April 8, 2015
I’m an anxious person. I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember. No matter how good things are, no matter how well things are going (sometimes, precisely because of how well things are going), I worry. If there is something for me to fret about, I will find it, and if there’s nothing even remotely troublesome going on, I’ll make something up. I used to think I was just sort of neurotic. In recent years, I’ve come to understand that I suffer from anxiety disorder. I’m not sure I feel better about it now that I have a name for it; it hasn’t made me any less anxious.
This isn’t going to be one of those blogs that gives Helpful Information by listing the signs and symptoms of, or providing recommendations for living with anxiety disorder, because pretty much, it comes down to this: Do you worry a lot for no good reason? Yes? Is it, at times, all-consuming? Also yes? Do people tell you that you worry too much over nothing? Uh-huh? Well then, you’ve probably got anxiety disorder. Wanna know what to do about it? The truth? Medication and therapy may help, but mostly, you’re just going to have to learn to live with it.
There. That’s all the Helpful Information you’re going to get.
I have some idea of the roots of my own anxiety-related issues: Raise a painfully awkward child in a less than idyllic setting where life alternates between rigid order and total chaos, add to that a parent who is a demanding perfectionist, then send said child to law school, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up with someone who’s going to worry. A lot. If said person also happens to be sort of bookish, bespectacled, and bad at sports, well, you might as well buy stock in Pfizer for all the Xanax you’re going to need to get through the rest of your life.
My particular form of anxiety disorder tends to take two distinct themes: Half of the time I’m convinced that someone is angry with me. Something my husband used to hear a lot, until he told me to stop asking, was, “are you mad at me?” “Trust me,” he finally told me, “I’ll tell you if I’m mad at you.” Given that most of the people in my life who have ever been angry at me have never had a problem making their unhappiness known, you would think I’d would just assume that unless I’m told otherwise, there’s no reason to worry.
But I do. I worry that I’ve said or done something hurtful or offensive, or that I’ve failed to be sufficiently attentive or available. Never mind that I am, by and large, an extremely thoughtful, considerate person who tries to be sensitive to the feelings of others, sometimes to a fault. If I text someone and don’t hear back within a few hours, I assume they’re mad. Not that they might be busy, or that (unlike me) they don’t feel compelled to check their smartphone three to four times a minute, or that they got my text, read it, didn’t think it required a response, and didn’t give it another thought except, “that Wendy sure is nice. I wonder if koalas are as soft and cuddly as they look?” I worry that people will read things I’ve posted on Facebook and think, “she’s awfully full of herself,” or, “did I ask her about her opinions on gay marriage?” or “yeah, we know, Wendy…Wegmans is a zoo on Sunday. We get it.” That I have the fortitude to actually start a blog is mostly due to my assumption that nobody will ever read it; if I thought otherwise, I’d probably have to be on a Valium drip. You know, in case my opinions were wrong.
Most of the time, then, I’m pretty certain that I’ve managed to piss someone off and, as well, that if someone is angry with or disappointed in me, they’re probably justified in feeling that way. I try to remind myself that all those people I’m worrying about being mad at me probably don’t give me much thought at all, and there’s not much chance they are fixating, as they drive to work or fold laundry, on whether or not I am upset with them. But I worry nonetheless.
When I’m not worrying that someone is mad at me, I’m worried that I’ve made a critical error at work and that I’m on the verge of being fired. Mind you, I’ve never been fired from any job, ever, my entire life. In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve consistently gotten excellent evaluations (which probably has more to do with the fact that I’m relentlessly conscientious than to any real talent). But despite a record that should give me some level of confidence that I am a valued, respected employee, I obsess about the one comment in a hundred that is anything other than unreservedly positive, and I worry that the smallest error is going to lead to termination.
When you factor in that my profession (litigation attorney) is, by definition, adversarial in nature—where any weakness is blood in the water to be leveraged for a more advantageous result—it’s not surprising that you won’t get many of my colleagues to admit to anything other than utter certitude in the correctness of their position. I don’t meet many lawyers who will cop to a lack of confidence, and so I try to hide my own lest others perceive me as weak or ineffectual. So, in addition to worrying that I’m not very good at my job, I worry that others will interpret my worrying as a sign that, in fact, I’m not very good at my job. It’s exhausting.
Even my dreams are anxiety-filled: Whereas my husband has fun action dreams in which he’s a Jason Bourne type character involved in international intrigue and adventure, I have dreams in which I’m walking over glass barefoot being pursued by someone, on my way to the final exam in the calculus class I haven’t attended all semester. Or I’m trying to make an important phone call and keep messing up the digits, or I can’t open my locker at school, or I’m falling over a cliff into a ravine, or I’ve promised a friend I’d look after her pet while she was away for a month, but forgot to do so. Some nights I’m so tired I don’t dream, and that’s a blessing, because I don’t have the kind of dreams where good things happen. Ever.
Over the years, I’ve found ways to combat the anxiety. Therapy has helped enormously. In the past, medication has, too (self-medication, not so much). Exercise has been my savior, as has my tremendously supportive husband (the one who isn’t mad at me…at least for now). Getting older, too, is a factor; there are a lot of things I’ve stopped worrying about (like not having six-pack abs, a foreign luxury automobile, or a firm grasp on what’s going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Russia), and that’s been really liberating. I hope that the older I get, the less I will worry about things I know, objectively, to be ridiculous.
But for now, there are many white-knuckle days in which I simple have to gut it out, and I do, for the most part, by telling myself that 99% of the time, my worry turns out to be baseless, that most of the people in my life like and respect me, and that as long as I show up to work every day and make a solid effort, I’ll probably have a job until I’m ready to retire. Some days are better than others, and there are the rare glorious days where everything is right with the world, and I feel sanguine, peaceful—optimistic, even. I’ve learned to treasure those days when the nagging sense of dread subsides for a little while and I can feel silly and light and carefree.
Unless you’re mad at me right now. Are you?