I often hear people say things like “oh yes, I get anxious too…” but I know that we are not talking about the same thing. Anxiety is not “you have it or you don’t” (I have yet to meet a person that I honestly believe is never anxious). However, anxiety is a very broad term for a huge number of symptoms of immeasurable variations. It is a spectrum, and people can move all over that spectrum over their lifetime. Sometimes it is problematic and prevents people from functioning fully in their lives, other times it is a healthy reaction to an uncertain situation.
I recently spent the weekend with 420 awesome people at Good Life Project camp for creative entrepreneurs and change makers of all sorts. Kind, supportive and open minded folks who want to do their part in creating a better world (lofty goal I know, but they are an ambitious bunch). But something happened to me on the first morning and I felt too embarrassed to share at the time, my mind playing tricks. For me, anxiety plays tricks but the worst part is that it also robs me of the ability to see it as a trick until it is over. So I am sharing this story to give you a glimpse of what my anxiety looked like on that particular morning.
I woke up with an intense sense of panic that my head was covered with lice, I could actually feel them crawling around. I ran to the bathroom to check, and found nothing. I took deep breaths, said my mantras reminding myself that everything is ok. I tried to forget. I distracted myself with activities of the morning. But each time I was near a bathroom I’d run in to examine my scalp. I scratched till I realized that I was pulling out hair and had blood in my fingernails. I went to my first workshop terrified that people would start pointing and screaming as they would surely see the bugs that I felt. By lunch I could hardly stand it and knew I had to tell someone. I needed someone else to look. To reassure me that it was just my mind playing tricks on me. Luckily, a bunkmate came in to our cabin as I pacing trying to figure out what I’d do once the lice were finally seen. I whispered to her what was happening and she kindly looked through my hair. The horror of her telling me she could see them was almost as bad as the embarrassment I felt as a result of having to ask. But she did look and found nothing (and said kind, reassuring words). Ah, I could breathe, it was over. I could finally get on with my day.
I can go months without an episode of anxiety and this is the first time that ever showed up like this. I am sharing because I think it is too easy to lump all anxiety into one pot and assume it looks the same for everyone, it simply does not. Regardless of how it shows up for you; butterflies in your stomach or hiding under you desk, anxiety is real and can be overwhelming and exhausting. So if someone says they are feeling anxious, don’t assume you know what that means.
I now know it is my mission to share my stories so we can we can openly talk about mental health issues like we talk about everything else people struggle with. Openly, authentically, and with compassion. If I sprained my ankle that morning I would not have cared who knew, nor would anyone wonder why I was asking for help.