Mental health is often a subject that is tip toed around. No one wants to discuss what it truly means. You make think it’d be easier if your entire family has some form of mental illness, but in fact the opposite is true. They all assume your anxiety is the same as theirs. They think the voices in your head say the same things as theirs.
You may feel reluctant to seek out help or medication because you feel your anxieties aren’t as bad as someone else’s. That’s actually a symptom of anxiety, and leads to the topic of high functioning anxiety.
High functioning anxiety looks like…
It might feel like you don’t have it as bad as someone else. That’s the exact reason it took me so long to finally ask for help. You aren’t crippled by your fears. You may still go to work or class, and just die a little inside when anyone tries to start a conversation. High functioning anxiety has many faces; achievement, busyness, perfectionism. It hides under the guises of nervous habits; nail biting, foot tapping, restless leg syndrome, running my fingers through my hair, fidgeting with my ring.
On the surface it may appear as if nothing is wrong, but a watchful eye or a slip of your guard can reveal so much more. You can see it in unanswered text messages. Read receipts. Flakiness. Nervous laughter. The huge amount of pills in your bathroom drawer in case things get really bad. The panic that flashes through my eyes when a plan changes. When anything changes.
High-functioning anxiety feels like…
Ants crawling over my skin, all biting down at once, food-poisoning level stomach aches, and talking to your crush all at once, like my body is confusing reading a notification with being bitten by a snake. This is all a constant feeling, and you hide it, subdue it just beneath the surface, pretending that nothing it wrong.
High-functioning anxiety sounds like…
You’re not good enough. There will always be someone better than you. You’re a bad friend. They only invite you around because they feel sorry for you. You’re not good at your job. They are filling a quota with you. You’re wasting time here. You’re a waste of time. You’re so needy. What are you doing with yourself anyway? Why would you do that? Why can’t you have your life together? You’re a fraud. Just good at faking it. You’re letting everybody down. No one here likes you. If you killed yourself no one would miss you; your funeral would be empty.
All the while, you appear perfectly calm and collected to those around you.
It’s always looking for some way to vent your anxiety. Something to channel the never-ending energy that seems to be flowing from your mind.
I’m constantly making lists, running, writing, or doing meaningless tasks to wear myself out. It looks like doing jumping jacks in the kitchen while the washer is going, and dinner is cooking. Dancing in the living room while a movie is playing on the TV, and folding laundry. Pretending it’s spontaneous and fun, when really it’s a heavily choreographed routine of desperation, trying to tire out the thoughts stuck in my head.
It’s suffering in silence, pretending it’s ok by smiling through it all.
What it feels, sounds, and looks like at the same time…
You’re always busy, yet always avoiding your anxiety triggers, so the most important things don’t get done. Tasks pile up instead of admitting to yourself that you have too much on your plate. It’s the constant fear of saying something wrong, starting the downward spiral of intrusive thoughts; you said too much, no one cares what you’re saying, just never talk again, that’ll fix things.
Can’t you just be normal for once.
Just don’t be anxious.
You’re not OK, you’re messing everything up.
You’re totally OK, stop being such a baby.
It’s waking up at 2am sweating because a vivid dream just barreled through your head that it seemed too real, and taking hours for your heart rate to slow down and feel calm again. Then trying to feel broken when it happens every night. Because how “OK” can you be when a day without a structure is enough to make you crumble? When the image of an empty room makes you spiral at the very anticipation of being alone with your thoughts? When you need to make a list to get through a Sunday: Clean the kitchen, exercise, answer emails, read 10 pages, watch Game of Thrones.
It’s feeling unqualified to document my experiences, because I’m getting by. It’s when you’re social enough to get invited to things, but so often find yourself standing in a room that feels like a box that is slowly shrinking, where it feels like no one knows you even when you’ve known them all for years. It’s being good at small talk and bad at making close friends because you only show up when you feel “well” enough.
It’s making excuse after excuse why you didn’t show up when you said you would. Only texting back when you feel ready, reading it from the notification center before opening the app. Because you’re afraid they’d hate you if they really knew you. The constant hell that resides inside your mind, only materializing through memes. You laugh it all off, but on the inside you’ve been dead for years. That the energy would overwhelm them, and you’d lose them.
So you learn to rein it in, control it, even though sometimes you feel you do everything right you’re still left with racing thoughts, the panic, the not good enoughs, the what ifs.
When will it be enough?
Anxiety is constantly managing a motion that can be productive or self-destructive. It depends on how much sleep you got, the day, the Earth’s alignment with Mars, and so much more.
It’s when “living with it” means learning how to sit with it, staying in bed a little longer, challenging the mean. Living with the unrelenting voices that say you’re only worth what you produced that day.
It’s swallowing your pride and saying, “I need help.” Trying to take care of yourself without the guilt. It means every once in a while, confiding in a friend. It means sometimes showing up even when you’re scared. Grabbing a drink with your coworkers won’t be the end of the world.
It’s when answering a text impulsively and thoughtlessly is an act of bravery. It’s fighting against your own need to constantly prove your right to exist in this world, or not breaking down when you don’t meet your ridiculously high standards. No one will love you any less if you fail that quiz.
It’s learning how to tell yourself that your feelings DO matter. That even though you don’t feel like you’re enough, and you’ll never be enough, it’s knowing you will benefit from help. That admitting you need it doesn’t confirm the voices’ lies. That taking a break doesn’t mean you’re a failure in any way.
It’s finding your own humanity in the anxiety, in your weaknesses, and trying to let the energy inspire you instead of bring you down. It’s forgiving yourself when it wins. We’re only human after all.
It’s a way to live, with this constant companion. Your bullying twin. Collapsible luggage you can bury away at a moment’s notice. Shove it in the closet. Pretend it’s not there until the door will no longer close. Until you can no longer ignore it. Until you have to finally face it.
A first good step is staring at it straight on and calling it by its name, admitting to yourself that you have it.
Just living with it is not a noble way to suffer. It’s not a “better” way to be anxious. Just because you’re “functioning” doesn’t always mean you’re happy. And just because you’re functioning doesn’t mean you shouldn’t slow down, breathe and take one second to be happy the way things are!
In this very moment.
This quiet, short moment.
Remember the peace you found in that second of silence.
Hold onto it. Cherish it. Never let it go.
When your stomach turns again, the ants begin biting, the voices begin to scream, and you begin to doubt the validity of yourself, remember that peaceful moment of silence and ground yourself. Don’t let it win. You are stronger than your anxiety.