People with high-functioning anxiety can hide it pretty well.
I should know. I’m one of them.
And I function pretty damn good, most of the time. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider myself someone who “struggles” with anxiety — except when I do. And when I do, well, welcome to the shitshow. Those moments truly suck, and they often suck the life right out of me.
Let me paint a painful picture for you.
I’m a busy working mom and have a busy working husband, and we have a busy little toddler. We don’t go out for fancy long nights out very often, but we had one of those very nights planned recently. I was beyond excited to go out, to spend time with family and friends, to celebrate, to get dressed up and dance, to have fun! I even bought a new pair of shoes — these awesome blue pumps that, dang it, I was feeling beyond sexy rocking!
I gave no thought to anxiety. In retrospect, I probably should have, but I didn’t.
This mama was ready to have some fun!
And boy, oh boy, did I have fun — right up until the moment when I stopped having fun. And if you asked me what happened, I’m not sure I could tell you, except that sounds got more dull but also louder, lights got brighter, and I felt sweaty and cold all at the same time.
There was not a specific trigger, just a bunch of little triggers that added up. To what? To an anxiety attack — a big, huge, heart-pounding, sweat-inducing panic attack.
A lovely little mama’s night out spoiler. Damn.
Now I’m not making light of these, so don’t get me wrong. They are scary, and confusing, and frustrating, and for a lot of us, some of the time, totally debilitating. I’m writing today with just a little bit of distance from this foiled night out which allows me some clarity, and also some levity.
And it allows me to be reminded that these are nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t do anything wrong. There are so many conversations that people choose not to have because they feel like they can’t. They feel ashamed. They feel like nobody will understand. Maybe others can’t talk about their anxiety or depression. Maybe those of you who don’t or haven’t ever suffered from this truly can’t understand. But none of us should feel ashamed to have the conversation — those of us who suffer can help those of you who don’t and those of you who don’t suffer can then, in turn, help those of us when we do.
If we stay silent, if we stay ashamed, nobody wins.
Before I started suffering from anxiety attacks and bouts of depression myself, I was completely in the dark about both anxiety and depression. When you are diagnosed with something though, you start doing the research. Or at least, that’s what I did. Hell, I started researching well before I was ever even officially diagnosed. I found out that from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and then later from my own doctors, that I was among the 40 million Americans who suffer from some type of anxiety disorder.
Remarkably, I also learned that women are more likely than men to suffer from several of the more common anxiety and depressive disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder (lucky for me, these two are my own particular new “friends”).
Knowing this did not help me recover, but it did help me feel less isolated in my experiences.
Knowing this did not help me avoid future attacks, but it did help me come to terms with learning to trust my instincts and my feelings.
Knowing this did not, sadly for a long time, make me feel less ashamed of what I was struggling with, but it did help me reach out for help from those around me who did make me feel less ashamed. That took a while, but I’ve gotten there.
That night of fun that I was so excited about? The one I got all dressed up for and got to hang out with my handsome husband during? Yeah, that became one of those moments when I had to trust my feelings and dig deep into the toolkit I had built up, even though those same feelings blindsided me without any warning and I was scrambling to remember what tools I needed.
Here’s what people who have never suffered from anxiety or depression don’t understand: One minute you can be totally fine and the next, wham-o, you aren’t. That’s not something someone with anxiety and depression has any control over. That was me this fabulous night out. One minute, I was smiling, having fun, enjoying a fancy night out on the town, and then without much of any warning, I found myself in a full-blown anxiety attack, fighting against everything to hold back a stream of tears, not being able to catch my breath, starting to feel the sweat build, and wanting like nothing else to run to the closest bathroom stall and lock myself in.
Even with all I knew, I was embarrassed and, frankly, I was angry — at myself and at this illness that creeps back in when I least expect it.
I knew I had to leave. I knew nobody would understand, and I knew they might even be angry themselves. I knew, too, that even just five years ago I would have “toughed it out” and probably melted down massively, maybe in the bathroom, maybe in public. And it would have taken me days to recover myself.
“What does it feel like?” people often want to know.
More specifically, your mind starts spinning. It can’t slow down.
You start to second-guess every single decision, word, hand gesture, assuming everyone is judging you for choosing the wrong one.
You start to breathe differently. Short, fast, then slowed down because that’s what you are supposed to do and you can’t really so you start to hyperventilate as you try to regulate.
You think that you are failing everyone around you.
You are making them all unhappy.
You are making a fool of yourself.
You are an embarrassment.
You feel like you suck at life and that everyone else in the room thinks you suck at life too.
None of your life’s accomplishments matter, you feel like a fraud, and you feel like a failure.
At least that’s what it felt like for me.
And in my mind, while I knew that none of that was, in fact, true, it didn’t matter. The anxiety mattered. When the anxiety takes over, reality is only perception. Without learning the tools to handle an attack and gaining the support from friends and family (and honestly, even with both), suffering from an anxiety attack can be one of the most isolating and debilitating experiences ever.
Now I am fortunate to have family and friends who love me unconditionally and understand me. They know that if I say “I have to go” that I am not “faking” anything and that I am as disappointed as they are. And believe me, despite all that, I can see the disappointment on their faces. Five years ago, seeing those looks would have fed my anxiety and insecurity, pulling me deeper into the despair.
Now I am fortunate. I am comfortable removing myself from situations so that I can heal more quickly. I am confident that my family loves me and supports me, and while they would love for me to be with them, they also want me to be safe and happy and healthy.
Now, I am more willing to admit when I have these anxiety attacks, more willing to recognize them for what they are, and more confident in sharing my experience so that others can learn from it.
Now I am speaking up so that others know that they are not alone and that there is not anything “wrong” with them.
Now I am willing to admit that I am not my anxiety.
Now I am able to celebrate that I can be a successful, professional woman, a wife, a mother, and someone who also suffers from anxiety — and I am not ashamed.