This is a photo I took of myself in the bathroom of a sushi restaurant a couple years ago. I’ve actually never showed it to anyone before.
On the surface, it just looks like a tired lady pushing 40 who is taking a pic of herself for some unknown reason. But to me, it was an act of bravery and self-preservation to take this photo. You see, when I took it, I was in the middle of a panic attack.
Like many of my panic attacks, there was not one thing in particular that triggered it. I think I’d had a fight with my mother that morning. My four-year-old had probably woken me up at the crack of dawn, and I was sleep deprived. I was probably worried about my husband and his job, which was making him miserable at the time.
In reality, everything was going just fine. There were no immediate crises in my life. I was healthy, my kids and family were healthy. But tell that to my anxiety, which doesn’t give a shit what is happening in my life and whose only job is to convince me that something is terribly, awfully wrong.
I remember sitting there in the restaurant with my family. As they were talking and joking, I was somewhere else. I couldn’t hear a word they were saying because my thoughts were spinning out of control. My heart was beating wildly in my chest.
I remember that I began to have the anxiety symptom that tends to freak me out the most: disassociation, which can be best described as a kind of detachment that happens sometimes with anxiety and panic.
I felt detached from my body, my thoughts, even my life. I began to feel like I was “going crazy” and that I was going to die.
The thing is, no one at the table had any idea what was going on. If they looked at me, they probably thought “Oh, Wendy’s daydreaming again. She’s spacing out.” And it’s true. I do that sometimes.
But sometimes “Wendy daydreaming” means I’m having a panic attack. I’m good at hiding it, though. I never want to disturb the peace. I never want to tell anyone what is really going on. I’ve been like this since I was a child, when I first started having panic attacks. I had no idea I was having a panic attack, because my panic attacks were so internalized.
My anxiety never looked like the typical nervous, jittery, talking fast, freaking out anxiety. My anxiety was silent. I held it inside. My thoughts and feelings would destroy me, but no one had any idea.
Even then, when this photo was taken, I wasn’t going to announce to my family that I was in the middle of a panic attack. Maybe I should have. Maybe they would have understood. But I couldn’t convince myself it was a good idea.
Either way, I knew that I needed a break, some time to get myself together and calm down. So I excused myself to the bathroom, where I shot this photo. Somehow, I knew that taking the photo would help put what was happening in perspective.
It was just a panic attack. It was just anxiety that was making me feel that way. I was still myself. I could do this.
I also knew, on some level, that I wanted to document myself in the middle of a panic attack so that I could remember what it was like. I wanted to honor my kind of anxiety—the silent kind, the kind that doesn’t present itself to the outside world, the kind that eats you from in the inside out.
Also, taking the photo was a good distraction. I started thinking about how someday I might share this photo with the rest of the world. Since I’m a writer, I started thinking about the story I’d write to accompany it.
Distraction is a good way (though not the only way) to get yourself out of a panic attack, and I think that soon after this photo was taken, I was able to calm my system down, at least a little bit.
Since then, I’ve had a bunch more panic attacks. I’ve grown to accept that I am just wired to do that sometimes. But one significant thing I’ve done since then is to talk more about what anxiety looks like for me—and to let the world know that anxiety doesn’t always look like someone who is shaking and hyperventilating (though obviously this is a valid way to experience anxiety).
Anxiety can look like someone who is calm. Someone who has their life together. Someone who is a born nurturer, who always seems to have the strength and wherewithal to help others. Someone can be experiencing anxiety as they sit right next to you, even as they help you work through you own shit.
Someone can have anxiety who seems depressed, not anxious. Who seems confident, not crest-fallen. Who seems fearless, not fearful. There is no rhyme or reason with anxiety, and whatever notion you may have about an anxious person is probably wrong, or at least cannot possibly apply to everyone who experiences anxiety.
What I’ve learned over the past few years is that no one will know I’m experiencing anxiety unless I tell them. And—here’s the thing that has been the most earth-shattering revelation—it’s okay for me to share my anxiety with others. Doing so is not admitting a weakness; it’s a sign of strength to tell the truth.
Besides sharing my anxiety weekly with my therapist (I started therapy again soon after I took this pic), I’ve been making a point whenever I can of telling my husband when I’m in the middle of a panic attack, sometimes even my children. And it’s helped immensely. It doesn’t make the panic and anxiety go away immediately or in all cases. But it lightens the load.
Looking back at my experience of panic and anxiety, I’m realizing that I spent far too many years holding my anxiety inside because I didn’t quite believe it was real. I had one specific idea of what being anxious meant—the stereotypical outward signs of anxiety like fast talking and jitteriness—and because my anxiety wasn’t quite like that, I didn’t exactly believe it was real.
I think that if I had known what was going on—and most of all, that my experience was valid and something worth sharing—I would have been able to navigate the stormy waters of living with anxiety with at least a little more ease.