When you struggle with anxiety the world is divided into two spheres: the perfect and the catastrophic. The perfect consists of you taking a train that’s on time, not encountering any delays, and reaching your destination on time–as planned. Perfect is getting an A on every paper, because anything less will cause you to messily weep over a cup of tea in the student lounge (or while on the toilet or an in an empty lecture theater) and think, I’m worthless. I’m too stupid to participate in life. Nobody will ever take me seriously. Perfect is you never disappointing anyone. Perfect is impossible. When you struggle with anxiety, every day is a struggle with the catastrophic. Every day it feels like the world may end.
There were no grey areas with my anxiety. It was all or nothing. You’re not sad, you’re depressed. You’re not mad, you’re livid. You’re on the verge of punching a wall, but you don’t because you need to be perfect, and perfect people do not punch walls. Perfect people are supposed to be so goddamn kind that they forgive anyone. Instead you end up frozen, with anger stored in your body like a cancer.
When you try to tell someone about something you like and they look a tad uninterested, you go home, cry, and think, I’m never telling anyone anything again. Nobody wants to listen to me. Someone cancels an appointment and you think, They don’t want to see me. I’ll never see them again. I used to enjoy cancelled appointments; it meant staying home and reading, and not spending energy socializing. But, such is not the case when you suffer with anxiety.
Contrary to popular belief, people with anxiety aren’t oblivious to the fact that their worldview is irrational. While I was mentally lacerating myself, each time I got anything less than an A, I was passionately insistent that not only is the education system incapable of measuring intelligence in all its different permutations, but educational institutions are often institutions of power that do little to help bridge the gap between social classes. I resented plenty of supposedly intelligent students. I appreciated the emphatic intelligence of friends who simply could not afford the time and privilege of channeling all their energy to school and achieving As, because they were busy trying to earn the money needed to keep a roof over their heads.
I didn’t extend this kindness of nuance to myself, because what was happening in my mind wasn’t lead by logic. With myself, I regurgitated all the baseless excuses I resented hearing from the insensitive, like, You are making excuses. If you are truly smart and capable you would find a way.
I couldn’t. I once sat in the office of a professor who had given me an A for my paper and told him about how I was struggling with my grades. I was on the verge of tears and he, confused, tried to console me, saying, “I gave you an A.” I replied, “Yes, but you’re nice.” In the twisted logic of anxiety married with self-esteem, even when you receive what you want, it’s a failure. It’s not enough. Nothing is enough. When it is given to you, you are not assuaged but instead suspect the value of the one who gave it to you. If someone says they love me, I think there must be something wrong with them or they haven’t seen all of me yet probably, and once they do they’ll run. For the longest time I could not even say “thank you” because compliments never felt deserved. This is probably the most shameful and unkind thing to me about anxiety. You doubt yourself so violently that anyone who dares believe in you is equally defective. There is no logic to it and you know it. You know it, but you can’t help feel the way you feel. You can’t win.
In the pre-historic age, anxiety was a trait that helped our ancestors stay on their toes against predators, warn them against danger, and was a signal for when to flee. The problem is that when you’re suffering from anxiety, the feeling of threat feels as if it’s on overdrive. Your brain won’t stop telling you that the predators are everywhere. When they say that people suffering from anxiety feel like they’re about to die, that their world is about to end if they can’t catch that train, they aren’t exaggerating. You can’t stop feeling as if you’re under threat, that survival is dependent on whether you get straight As, survive a social interaction, or say the perfect thing at every moment of the day. Imagine living like there’s always a bomb at the brink of detonation.
I don’t think it’s all in the brain, though. I don’t think it’s simply chemical. When I try to trace back to the source of my anxiety it begins with a lack of love. I was being badly loved, mostly by me. But even now, I can’t tell if I’m placing too much blame on myself. All I know is that when I looked to the moments when my anxiety was the worst, there was a constant. You need to find that constant, then you need to find the strength to tackle it.
When someone asks how I deal with anxiety, my answer remains the same. I’ve cultivated radical self-love. This is hard because some who suffer from anxiety often vehemently hate the part of themselves that makes them suffer; but, it’s necessary to love even that part of you. I began to be softer with myself, especially with the part of me that was making my life hell. I recognized that the me who was being debilitated by anxiety was terrified. She was trying to protect me from something. Instead of hating her, I began to forgive her and then worked on trying to console her. I tried to find out what it was that was making her so frightened. It took a while, but I’ve managed to cultivate the strength and love to leave a situation when giving me panic attacks and crippling anxiety.
Weeks ago, I had wandered close to tears in the streets of Hong Kong, already 30 minutes late, and still trying to find the train station. I recognized all the ways in which I was slipping back into that space of anxiety. My heart hammered, and the feeling of dread was threatening to debilitate me. I was hyper-aware that I must’ve been difficult for my friend, who was also lost but not quite reacting as insufferably as I was. She must’ve been trying to stay calm so I wouldn’t spiral. At any moment I wanted so badly to just sit down in the middle of the crowd, give up, and cry. But even in the midst of that psychological turmoil, I was aware that this was a shadow, a fraction of how much more awful it used to feel.
The moment came when I finally arrived at my destination, and the feeling took little time to disappear. I faced no judgement for my lateness and within an hour I had forgotten, although the guilt still gnawed at me in a dull way. But, the world didn’t end! I didn’t feel like dying! I actually felt something in between. That is to say, after a while, I felt okay. For the first time, the experience after had landed me in the grey area and not in the catastrophic. I knew that the anxiety I felt that day was more of a memory than the real thing. That my body and mind didn’t quite know how else to react because this was how it had always reacted during such situations. I knew that with enough time, when I’ve accumulated enough moments of reacting differently to these moments, my body and mind will begin to see that it isn’t all or nothing.
There’s been a space in between that somehow I didn’t feel like I deserved to occupy; but, it’s there. The realm of nuance. The grey area. The space of the “okay.” There is something radical in saying “I’m okay.” When you say it, it becomes not a sad teen version of concealing tormented feelings, but a genuine statement of fact. I’m okay. The world didn’t fall apart. The world continues to spin. I made a mistake and I’m still okay. People didn’t abandon me. My friends are still here. I can forgive myself. I can try again tomorrow. I’m okay.