The Stigma of Messiness or Yes I Do Have Anxiety Flashcards

I have never been under any illusions of being a "laid back" kind of gal. I admit that, at the best of times, the term "high strung" can accurately be applied to me. I like things done a certain way, at a certain time. This accounts for my neat-freak habits, my road rage, and my inarticulate rampages in crowds. But these have always been manageable. I get butterflies before my team competes at Sections, I can't sleep the night before we leave for a big vacation, and I recheck my alarm every night at least three to four times (let me tell you, I slept through it once and woke up 32 minutes before I was supposed to be teaching in my first hour an hour away--never again).

But six months or so ago, this transformed into something completely foreign to me: real, honest to goodness anxiety. I don't mean the anxiety you feel before starting a new job, moving, or even the first day of school. I mean the kind where my mind doesn't feel like my own anymore. Where my heart starts pounding, my stomach knots itself, and a weight settles on my chest, making it hard to breathe deeply--all in the middle of a Saturday afternoon for no real reason. Anxiety that made me lose 19 pounds because I couldn't eat over the summer. Anxiety that meant I could only sleep for a maximum of 2-3 hours at a time because my brain just couldn't shut itself off. Anxiety that made me certain--100% certain--that everyone I cared about was sick of me, hated me, and was planning to ghost on me.

That kind of anxiety.

And let me tell you, it's been a treat.

Here's something anxiety taught me--there's a lot of talk in our society about how to deal with mental illness. A lot of people give lip service to the necessity of breaking down barriers and ending the stigma around messiness. I hear it all the time. My experience, however, has been different. I've discovered our society that says we have to "be okay with not being okay" is absolutely, unequivocally not okay with people who are not okay. It's easy to talk about accepting that sometimes we have our messy moments, but it seems some people are less able to deal with someone actually having a moment.

I do not, like most people I know, withdraw or need to be alone when I'm anxious. In fact, weirdly for me, my anxiety tends to push me to the opposite. As someone who likes to read and be alone, I find anxiety particularly upsetting because I can't do those things. My brain starts cycling and I can't read or watch TV--I can't concentrate to follow a story line--and the quiet only allows the anxious thoughts to echo louder. I do better when I can talk to people--not about my anxiety but about anything; distraction helps. Tell me gossip. Talk about what you're reading. Send me a dumb tweet to make me laugh. Usually within a few minutes (seriously... this whole process can take two minutes), the anxiety passes and I'm just fine. But that's the catch. So far, I need someone else.

There are precious few people (Six--there are six. I've counted) I can handle when my anxiety peaks. Let's just say, not all people can handle me. That's why these six are precious. Some people, knowing or sensing I am anxious, retreat, either because they are under the impression I am looking to them to "fix" me or because they simply don't care enough about me--I can't bring myself to ask because the possible answers make me anxious. When my anxiety was at its worst, I was told I was messy and dramatic. I was told I was a burden. Annoying. Clingy. Not worth it.

My anxiety loved this--YES! (says my anthropomorphized anxiety) say all the things we secretly feared! Now, when I want to torment her, I don't have to invent anything! I can use real life words and rattle those around endlessly to remind her that everyone thinks it, even if only a few people had the guts to say it!

I try not to think about.

I think about it.

A lot.

It comes down to two basic issues: when people are struggling, they don't want to deal with someone else's struggles ("I have to take care of myself first"). And if people aren't struggling, they don't want to deal with anything that might drag them down ("I'm in a really good place right now"). But it all boils down to the same thing, doesn't it--no one wants to deal with it. Because messiness is stigmatized. We expect everyone to be okay. And if you aren't okay, for the love of god at least pretend. If you have anxiety, then okay--you can say that. But Jesus, don't let anyone see it. Act like you're fine. Keep it together. Keep it to yourself.

Our society is okay ending the stigma around "messiness" as long as we keep the mess hidden. It's fine if people know it's there, but no one wants to see it. A few weeks ago, my counselor suggested one way of dealing with negative thoughts was to write them all out on cards and then write "challenging" thoughts on the other side. I showed them (via Snap Chat) to a few people. They were shocked at the sheer number of cards I made. At what was on the cards. To see someone's anxiety written out can be a strange experience. And it was odd for me to lay all the thoughts bare for others. I showed them only to select people--a few I know struggle with their own negative thoughts, or who I knew would be supportive--but showing the deepest fears that trundle around my brain on bad days to anyone was terrifying.

But I was sick of hiding. And today, I'm sick of hiding again. Because today was a really bad day. The kind of bad day I haven't had for months. And my go-to people weren't around. It got ugly. I messed up. I alienated someone and potentially ruined a really important friendship. My dog got anxious for me and wouldn't eat. Finally I called my husband and tears, asking him to come home and take me somewhere--anywhere--to get me out of the house and out of my head.

It was ugly. And embarrassing. I'm ashamed. And lonely. And a little scared that I can't fix some of it. I know it'll pass, but right now... it's not great.

Here's what my anxiety looks like. The picture here? Those are my cards. Those are my darkest thoughts, everyone. It's terrifying, but it's also freeing. Because those thoughts have too much power when they're locked in my brain. When I expose them to the air, they seem silly and trivial. Let me tell you, they don't feel that way.

I carry the cards with me in case I have an attack, but I still try to hide the mess. I don't use them if other people are around. Even at home, I flip through them in the basement or an empty bedroom. I've hidden with them in a bathroom. Over Thanksgiving, I got anxious (and stupidly left the cards at home). Let's just say, my dog and I had to spend a lot of time in the guest bedroom Thursday, taking deep breaths and trying to keep mascara (mine mostly) from running too much. But I dread the day the anxiety hits when privacy isn't possible. I don't want to whip out my mess in the middle of an Applebee's.

I'm done pretending I'm always okay. The truth is, I'm okay most days. About once a week, depending on what's happening, I have a really bad day. This week some work stuff means I've had several bad days, which hasn't happened in a long time. Most of the time my bad day isn't noticeable to people. Even  my husband has a hard time telling unless I tell him (or unless it gets bad enough I cry... then the mascara is a dead giveaway). I'm working on it. I'm getting better (most of the time) at handling it. I've found people who I can talk to and who help (shout out to Emmy, Rachel, Timothy, and my big sister). I've found people who don't want to help. But I've decided they can either learn to deal or get out of my life. It's not my responsibility to make other people comfortable. To be clear, I don't expect anyone to "fix" me--I don't even usually want people to talk to me about my anxiety--it's my mess and it isn't fair to expect anyone else to clean it up. But I expect friends to support me, and I feel no need to protect people from the fact that some days are rough. If people find that inconvenient or annoying, well, guess what? Me too, bitch. We can start a club.

I'm done with lip service. Messiness happens. For me, it's general anxiety. For other people, it's depression. Panic attacks. Compulsions, fears, mood swings. Whatever it is, we're all doing our best. We're all quietly muddling through. If we want to end the stigma, we need to be okay not just acknowledging that these things exist. We need to be okay confronting what it looks like in person. We need to love the people who struggle, even when they're at their worst. We need to love ourselves, even at the times when we hate our brains as they spiral out of our control. We need to see that mental illness isn't the whole of a person. But it's also inseparable from who we are. I can't just leave it at home or put it back on the shelf when other people don't want to deal. We need to understand the mess happens, and while it isn't fun for anyone, it's okay. Life happens and we don't always have time to clean. Sometimes our shit is everywhere.

At some point, I'm going to have to take those cards out in the middle of an Applebee's.

And y'all are just going to have to deal with it.


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