I was at a conference recently, chatting with two friends I’d know online for years but never met in person. They asked if wanted to go get something to eat, and I gave them a few false starts. I tried to figure out how to say no without coming across as a jerk. I was already feeling anxious because of the long flight I’d had that morning and all the social interaction I’d had most of the afternoon. I’ve been living with anxiety attacks long enough to know that if I didn’t shut down, go back to my room, and relax, I’d probably end up having a full blown attack and be awake most of the night.
Once I finally told them I was going to head back to my room, one said, “Are you just blowing us off?”
She said it jokingly, with a half smile. But at the same time, there was a little bite to it too. There always is when I turn down social interaction with friends. I’ve been faced with this situation enough times to know that whenever I have to step away from a social event because of my anxiety, or I have to cancel at the last moment because I can feel anxiety bubbling in my stomach or I tell someone I can’t make it, and when they ask why, I’m too self-conscious to tell them I have anxiety. So they always look at me as if I’m “blowing them off.”
This is one of the side effects of living with an anxiety disorder. Most of the time I’m 100% fine. I’m communicative, I’m friendly, I’m myself. But then there are the anxious times. There are the times when I can feel a panic attack coming on, and I know if I don’t take some time to myself, it will get worse. I’ll feel nauseous. I’ll feel terror. I’ll have to take medication that is a little dicey and potentially addictive. So I’ve learned to pull back. I’ve learned to set limits.
But at the same time, there is still a stigma around anxiety. There are a lot of people who don’t believe it’s real. And even if they do believe it, if they aren’t living with the disorder, it’s pretty difficult for them to understand. And then there’s the fact that whenever I discuss my mental illness with someone, they look at me differently, so most of the time, I just keep it to myself.
I don’t know if that’s me being self-destructive about a condition I really wish I didn’t have, or if people are actually acting differently around me. But what I do know is that all of this has made me reluctant to tell someone I’m not hanging out with them because of my anxiety. It’s caused me to come up with a litany of ridiculous excuses. It’s caused me to fake headaches at family reunions and stomachaches at parties. It’s caused a lot of my friends and family to assume I’m avoiding them when the fact is, I’m just trying to keep from having a panic attack and it has absolutely nothing to do with them.
Back to that moment at the conference with my friends, the ones I really respect and enjoy but have never meet in person. This was exactly what I’d learned to expect from pulling out of a situation because of my anxiety. I wanted to go out to dinner with them. I wanted to chat with two people who I respect as writers and people, but I knew I just couldn’t. So I told them I wasn’t feeling well. I told them I was tired from traveling. The whole time, I could tell that they weren’t buying it. Then I finally said, “I have an anxiety disorder and I’m pretty anxious right now. I need to go up to my hotel room and be alone for it bit. It’s not you. Trust me.”
I went on, telling them that I honestly wanted to spend time with them, but I just couldn’t at that time and I hoped they understood. They both appeared sympathetic. They both seemed to understand, and then, as I walked back to my hotel room, I rolled thoughts around in my head, wondering if I’d just blown the friendship. Ultimately, I hadn’t. But that’s anxiety for you. It causes you to second guess everything and roll all the things around in your head in the middle of the night until you are a nervous wreck.
Listen, family and friends. I will go ahead and speak for all of us struggling with anxiety: we are not ignoring you. We are not putting you off or trying to avoid interactions with you. What we are doing is trying to keep our heads straight. We are trying to manage our surroundings as best we can. It’s not personal. It’s not you. It’s just the reality of living with anxiety. I hope you understand.