As winter finally reached Glasgow this week, I have spent a great deal of time walking through snow, and slipping on ice. Because apparently even the main road through the university doesn’t merit having its footpaths gritted. As I skidded on ice for the umpteenth time today, only just managing not to fall backwards onto the frozen footpath, I realised: icy roads are the perfect metaphor for living with anxiety. You can be walking along, looking like you have everything under control, but inside you are panicking, because you never know when you’re going to slip and fall and ruin everything. Even if you don’t slip, the fear is always there.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have anxiety. When I was a kid, I thought I was just shy. I didn’t realise there was a difference between shyness and actual mental health issues. I always thought it was something I would grow out of once I was an adult. There’s a part of me that still thinks I’ll grow out of it. I always associated my anxious feelings with the uncertainty of childhood/being a teenager. It’s eight days until my 20th birthday, and suddenly I must rethink my attitudes to my own anxiety, because I can no longer think of it as a side effect of being a teenager.
This week the main cause of my anxiety is that I’m scared that no one will come to my birthday party.
I have never had a birthday party before. Until I came to university, I had no friends, so it was a literal impossibility. Last year for my birthday, I went out for drinks with a few friends, and I let someone else choose the venue, and we ended up in a horrible noisy bar in one of the student unions. I had horrible anxiety the whole time, and couldn’t hear what anyone was saying because the music was so loud. I was determined that this year, I would actually have a birthday party. I felt like I was ready. For the first time in my life, I have lots of friends. Friends who don’t make me anxious, friendships I feel confident in. So I was pretty sure that if I were to have a birthday party, I would be able to do so without my anxiety getting in the way.
I checked my flatmate was okay with it, got her approval, and suddenly there were no obstacles. There was nothing standing between me and my first ever birthday party. I felt excited. Like yass, for the first time in my life, I am actually a normal person who can have a normal party and be normal and happy. So I created the facebook event, sent out the invites, and I waited, refreshing my notifications every two seconds to see if anyone had responded. At first they did. Four “going”s, eight “maybes”. But slowly it started fizzling out, and now it’s three days since I sent the invites, and still only four people have said they’ll come, and my anxiety is at an all-time high.
My anxiety tells me that “maybe” means “no”, and that even the people who’ve said they’ll come won’t come, and that it’s a sign that I have no friends and people don’t actually like me, and I’ve been deluded this whole time. The rational part of my brain knows that absolutely none of this is true. Of course I have friends. The fact that I’ve spent the past three days venting my anxiety about this to my friends is proof that I have friends. But my anxiety doesn’t care about proof. My anxiety only cares about making me feel worthless. My anxiety is like “maybe you should cancel the party. Maybe you don’t deserve to do this. Maybe you aren’t worth it.”
Even considering the possibility of throwing a party was a big step for me, and now I’m going to spend the next week being terrified that no one will come. Friendships were the one area of my life that haven’t been a disaster these past few months, but now I’m finding myself doubting the one thing I could rely on. Even though I know there’s no reason to doubt it. Even if most of my friends don’t come to my party, it’s not going to be because they hate me. Maybe they’re working that day, maybe they have other commitments, maybe they’re away that weekend… It’s not personal, the world doesn’t revolve around me, other people’s actions shouldn’t always be a reflection of my worth.
This is what life with anxiety is like: I am walking on ice, and every time I take a baby step I feel like I’m slipping to the ground.
The other day, one of my friends told me that I always talk in circles, over-explaining my points until their meaning becomes unclear. I was aware of this to a certain extent, and always thought it was just the way I naturally speak. But I couldn’t shake the thought from my head, and the over-thinking kicked in, and then I realised: even the way I talk is a symptom of anxiety. I say the same thing over and over, explaining my points to death, because I’m scared I won’t make my meanings clear enough, that people will get the wrong idea.
Once I understood this, I started wondering how many of my other quirks are anxiety symptoms. The answer is probably: all of me. Or so my anxiety tells me. The way I think, the way I talk and communicate, the way I interact with other people…all of these are expressions of my anxiety. I have been an anxious wreck for so long that I don’t know who I am without it. I want to find a way to overcome my anxiety, but I don’t know what an anxiety-free version of myself would even look like. Do I have an identity without my anxiety? Do people even like me, or do they just like anxiety in an Eliza flesh mask? The thought of not having anxiety is almost scarier than anxiety itself. Or perhaps that’s just what the anxiety wants me to think.
I’ve never felt “normal.” When I was younger I thought that feeling of “otherness” meant I was special, that I was someone important, that I was going to change the world one day. Unfortunately, I was much mistaken. The “otherness” was probably just an anxiety symptom. I doubt I can change the world when I can’t even make a phone call without feeling nauseous. I’m not special, I am just a person who struggles with basic aspects of life, and tried to comfort herself by coming up with the lie that it meant she was destined for greatness.
I still tell myself stories, give meaning to the coincidental, give purpose to the pain. I tell myself everything happens for a reason, or that people are going to have an important role in my life because “all the signs point towards it.” I’m always so shocked when the stories I tell myself turn out to be bullshit. When I don’t tell myself those stories, I become lost and purposeless, and I find myself all alone, facing the inevitable truth: I am not okay.
I am not okay, and I am not normal. It is not normal to be in this state of panic over a stupid birthday party. It is not normal to be obsessing over the fact that someone never replied to the message you sent them four months ago. Especially when you haven’t seen that person in six months. It is not normal for it to be so hard to let things go. It is not normal to overthink every single thing. It is not normal to assume that everyone secretly hates you. None of this is normal, none of it is okay. I need to stop telling myself the bullshit stories that I have come to rely on, and accept that I am not in a good place right now.
I keep telling myself I should be happy. I have wonderful friends, I get good grades, I’ve lost 251bs since the summer… I have so many of the things I’ve always yearned for. And even that is not enough to make me happy. I tell myself that happiness should come from within, that I should find the answers within myself. I tell myself that once I’m good enough, everything will fall into place. But, plot twist, I’m a perfectionist, so I will never be good enough, things will never fall into place. It’s not something I know how to change, and it’s probably not something I’m going to grow out of.
Next week I will have lived for two decades, and whilst everyone likes to remind me that I’m still a tiny baby, 20 years feels like forever to me. I have so many years ahead of me, but I spend my life living in the past. I waste my time with thoughts like “why did I say that?” “why did I do that?” “why did I send that stupid message?” “why can’t I turn back time?”, and my life flies by without me actually living it. The future isn’t this far distant thing. The future is the present moment at a different time. There is nothing other than the moment I am living in, and I spend so much of my life wasting these moments, because I am so preoccupied with the past or the future. I don’t want to waste my life wishing for things to be different. But at the same time, I don’t know how to change. I can’t simply talk myself out of anxiety; it doesn’t work that way.
It feels like there is no solution, and with each day that passes I become less recognisable as the person I thought I was. I thought I was an optimist, I thought I had a happy disposition, that I was motivated, that I saw the best in everything and everyone. I don’t know any more. I’ve stopped seeing the best in myself, and that is terrifying. I look at myself as though I am something broken. I don’t want to be broken. I don’t know how to be whole. It’s not something I can solve by thinking about it, or by writing a blog about it. Maybe this is just a part of myself that I have to accept. All I can do right now is write about it, and throw that writing out into the void, and hope that a solution comes to me.