I was comfortable enough with where I was that all my anxiety centered around schoolwork and boys. Looking back, high school seems like an idyllic paradise. <– I bet that’s a sentence that hasn’t been written too many times before.
But hindsight is always 20/20.
The “Best” Four Years
The only person who warned me that I might hate college was my brother.
“It gets better,” he added, after shattering the image of freedom and intellectual growth that everyone else swore I would encounter in college. “I hated my freshman year—and my sophomore year. Junior year wasn’t bad, and by the time I was a senior, I actually really liked it.
I had not transformed into a social butterfly the first time I set foot on campus as I hoped I would; I was still an introverted caterpillar awaiting metamorphosis. Being surrounded by people at all times quickly drained my already low energy reserves, meaning that by Friday night, the thought of spending even a second in a crowded dorm room that reeked of Natty-Lite and body odor was the last thing I wanted to do. When surrounded by a roomful of people I don’t know, I shut off completely—words can’t be formed, eyes can’t focus on any one thing. But there could still have been hope for my social life. After all, I was surrounded by alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant that has brought countless nerds, dorks, and geeks out of their shells. Something strange happened though—I found that I could not drink.
I don’t mean that I had a low tolerance and vomited after a single shot, or that any religious beliefs or ethical qualms stopped me from consuming alcohol. Nor did a family history of alcoholism scare me away from the substance. I didn’t like the taste, but there were ways around that. I wanted to drink; I wanted to feel my awkwardness and hesitation, my anxiety and my fear, fall away. But I just couldn’t. The idea of losing control, of making a mistake, terrified me. I didn’t know anyone well yet, and I didn’t trust anyone not to abandon me if anything went wrong. Frankly, the idea of drinking scared the shit out of me. So I decided that I just wouldn’t drink.
With this decision, I feared that I was also deciding that I didn’t want to have friends or fun during college, and I sank into a state of constant anxiety broken up only by occasional periods of acute hopelessness. It didn’t help that even in the daytime, even during the week, I felt like I was in that sweaty dorm room, surrounded by people but unable to connect. With the $60,000 per year price tag, I should not have been surprised by masses of rich people around me, but I was. Where were all the other scholarship recipients, the other students receiving hefty financial aid because their single mothers were lowly librarians?
I cried almost every morning for the first month when I woke up and found myself still in my dorm room, still at college, still surrounded by people who I felt like I couldn’t connect with because I was too boring, too awkward, too reserved, too sober, too lame, too introverted, too un-preppy, too poor, too uncultured, too Midwest(ish), too not-collegiate.
I would sit in class, copying derivatives and integrals off the whiteboard in Multivariable Calculus, outwardly fine, but having the distinct feeling that I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe, my stomach twisted, and I was certain that I would never get out. For that first month, the knowledge that I had another seven and a half semesters in this, my own personal hell, was unbearable.
One day, my German professor, who was blonde, like my mom, and about the same height as my mom, wore a blouse that my mom also owned, and I almost burst into tears in the middle of class. I ran into my professor later that day, and she asked me if everything was all right, as I had obviously not been as subtle in concealing my distress as I had hoped. Everything was fine, I assured her, with a bright smile. I probably said something stupid and transparent about it being my “allergies” acting up.
I researched transferring, but I was afraid that it would be financially unwise. Besides, what if I just hated college? What if I was too much of a momma’s girl and a homebody to ever live at a four year college? Should I just go to community college, live at home until my parents died, and then move with my twelve cats into the shitty apartment that was all my salary at Walmart could buy me?
Eventually, I did make friends. Eventually, I did get over my inability to drink. (Apologies to my liver.) Eventually I was able to get through a day without feeling like I was drowning.
It took time though. It took until my junior year for me to feel even remotely “at home” at college. Even so, my anxiety has never again been as low as it was during large portions of high school.
With graduation on the horizon, my anxiety levels look like this:
Wheeeeee! Fun, right?
(Also, just discovered that my computer has Paint on it. Excuse me while I revisit my childhood!)
I’m certainly more cognizant of my anxiety than I was at the beginning of college, so that’s good. I’m also way more comfortable talking with family and friends about it–and apparently with invisible internet people as well. All of that can really only be good.
My experiences with anxiety are also a big reason behind me starting this blog. In part, it’s sort of a what-I-would-do-if-I-weren’t-afraid thing. But also it’s a place for me to write things like this and feel like it’s justified because maybe, if someone else can relate, than I’m not just being a me-me-me Millennial. And of course, it also exists because I do want people to relate. I want to hear about other people’s experiences.
So please, feel free to share your own experiences with anxiety with me.