My Experience With High Functioning Anxiety

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2019 has been rough. In an earlier post I commiserated that at least living in constant fight-or-flight mode birthed some awesome artwork, and I kind of kept doing that thing where I would joke about how terrible I was feeling, brush it off, tell myself it was just a “bout” that would pass. Then the months went on and I was still dealing with ramped up anxiety, waves of depression, moments of intense anger and irritability and an overall difficulty to control my emotions. I recognized what was happening because I’d been there before. As of this week, this time I am doing something about it.

I’ve dealt with anxiety since childhood, and always thought about counseling but then it would get better for a little bit, so I’d put it off. I had bouts of being pretty miserable and losing hope in nearly everything but at the same time, not to be funny, I wasn’t failing at life. I was maintaining a reasonable amount of friendships, I was handling a high stress job, I was churning out personal art projects that I was happy with at a pretty amazing speed … I’d had fleeting thoughts of suicidal ideation from high school going forward but they were isolated incidents, few and far between, and I always viewed them as some pesky creature that had invaded my brain like ‘hey, get out of here, you don’t belong!’ not something I seriously wanted to happen. After all, I’m the girl that goes to lengths to do everything possible now to guarantee I make it to 100 years old (constant worrying over mortality is probably another anxiety symptom, but hey)! I felt I didn’t really have a right to seek counseling because in the back of my mind I thought they might laugh in my face when I showed up for the first meeting and say, “Why are you even here?” So many people struggle so much worse.

One thing I’ve learned through my job working with adults with all forms of disability including psychological, is that all mental illness is wildly misunderstood by the population at large. I feel like with my struggles being mostly unseen, when shit finally hit the fan and started to get worse throughout the last 6 months or so I ended up feeling more isolated actually then when I’d been keeping silent and “passing”, and I don’t think I was prepared for that. My anxiety and depression didn’t fit the mold, and some days I wondered if I should just start laying around in bed just so people would take it seriously but the thing is, I was filled with energy and the last place I wanted to be was in bed. High functioning anxiety is real and it is tough, though it may not look as dire on the outside. I can never speak for everyone, but here is what this girl with high functioning anxiety wants you to know:

Don’t analyse us. (Unless you are our counselor and it’s your job 😉 ) We are already constantly questioning our every move, every word, every facial expression as we move through the world. People are allowed to not be at 100% 24/7. Saying “Why do you sound tense, why are you so turned up, calm down!” (I’ve literally had people say these things to me when I’m not even raising my voice, just have a serious expression on my face!) over and over again even if it is asked out of concern does not help, it just makes the anxiety worse. There are constructive ways to check in, but policing facial expressions and body language are not it.

When we talk about how we feel, don’t respond with, “You just need a drink”. I do drink socially, but usually try to not drink when I am feeling particularly low because it tends to make it worse. I am lucky to not struggle with this right now, but many people with anxiety and other either situational or permanent mental health issues self medicate with substances, so this could actually be really unhealthy and dangerous advice. I did struggle for a period of about a year in college with self medicating social anxiety in large gatherings with alcohol, and although we are very casual in the US about binge drinking being a “normal” part of transitioning through young adulthood, it really shouldn’t be as normal as it is.

Similarly, please don’t keep telling us we need to drink more tea, eat 10 almonds every day, or just eat a freaking banana. Full disclosure, I love all 3 of those things and do consume them quite regularly and guess what, I still have anxiety. Yes, a healthy diet certainly does impact one’s mental health and quality of life, but it isn’t always a magical panacea. I myself make a habit of eating healthy and tend to just think fresh, healthy food tastes better anyway. Yet again, I still deal with anxiety. Assuming someone’s mental health issues are occurring because they aren’t taking care of themselves is just that, assuming, and is just going to compound their feelings of guilt, shame, blame, and guess what – anxiety!

We aren’t “faking it” to get out of things we don’t want to do. I’m an adult. When I have to dial back on some things and allow for more margin in my life to recharge, I’m not “playing sick” to get to stay home from school and watch cartoons. I am a person that hates sitting around being inactive or being unreliable, and often joke that I’m allergic to relaxation. So, if I say I’m having a hard time and just can’t do a, b, or c, I mean it and usually no one is more frustrated about it than me. If I am experiencing a particularly rough time, there can also be a fear of potential embarrassment; What if I start having a panic attack and can’t get to a private place quick enough?

We don’t always need a solution from our support system. We don’t need a team of cheerleaders shouting at us, “You can do it! Pull it together!” We don’t need “tough love” and to be forced into going through the motions as if nothing is wrong in hopes by sheer force of willpower the cycle will be broken. We need to be heard. We need our support system to listen to understand, not listen to “fix” us or listen to reassure us “it’s not that bad”.

At the same time, no one else is responsible for our mental health but us. Anxiety is not a license to lash out at people with no consequences. No one is obligated to play therapist when we should be seeing a professional counselor. No one should feel the pressure of being the “one thing” keeping us going, and it is ok to respectfully call us out if you feel we are doing any of these things.

Know that there is no required severity level to getting help. You don’t have to wait until things reach a breaking point. Here are some other excellent articles with insight into a less often talked about dimension of anxiety:

What Are The Signs Of ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety?

What It’s Like To Have ‘High Functioning’ Anxiety

The Characteristics of High Functioning Anxiety

Art Discussion : Deliverance

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I have always thought of doing an art discussion post on this particular piece. Whenever I show it, everyone wants to know the story behind it as the fact that there is a symbolic visual narrative is clearer in this piece than in many of my others. Still, I have been putting it off for quite some time because explaining the concept behind this piece is very personal and would involve being really freaking transparent, so hold onto your hats. (I’m actually a big fan of transparency, but it usually manifests itself in the form of out-bursting deeply personal information in a sort of accidental social vomit, not neatly typing my feelings out for the world to see.)

This painting is a prayer.


When I started this piece, I was newly graduated from college and had been back to living in my childhood home for awhile afterward, which was super uncomfortable. I’m sorry, no matter how much you love your family it just is, unless said family adopts a sort of chill,  we are mutual adults living together almost like roommates sort of attitude, which nearly never happens.

I’d just finished training for a new job in sales that I already knew I was going to hate. Approaching tons of random people I don’t know all day and having to make forced conversation until they buy something? I might as well just get into the fetal position now for efficiency’s sake. The month long training involved driving 3 hours away and staying in a hotel with all the other trainees, and everyone was either horrifyingly mean and offensive or overtly sexually creepy. On more than one occasion, I finished a bottle of wine by myself sitting alone in my hotel room and I’m not a huge drinker. Not by any means advisable, but I honestly could not conceive of getting through this sordid affair without self medicating no matter how physically and mentally unhealthy. I’d had anxiety so bad 2 years before during my junior year of college that I had actually experienced brief hallucinations brought on by stress. I was not looking to have that be a repeat experience.

Even before I had embarked on my ill-fated new job, my emotions had been cycling out of control. I felt like my body was constantly sending off fight or flight signals, releasing chemicals that triggered the feeling that I was about to be chased by a tiger, except nothing was actually wrong. I would be elated and laughing and feeling creative and motivated one minute, and then suddenly this deep sense of dread like the sky was filled with pianos tied up on ropes that were about to all drop down on my head like I was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon would shake me to my core. I’d always been someone who felt BIG. When I feel joy, it’s intense and when I feel despair, it’s intense. I like to think it’s worth it for the times of joy, where the littlest thing can make me jump up and down like a little kid. A lot of people use that sense of celebration in the smallest details of life as they get older.

The first time I heard this song by one of my favorite artists, these lyrics really resonated with me because I think one of my biggest fears is people who never express their emotions. It’s just so foreign to me.

…But I would kill to make you feel
I’d kill to move your face an inch
I see you staring into space
I wanna stick my fist into your mouth
And twist your Arctic heart

The rapid up and down thing I was going through was something different, however. I’d always been in control of my mind and I felt like I wasn’t anymore. For someone who really likes to be in control of absolutely everything at all times, it was terrifying (I make itineraries for day trips even if I’m only traveling 20 minutes out of town. Excel spreadsheet lists are my best friends. Change plans on me at the last minute? Not unless you have a death wish. Just to give you a bit of insight…) It was also exhausting because the thing is, when your mind keeps sliding into that fight or flight state you actually feel as if you’ve just been in an extremely stressful and dangerous situation whether anything has happened or not. The fatigue is the same.

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I am a Christian, albeit a Christian who has never felt very at home in the ofttimes bizarre sort of bubble of Christian culture (I swear people must have been able to sense it, because youth group was terrible. Maybe they could smell it like dogs smell fear.). This is mainly because it has always felt very exclusive, and also because being a female puts me in a sort of precarious situation with religion in general. It’s why the subject of “Women and Religion” actually has an entire college course of study devoted to it. Organized religion of any belief system tends to not be too kind to the ladies. (If I actually behaved how those super conservative “complementarian” advice articles advised that I do to be a “Godly woman”, never expressing a damn thought without asking “What do you think honey?” first, my current boyfriend would toss me off of our balcony. Or have me committed, one or the other. I found a keeper ;).) Basically, they just don’t seem to leave a lot of room for people actually being created with variation, people’s brains, hearts, and minds each working a little differently from the other. Luckily, Jesus doesn’t need you to be a robot that copies what everyone else in his bandwagon thinks, and He doesn’t need you to join any super special cool kids club. Also, despite how people like to twist religious truths to allow them to control others, he actually validated and lifted women up in contrast to society at the time. Don’t believe me? Some discussions on this issue can be found on God’s Word to Women, Sojourners, and a great interview on Christianity Today with one of my favorite christian writers, Sarah Bessey.

This is the first overtly faith based piece I’ve ever created, though my faith, my beliefs, and my passions inadvertently end up in all of my work in bits and pieces. I was obviously at a breaking point, and I was reluctantly praying about my struggle. I really didn’t even want to, because to be honest, I was frustrated, and I was pissed off. This was not what adult life was supposed to be like. I wasn’t supposed to still be dealing with this crap; I wasn’t supposed to still feel anxious and lost and overwhelmed; I wasn’t supposed to still feel like an outsider no matter where I put myself. Since drawing helps me focus and communicate my thoughts, I decided to draw my prayer.

Dealing with intense anxiety cages you. You aren’t able to function as your normal self, or even interact with others in the same way because every ounce of your energy goes into self care and basically trying to not feel like garbage all the time. This painting is a right to left narrative. A death version of the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks are embedded into this girl’s torso near the location of where her heart would normally rest. Hands are coming up from behind her and touching her shoulder in an act of comfort, you are not alone. The hands represent God, but they are not passive like a pat on the back or a “there there, everything will be ok”. They are active and forceful, saying “No, I will not let you continue to suffer.” A suffocating darkness creeps up from below. In the next part of the narrative, those same hands are breaking the mask in two, and out of the center, though still tangled, falls the girl; her true inner self, out of the cage. She is holding a watering can. In the final part on the far right, she is fully escaped from the prison inside the mask and water flows from the watering can she is holding, while silhouettes of human figures with flowers at their hearts stand in it’s spray. She is “watering” their souls, symbolized by the flowers.

When we go through tough things, we can use our experiences to better connect with and support others. No, that doesn’t mean the trials we go through are “good” (Seriously, “everything happens for a reason” has to be my least favorite platitude, and I really, really hate platitudes), but it means we can use something that was bad for good later on. Because of the struggles with anxiety I have experienced, I am able to better relate to a lot of my Artshop students and their mental health struggles which are oftentimes far more severe than what I have dealt with. I am better able to help them when they are going through a panic attack situation, better able to understand why on some days it bothers them to have a lot of noise during class when they are already on edge, better able to understand and empathize with the fact that they were fine an hour ago, and now are very upset even though nothing tangible has changed. I am able to be someone who says, “I hear you. Your feelings are legitimate. And you are not alone”.

A week or so passed afterward, and I ceased experiencing the out of the ordinary, rapid ups and downs.

No, my anxiety has not magically “poof!” disappeared, but over time  I have become far better at managing it and breaking out of its cage using a variety of learned techniques. For some, engaging in their faith and educating themselves on emotional management techniques isn’t enough and they may need to additionally seek counseling or medication. Everyone is different, and there should be no judgement.

Also, everyone should read this post about high functioning anxiety. I have never been able to articulate an experience so well, and it is a must read for all in my opinion, because I do not think this experience is uncommon. I think people just are apprehensive, like I was, to talk about it. I guarantee someone in your life right now needs you to know this.

What are some things you do to recenter yourself when everything around you feels out of control?

 

Reunion … Alternate Title: Holy Crap I’m Old.

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Just this past weekend was my 10 year high school reunion, to which I actually made an appearance despite many fervent vows over the years that I, when the time came, most certainly would not. When I think of high school, I just think of awkwardness and lots of crying. I will let the following Daria memes do the talking for my overall thoughts on the whole experience, seeing as we were pretty much the same person. I even kind of looked like her when I didn’t wear my contacts.

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I put in a half-assed effort at mingling, but the real reason I was there was to see my core group of friends who I am still close with to this day. The golden opportunity of us actually all being in the same place at the same time was too good to pass up. The following day, I attended a baby shower for one of them with the rest of the squad, which is another thing that made me feel all awkward and adult-y.

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It is actually one of my life goals to never change a diaper even once, and I think I am putting in some good strides towards its achievement. I wish her all my love and the best though, and can’t wait to meet the little miniature version of my best friend sometime soon.

It’s funny to think about how completely 99.9% different we are after 10 years, but in some ways still so very much the same. This idea is something I touched on in my last post about my new project. You’re always going to have thoughts about the past like “I wish I would have known, I wish I would have done …” etc. etc., but putting some things in perspective early on never hurts. To conclude, I will leave any current highschoolers who may be reading this with some things I wish I would have realized that would have made the journey a little less tumultuous.

Not to use a cliche phrase, but you do you.

If you are naturally more introverted and are content to not be flapping your gums 24/7 during a school day, then don’t feel pressured to interject yourself into conversations just so that you look more “social” or “normal”. You will end up completely draining yourself. On the other hand, if you are aching to talk and get to know people but are holding back because you feel like you may say something awkward and embarrass yourself, don’t – just let it out. I mean, you totally will do it, that saying something awkward thing, but it happens to everyone and if you’re confident and can just laugh at yourself no one is going to give you a scarlet letter for it. By the way, you’re going to put your foot in your mouth plenty as an adult so you might as well practice up.

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Definitely work hard and do your best, but enjoy learning. Don’t overestimate the significance of high school as it plays into the rest of your life so that your only goals are to look good on paper.

Don’t waste your times on classes, clubs, or activities just because you feel like they somehow make you “look good.” Seriously, if I wouldn’t have spent every day coming straight home from school and going right down to the basement to draw until bedtime, I would not have the skills I have today in the field I actually ended up going into as a career. Having a long, exhaustive list of all this stuff that you do is only just that… a long exhaust(ive)(ing) list. Spend your time doing what you like. If that’s being involved in 15 different sports and after school clubs, then more power to you. If it isn’t, then don’t sweat it and don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re lazy just because you have different ways you like to spend your time. You’ll wish you had as much free time as you do now when you’re an adult with a full time job.

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Don’t obsess over having a date for formal dances.

Dates are boring. I had exponentially more fun during the homecomings I attended in a group with my single friends. You’ll have plenty of time for uncomfortable dinner dates as an adult, trust me.

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It’s ok to not be invited to parties. They aren’t that fun.

I know fomo can be rough, and as one who understands I have but one life to live and wishes to maximize the potential joy and newness of every moment, I still struggle with it hardcore to this day. But, I promise you, you truly aren’t missing anything. When you’re in your mid-20s, you will actually start making up excuses to avoid having to go to parties, because gigantic loud house parties filled with sloppy drunk people and bad music are tedious.

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And lastly, your hair doesn’t look bad.

No one is looking at you that closely, because in all actuality they are too busy obsessing over what their own hair looks like. I used to be hard-pressed to be out the door an hour and fifteen minutes after waking up for school, and that was with showering the night before and my mom making my lunch. Now, I get ready for work and am in the car in 20 minutes, and I don’t actually look like an ogre from outer space. Score!

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If you just aren’t feeling like high school is the “time of your life” it’s supposed to be, take solace in this … It’s basically all uphill from here.