I have struggled with anxiety since I was a small child. I would have obsessive thoughts and worries about school, friends, and getting in trouble. In my teens, I developed phobias: fear of flying, agoraphobia, and fear of mass shootings. After 9/11 (which I witnessed in New York City), I developed symptoms of PTSD. I finally found a therapist whom I liked and who gave me concrete ways to work through my panic attacks.
But even with all of the cognitive behavior therapy, meditation, and exercise in the world, my anxiety is still there, lurking, ready to rear its ugly head at any minute. One of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had as I’ve gotten older is being able to accept my anxiety disorder. I understand that it runs in my family—that it is part and parcel of who I am.
And what I have realized most recently is that alongside the anxiety is a certain energy or essence to me that is, well…awesome. Don’t get me wrong: When I lock myself in the bathroom because my heart is beating out of my chest and it feels as though I am going to die of panic, there is nothing awesome about anxiety. And yet, I can see more clearly that many of my best personality traits go hand-in-hand with my tendency toward anxiety. For example:
1. I have an awesome imagination.
Yes, it is the same imagination that has convinced me that the bus I’m on is loaded with bombs that are about to off at any second. But it’s also the imagination that makes me a writer and a poet. It’s the same imagination that can concoct a delicious meal out of leftover scraps in the fridge. It’s the same imagination that can turn a boring shopping trip with my kids into a jungle safari adventure. And I’m grateful for it.
2. I have a deep drive for success.
I’m a bit of a perfectionist (OK, much more than a bit). I tend to get anxiety attacks when things don’t go according to plan. But this also means that I am a super dedicated person. Whenever I do something, I do it painstakingly well. I’m reliable, determined, and honest. My perfectionism probably annoys the hell out of some people, but I don’t really care. I get the job done and do it well.
3. I feel things deeply and wear my emotions on my sleeve.
You know the fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea? That was my favorite story as a child because I identified with it so profoundly. I feel things deeply—and not just my own feelings. I pick up on everyone’s emotions in the room. Obviously, this can lead to overstimulation and anxiety, but it also means that I am a very empathetic person. I am in touch with my own emotions and unafraid of expressing them.
4. I think constantly about other people and the state of the world.
My empathy expands beyond the people I know well. I think about strangers I’ve met on the street. I care deeply about social causes, and stay up late worrying about people who are hungry, homeless, and hurt. Of course, it isn’t a good thing to lose sleep over every little thing, but it points to the fact that I care—and will do everything in my power to contribute to positivity and change in our world.
5. Every day I’m brave.
Some days I am so flooded with stress hormones it’s difficult for me to leave the house. But I do. I care for my kids, I work, and I navigate the world even when I feel like I’m falling apart inside. When I’m really struggling, I can get down on myself. I mean, why can’t I just snap out of it? But lately, I’ve been telling myself the opposite. I’m here, showing up, doing what I need to do despite living with an anxiety disorder. And that’s something to be proud of.
I would not wish my anxiety on my worst enemy. When I’m in the middle of an episode of panic, I want nothing more than to get out of it. And yet, it feels impossible. That is one of the worst things about anxiety, really—the endless loop of it.
But I wonder what would happen if my anxiety magically disappeared someday. Would the gifts that go along with it be gone as well? I grapple with whether I would want to live without them.
I think the answer is no. As awful as anxiety is, if it allows me to be the unique person that I am, I will take it.