Anxiety disorders, in general, are not actually “disorders” the way some physical ailments are, but simply a case where the sufferer has a more sensitive nervous system than most people. Different levels of sensitivity are found in all creatures in the animal kingdom: some flies, for instance, will dart away if they feels the tiniest wisp of wind, while another might stick to your sandwich even when you try to shake it off. It’s normal variation, and in nature, out in the wind, greater sensitivity actually allows for higher rates of survival.
Not so in human society, unfortunately, unless you happen to live in the countryside, or on top of a mountain, far away from noise and people. Modern society is grower louder and busier, and for those of us who are easily startled, life often becomes a constant barrage of frights. Thus, the anxiety disorder was born, for which millions all over the world now pop pills to “treat” in order to dampen their excitability and survive in society without suffering a tiny heart attack every few seconds.
But what is it like, exactly, to have an anxiety disorder? Well, I can’t speak for all sufferers, but for me, “anxiety” not only encompasses my sensitivity to people, noises and surprises—like the telephone suddenly ringing; God I hate it when that happens—but also my chronic habit of worrying.
Basically, if you’re a highly anxious, you get, well, anxious about a lot of things other people are able to easily brush off, or don’t think about in the first place. I get anxious about talking to people, leaving the house, being in large open spaces, around large vehicles, around dogs, men, eating certain foods—in short, if something is or can be a threat, no matter how small the danger, I am worried about it.
I worry about the fluoride in the municipal water system and what horrific damage it must be doing to my body; I can lie awake for hours at night, heart pounding, thinking about death; each time any member of my family leaves the house, my mind conjures scenarios wherein they are murdered, or kidnapped, and I become convinced, as they walk out the door, that this is the last time I will see their faces. Insomnia is not just a problem—it’s a way of life. I am a hypochondriac: a slight pain in my abdomen is immediately construed as kidney failure, and I begin to imagine my organs pumping slower, and slower, until they stop entirely. I worry about worrying too much. I get panic attacks over time passing too quickly, for procrastinating; and, in the past, for overeating, or eating what I considered “bad” processed foods.
Global warming and apocalypse stories, when I read them, offer me a grim pleasure, as they echo the anxiety in my internal landscape. If I trip and fall, or bump into anything inside the home, my heart jolts as though I narrowly missed hurtling off the edge of a cliff. Should a bug ever cross my path, they are often left undisturbed, but no doubt deaf from my piercing scream. I am worried about germs, about ingesting foreign particles, and obsessively wash my hands, spit the toothpaste from my mouth several times, returning again and again to the sink, in the middle of the night, so I don’t ingest any of it.
It’s as if your mind is on constant alert, and every second, a red light goes off inside your eyes, flashing a warning. A constant, low-level dread pervades every aspect of your existence. If it exists in the world, I will have worried about it—and I have been anxious about things that do not even exist (or at least I think they don’t), like demons possessing Ouija boards, and ghosts. As a child, I was terrified of opening my wardrobe door, in case one day I would find a severed head staring down at me from one of the shelves and blink its glassy eyes.
A lot of my anxiety can be attributed to having an overactive imagination, which was more a problem for me as a child, than now. Imaginative people have a tendency to fantasize—and this talent becomes a liability in everyday life, as you end up seeing things, or feeling things, which do not actually exist. When I visit the doctors, I “imagine” everyone in the waiting room is gaping at me, and thus get anxious and self-conscious, when in truth, they’re likely paying me little to no attention. Also, it has been proven that those with anxiety tend to be reasonably intelligent. It’s something to do with the extra neural connections a person with anxiety are apt to make, which can very useful for, say, figuring out a a new mathematical formula, but not very useful for stopping racing thoughts.
So that is one source of comfort, in the bedlam that is my everyday life, that the way my brain is wired is probably what allows me to be imaginative, and therefore write stories, in the first place. Being easily startled, and too sensitive, can translate itself into assets in certain fields. Everything in life has a price. Some of the world’s most intelligent people were also quite batty, and came to very nasty ends, either by their own hands, or that of others. Rich people have to sacrifice privacy, and security. And sometimes, the sensitive and creative, who become writers and artists and poets and actresses, have to go through life jumping at any shadow that crosses their path, and feeling weak and misunderstood. For me, the price I have to pay for the insights and skills that I have, is worth it. I wouldn’t, in truth, trade my sensitivity for the most carefree existence in the world.
Sure, it would be nice to no have to think and worry and chew over everything and anything, or wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe in a sudden suffocating fear of the abyss, or be able to walk down the street or visit the grocery store without trembling—but I would still rather be me, anxious and high-strung and all, if it means continuing to see the world they way I do, and loving the things I do. So if you’re anxious, and hate yourself for being so, don’t. You’re probably talented or skilled in some other area, and your anxiety is most likely just an offshoot of your cognitive ability, sensitivity or creativity.