I’ve worried more than the average bear ever since I can remember. When my Dad used to go to the supermarket and was a long time coming home, I’d worry that he’d gotten lost in the supermarket and couldn’t find his way home. I’d worry that he’d died in a car crash. I’d worry that he didn’t have enough money to pay for the groceries and the police had locked him up. I’d worry about every possible scenario it seemed, rather than what he was always, without fail, doing: going to The Warehouse and having a jolly old time browsing through the CD section.
So it really shouldn’t have come as a shock to me when I got diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder—I’ve spent a lifetime anxiously careening from one thing to the next, so the only thing that should have been any surprise was the ‘social’ part of the diagnosis. But there seriously should have been some epic DUNDUNDUNNNNNN music when the psychiatrist casually noted, over her clipboard, “By the way, you definitely have social phobia.” It blindsided me. Suddenly, I had to look at my life through an Anxiety Disorder lens, and that was, quite frankly, terrifying.
You see, for years, I’d been flying the flag of someone who had gotten depressed once or twice but who was OKAY now. Sure, I might stay in bed and cry all day sometimes, but who doesn’t, right? No matter that the terror of saying “good morning” to people in the office would send me into a daily tailspin, where I would have long, torturous thought battles with myself about whether I could do it (“Just SAY IT, say HELLO! Go on, say it, say it nowwww”). That an invite out for coffee would send adrenaline pulsing through my body and set off an avalanche of crazy thoughts about what a terrible person I am. No my friends, for this, I imagined, was something that just came with the territory of being a person, not someone with a long-running mental illness.
Because the truth is, I didn’t want to see myself as one of Those People. Those People included the dishevelled old men I’d seen waiting outside the psychiatrist’s office who all seemed to be wearing last week’s clothes and smelt like old sweat and alcohol, and who were so… raw… with unmasked emotion. Or those guys you see on the street staring sightlessly at passers-by with signs saying “Need money for food” (just go on the dole then, my inner C-word always thinks), or just the people you see shuffling around with red, sad eyes. No way José, I was normal! I was working a good job and doing my PhD and powering through my life, thankyouverymuch. No way was I really part of that club!
The weird thing about it, is that one of my lifelong heroes is my dad (hi dad!). My dad is a soulful musician who can hear a song once and then chime in on his guitar with heart-melting melodies. Who can take in a scene and describe it to you in a way that makes you want to close your eyes, lie back, and enter the world of his imagination. A scientist, who used to work at Cadbury’s—so let’s face it you guys, my dad is basically Willy Wonka. While my mum was out earning the bacon, he pretty much single-handedly raised me and my three favourite humans, my sisters. And through all this, my dad has battled soul-shattering, chronic, and unremitting depression for most of his life.
But despite growing up thinking that all my dad really lacked in life was a superhero cape, somehow I’d created a special category for him and it didn’t register with me that he too was one of those dreaded People with Mental Illnesses. To me (though it pains me to admit it) having a mental illness was a sign of weakness, a sign that you couldn’t cope with life’s up and down like a “normal” person, that you were doomed to live a drugged up, empty life, shuffling from one dead-end job to the next.
And you know what? I was a dick, and I was wrong. For a lot of people, living with a mental illness does mean you have to make compromises, and you might have to adjust your life to something slightly less than being the next Helen Clark (whatever you may think of her politics, let’s face it; that woman is just super). And if that’s the case, if you can actually hold down a so-called ‘dead-end job,’ then you deserve a standing ovation. And if all you can manage is getting out of bed in the morning some days? Then in my books you deserve a medal, my friend. Because this shit is hard. It’s hard to hold a normal conversation with someone when your brain is on high alert all the time, telling you what you’re doing wrong. Having a brain that tells you that you suck constantly, and a body that seems to run on stress hormones—it can really really suck.
Coming to terms with having Social Anxiety Disorder has meant that I’ve had to learn humility. I’ve had to meekly climb down off my high-powered high horse, swallow my pride, and sob hysterically in front of both loved ones, colleagues, and complete strangers and ask for help because I’m not coping. I’ve had to accept that I am as frail and as human as that stinky guy on the street. The only thing that separates me and that guy is that I’ve had the dumb luck of being born to the right family, getting the right treatment, having teachers, colleagues, and loved ones who’ve encouraged (and sometimes, hauled) me through my academic and working careers, and the stubborn white-knuckled will to carve out a life for myself that I want to live.
But with all that said, it’s a really delicate balancing act between denying you have anything wrong with you, to the other extreme—becoming your diagnosis. Because while getting an official diagnosis can set you on track for getting back to equilibrium, it can also put you at peril of becoming depressive, OCD, or anxious. I’ve seen first-hand how getting diagnosed with something like an anxiety disorder can turn you from delightful and quirky into a quivering wreck overnight—because that’s suddenly what people expect of you, and what you come to expect of yourself. I know that I’ve definitely abdicated more than my usual quota of social gatherings because of my newfound anxiety disorder, when actually, I would probably feel better if I could just swallow my fears and brave the occasional terrifying coffee with a friend.
I’ll be honest here, I tend to swing between both extremes of the spectrum—from the denial end (convincing myself that I’m Fine Now and taking myself off antidepressants—worst.idea.ever.) to walking around feeling like there’s a giant sign looming over me that reads BEX BE CRAZY. But you can’t live your life feeling like you’re a walking mental illness—you’re a person, just like anyone else. You just have a brain that’s a bit on the extreme side of town that you need to figure out how to work with.
I might have a mental illness, but most days I’m not actually a walking, talking Social Anxiety Disorder. I’m someone who can do a gloriously fast and maniacal chicken dance, who wears bright lipstick every day, but who still eats massive falafel burgers with it on (that translates to: often, I end up looking like a lot like Ronald McDonald). Who doesn’t walk so much as gallop, who gets really excited by random little facts (did you know that celery has cancer-fighting stuff in it? Waaaow!), who has an unhealthy obsession with chocolate, and who likes nothing better than a good old-fashioned high five.
And if you’ve stumbled across this piece and you’re finding it hard to cope, I’ll be the one who will take one for the cray team and crack myself out of my shell long enough to tell you about my long and winding walk on the cray side of life, so that you know that you’re not alone. That life with a mental illness isn’t a life sentence to the Land of Doom, it’s just a life that can sometimes offer harder and different challenges to the average bear. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes, it’s just… normal. Welcome to the cray club; some of us are excellent chicken dancers.
Originally posted on Livin’ la vida cray cray[divider] [/divider]
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