Anxiety & Me

Have you ever seen a photo of yourself or listened to a recording of your voice and been surprised by what you saw or heard? You may have even said, "Wait. That's me?" Whether your afterthought was Hey, I look pretty good! or Oh hell, I sound like a cartoon squirrel, it's disconcerting to realize that your self-image contrasts sharply with what is true. Like it or not, your impression of YOU can't help but be altered.

The same shift occurs when we stumble upon a checklist of characteristics - or symptoms - and are dumbfounded when we recognize ourselves.

My epiphany-inducing search began out of concern for a depressed loved one. When I googled depression, I quickly found the information I needed on the NIMH website. I saved the links, took some notes, and felt better able to provide guidance on what it was, what it wasn't, and how to help. At some point in the process, I clicked on Anxiety Disorders - just to cover all the bases. I read through the symptoms and could barely breathe, because I was looking at a snapshot of myself and I knew it. In that moment, I knew that "shy" and "introverted" were words I'd used to excuse reactions that were definitely connected with those attributes but went a lot deeper than a quirky personality.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): A debilitating fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed.

Social Anxiety Disorder: The Big SAD Wolf

Social Anxiety Disorder: The Big SAD Wolf

Social situations of any variety and even activities seldom considered "social" have always made me feel as if there was a brutal, unwelcome spotlight on me. Attending a party or a meeting, eating out, going grocery shopping or to the bank or a doctor's appointment, even taking a walk - all of these are at some level fear-inducing.  When I interact with groups of strangers or acquaintances or (God forbid) have to speak publicly, I'm frequently terrified from the moment I know it will happen to the moment it occurs. And then for days or weeks or in some cases even years, I agonize over what I said wrong or what I forgot to say. I berate myself with all the ways I could have spoken more clearly or intelligently. I recall the nauseating embarrassment of someone hollering, "Speak up!" - which has happened on multiple occasions, every one of them instantly devastating to my fragile composure.

As a result, I am a master of avoidance, bargaining with family, friends, instructors, coworkers, and myself. I try my best not to hurt anyone's feelings with my, "No thank you," but at times someone whose opinion I value seems determined to take a refusal personally. And while it hardly matters if I'm able to gear up emotionally to get my car detailed or pick up milk, I suffer implacable guilt when I know something should be done and I cannot find the courage to do it. So I've made myself do things I don't want to do, leaving me (still) panicked but also furious with myself - before, during and after- for failing to evade whatever it was.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.

I've always known it wasn't "normal" to worry about everything, all the time. To worry in vivid, technicolor detail about events that might happen and crises that almost happened and incidents with a .01% chance of ever happening which would be devastating if they did. To believe that a well thought-out, perfectly-enacted plan of action could dispatch the problems and silence the perpetual uneasiness. But no such plan exists, and like a constant avalanche of justifiable and ridiculous fears - one often indistinguishable from the other - there were always new concerns to replace the ones I was blessedly able to dismiss.

Consequently, I am not only a master of avoidance, I have become a master of Perfectly Logical Reasons for Why I Can't Do The Thing.

At some point in 2013, I stopped driving. I didn't have an accident or get a ticket or wake up one day and say, "By God, I am never driving again!" It just happened, sort of, and I'm not even sure why. My youngest son needed a car, so I gave him mine. I work from home and my husband was teaching finance two evenings a week; sharing his car was totally doable and everyone I knew accepted it as such. Except that I never actually drove it anywhere. And then he went back to a full-time finance job and I didn't get a car because it had been two years and the thought of driving was utterly terrifying. I'd had a driver's license for over three decades and though I have certainly experienced fear while driving (or thinking about driving), it was nothing compared to this.

That's when I found the NIMH site and Reality said, "Hey guess what? You have Social Anxiety Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and you're heading pretty hardcore toward Panic Disorder, sooooo… you might wanna do something about that."

So I got a car. I drove it around in the parking lot for the first few days, and then I ventured out on nearby roads. Cautiously. No freeways. No byzantine intersections or traffic circles. Mapping anywhere I needed to go before leaving the house, no matter how close. And I spent almost every minute behind the wheel assuring myself: I'm fine I'm fine I'm seriously fine and if I have a wreck there are airbags and other safety shit and and I'll be okay. Probably.

Today, several months after the shock of finding myself in a list of symptoms - many of which I can trace back to childhood - I have an appointment with a therapist for an anxiety assessment. *deep breaths* I have to drive there, of course, which I'm viewing as pre-therapy. Or meta-therapy. A small but relevant validation to me that I can survive the shadowy, life-pilfering monsters in my world. That I can overcome them.

Tammara Webber

New York Times and international bestselling author of contemporary romantic fiction