Updated: Sep 7, 2019
On one recent weekend, I went to lunch with my boss, and we dined at a local wing place, laughing and talking for over two hours. Towards the end of the meal, my brain suddenly snagged on a mental image: I had read a Facebook post about a woman who took out her nipple ring and noticed some stringy stuff on it. The stringy stuff on the nipple ring supposed was a nerve, and she passed out and woke in the hospital. And as I sat at lunch, I could not get the image of this woman taking out her nipple ring with a long, thin noodle dragging behind it like a wet jet trail and the horror she must have felt before she lost consciousness.
I felt a similar horror as my brain thought over and over about that piercing stringing along a nerve. Slowly, I became aware that I just may puke in front of my boss in a restaurant full of eating families and couples. Or worse, I may pass out, and someone would have to call an ambulance only to discover the reason I fainted was due to a Facebook post, one that may have been fake to boot.
Still, no matter how much I tried, I could not shake the image flashing in my mind or the queasiness in my stomach, the clammy palms, or ghostly-white face. I prayed that my nerves would calm just enough so I could get home to my couch.
Thankfully, I did manage it, and by the time I drove home, though my stomach still gurgled, I managed to laugh at myself.
Moments like these reminds me I live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD for short), and it can be exhausting. What's more, I didn't discover what I experienced had a name and a list of all too familiar symptoms until I began my divorce.
You've GAD-Da Be Kidding Me
I live with GAD, so I'm not surprised when my thoughts race until my joints turn to jelly and my heart pumps madly when I'm at the complete mercy of my careening brain.
I no longer panic when this happens; in fact, I get very annoyed with myself. It feels as if whatever I'm thinking melts my brain into mush.I can't think of anything else except whatever thought is on a loop until I feel sick and weak and hyper-vulnerable. Concentration on any other task becomes difficult.
I'm aware of how this all sounds: I've been made fun of because of it, I've been asked what's wrong with me, I've had a family member tell me I need to be on meds, and I've lost count of how many times I've been called crazy.
I'm not kidding.
I think I'm the only one I know who isn't bothered by my GAD. I don't like my anxiety, but I've lived with it for my whole life; it's part of who I am, so I don't know any other way to be.
What's more, there are gifts that come with GAD.
Yep, my anxiety gives me a particular way of seeing things that I actually like.
Just The Way You Are
Because I've felt so shitty before (and have been treated shitty in varying degrees), I feel I'm good at withstanding someone else's pain. I have the patience for sitting with someone at her worst when other people won't, don't, or can't. I have a support system like that (folks who won't, don't, or can't sit with me when I'm at my worst), so I am aware of how important it is to let people who are falling down lean on me for a bit.
I have an example: I once had a friend when I lived in Somerville, MA, who lived with a bipolar diagnosis. One night, I received a phone call from him. He slurred into the phone that tonight was it, he was no longer fit to be in the world, and he was calling to tell me goodbye. I, of course, ran to him, literally, as he was just down the street at the dive bar. He saw me tell the bartender to cut him off, and he bolted from the place, his fury hitting me as he bumped me on his way out. Of course, I gave pursuit. Though I stayed on his heels because I ran regularly back then, his 6'4" frame easily out paced my 5'4" inch one. I dropped further behind him because he darted into the street, cars missing him by inches. I spent several agonizing seconds preparing myself to watch my friend get hit by a car.
When there was a lull in traffic, I took off after him again, and I managed to cut him off when he thought he lost me. I will never forget how he crumpled to the ground when he saw me, sobbing in his hands when he realized I had not given up on him after all. I never told him he should just get over it, that it all would get better soon, or that there was no reason to be sad with all the blessings he had. I didn't say those things because he could never "just get over it," and, of course, things would be better for him, but then there would be times when they weren't so great. And though the source of sadness sprung from a different well, I knew he had all the reasons to be sad, and I had heard him say how much he wished he didn't feel the way he did. I knew all about that.
We took a cab back to his house, and he paid for my ride back home. I offered to stay with him because I really didn't want to leave him alone, but he insisted he was fine. He lived with his mother after all, he said, so I reluctantly went home. He answered the phone the next day when I called him. I've never been so relieved to hear someone's voice than that morning. My friend was alive, courageous to face another day, even if he did nothing but jam on his guitar all day.
I saw this man howl at the moon with his head stuck from a car window, I saw how big he wanted to live his life, and I saw his friends avoid him whenever they could. I can still hear how loud he laughed and how smart our conversations were and how late we'd stay up with all our other ne're-to-do-well friends, tramping across Cambridge after midnight.
As a friend, I loved him with all my heart because I knew what it felt like to try so hard and get nowhere with people, to fight against your own brain, and lose some of those battles.
I still know what that feels like, and I'd rather have the insight that comes with the anxiety and occasional depression than to be falsely happy just so other people feel good to be around me. Blank that. I don't have time for it.
I'm Free...But Not Falling
Ironically, knowing emotional and mental anguish isn't as devastating as other people think it is. Sure, it sucks when I'm in the net of depression or on the roller coaster of runaway thoughts that send me headlong into cold-skinned, goosefleshy fear. I'd rather do without that part, but it comes with the territory.
Knowing internal turmoil lets me write things with authority. I can describe a feeling because I've had it, even if I've not endured the situation my character is in.
"Being vulnerable is an act of courage all on its own. It's also uncomfortable AF, but being uncomfortable is part of life. It helps you grow and change into the person you're meant to be, and I find that part beautiful."
Living with GAD is a blessing in that I can be hyper-aware of details and dedicated to revising so that a particular work is publishable. Would I rather do without the worry my piece isn't perfect? Sure, but when I send my stuff out, I know it's the best product I could write.
Living with GAD has led me to meditation, which helps so much with anxiety and depression. So. Much. Plus, with meditation (not to be confused with medication), I'm more capable of being patient with myself and give my panicked brain the grace it needs.
GAD, though it has debilitating moments for sure, helps me more than anything not to give two cents worth of a care of what other people think, and this attitude propels me to do what I think is best for me and outfits me to be able to stand on my own two feet. I can take more creative risks, I can fail, and I can live my life fully without checking in with someone as to whether I'm doing it right. I've finally realized that keeping my head above the lies my brain tell (such as nerves spooling on a piercing will definitely happen to me) is a greater challenge that what this woman thinks of me or whether or not my family approves of the latest decision I've made about my style.
And living with GAD (and living through a divorce) has allowed me to know when to say forget you and move on because I know what I do every single day, I'm well-versed in my struggle, and I mostly go through it alone. Therefore, I know my strength because I live in vulnerability every moment. Being vulnerable is an act of courage all on its own. It's also uncomfortable AF, but being uncomfortable is part of life. It helps you grow and change into the person you're meant to be, and I find that part beautiful.
Living with GAD has forced me to accept myself, flaws and mental differences, and all, just as I am. This becomes especially important because so many people don't accept this about me. Or they want to cure me, as if I live with a curse. Or as one friend put it, "a really bad storm."
But I am not cursed nor am I a storm, especially to other people. Sure, my brain overtaxes itself until it feels like brain stew (or to use a Jack White reference, pancake batter), but that obsessive thinking leads to some kickass projects (I mean, I applied to TED, for crying out loud!).
This is my life, scary, imperfect, messy as hell, but on my terms.
We only get this journey once, so we should do what serves us, and Chuck Norris all the things that don't. There is great power in the vulnerability you may face; it is not a weakness, and it is not a point of shame. If there are people in your life who say differently, you may need to mentally drop kick them. Knock them the ___________ out. Those who stick around, well, those are the ones on which you can lean.