Millions of people worldwide suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, and yet, it somehow remains a puzzle to millions more. I’m one of those millions of anxiety sufferers. Have been for years. And believe me, I don’t want your sympathy. I know all too well that my days could be a lot worse. In fact, I’m quite grateful for the life I’ve been given. But there are still a few things I wish people better understood about my particular type of anxiety:
- It’s chemical. Really. I can’t state this often enough. In fact, here:
- It’s chemical.
- It’s chemical.
- It’s chemical. Why is this fact so repeatable? Because too often, folks like me are blithely told by well-meaning friends that if we just talked it out with someone, just took a deep breath, or — and this one’s the worst — “calmed down,” all of our tension would just evaporate. You know, like steam, or something. I guarantee that if you know a chronic anxiety sufferer over the age of 30, that person likely has tried talking therapies already. Maybe those therapies have worked for that person. (They often do!) But maybe they haven’t. Never tell me to calm down; it’s like telling an amputee to just grow a new leg and everything will be dandy. They can’t and neither can I, because it’s — drum roll, please — chemical.
- It is treatable. In my case, the only therapy that has worked is Prozac. That’s not an easy thing for many anxiety sufferers to share. I was born in 1972. Even into the 1990s, antidepressants — and the people who took them — drew ridicule and not just in private. (Take the 1995 comedy Something to Talk About, starring Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts. “Come on, Grace!” Quaid’s character cries. “George and Trudy, they went through something like this and they worked it out!” Roberts responds, “Trudy’s on Prozac, Eddie.” High-larious.) That said…
- It isn’t curable. This is a disorder not a disease. I’ve lived with it for decades; it isn’t going away.
- It’s not personal. I mean my behaviour not the disorder itself. (Anxiety sufferers are not insane; I do realize that my anxiety is not sentient. It didn’t pick me out from all the little boys and girls.) My particular type of anxiety makes me spook easily. I visibly startle when strange people accidentally bump into me. It can make me feel trapped if I’m, say, surrounded by slow-moving strangers at the mall. If I look a tad more freaked out than what’s considered the social norm, it ain’t you, it’s me. I’m workin’ on it.
- It’s not a quirk or a character flaw. No, no, no. Just no.
- It started in childhood. (So, sorry, everybody in junior high.) I had a nickname before I even started kindergarten: “Worry Wart.” As a toddler, I once ran into my mother’s arms crying because “a leaf hit me.” Back in the 1970s, such behavior was best handled through some good-old fashioned shaming. I’m glad things have changed; according to experts, anxiety disorder symptoms commonly emerge around the age of six. Those kids need care not humiliation.
- It has evolved and will continue to evolve. Forever. Anxiety sufferers know that their disorder shapes who they are; in return, they often make their unique marks on their disorder. My 20s were dominated by irrational fears about money. I put off paying bills as long as possible just so I wouldn’t have to peek into my chequing account. (What if there was no money in there?) A more organized bill-payment system helped me conquer that particular manifestation of my disorder. Now, I just obsess over dying alone in a hole.
- It’s made me more empathetic. Anxiety disorder grants membership into a kind of invisible club with no secret handshake: I see you, overly clingy seven-year-old in the park; I see you, lady who’s trying to avoid a meltdown in that unusually slow elevator. I won’t judge you, and you won’t judge me.
- It’s unique. Anxiety disorder comes in so many fun flavours. Maybe you’re a part of The Overachievers Club, plagued by irrational fears of dying while irrelevant. Maybe you’re a member of Team Existential Anxiety, weighed down by feelings of helplessness. Every anxiety sufferer has his or her own special mix. That said…
- It isn’t unique at all. Anxiety disorder affects tens of millions of people in my home country of the United States. According to one study, between two and three per cent of Canadians have reported symptoms consistent with anxiety disorder. Have you ever cried when a maple leaf hit you? You’re not alone.
- It’s a mystery to doctors. We’ve come a long way in treating anxiety disorder. But if you’ve never suffered from it, you might be amazed at how baffled doctors can be when trying to help a new anxiety patient. “Maybe we’ll try this first, and if that doesn’t work…” my doctor mused when I first sought a prescription treatment. My point: Anxiety disorder isn’t a sinus infection, and I wish it were.
- It’s always there. Anxiety sufferers will tell you that they have good days and bad days but rarely do they have a disorder-free day. There’s always some worry or panic attack lurking down there somewhere. But with the right treatment, those symptoms can be beaten into a semblance of submission, allowing people like me to lead pretty happy lives. In fact…
- I’m a pretty jolly gal. (Didn’t expect to read that, did you?) When you’ve spent much of your youth in an irrational state of alarm, life looks all the better once you’ve learned to manage that fear. I’m lucky enough to be able to channel my anxiety into — among other avenues — a pretty fulfilling writing career. And that’s amazing. Which leads me to my final thought:
- I wouldn’t change a thing.
There’s so much more that could and should be said. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 27, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health programs. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk or sharing the Bell Let’s Talk image on Facebook. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.
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