Illustration by Kendrick Daye

HealthRadical Self Care

7 billion shades of anxiety

May 21, 2019
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On some days, my anxiety sits like a solid gold brick on my chest. On other days, it’s heart palpitations and shortness of breath or blurry vision or just the intense desire to cry myself dry. My most distinct experience with my anxiety is the feeling of acid. Destructive and corrosive to the point that, on the worst days, I can taste metal in my mouth. It’s almost as if it pools, either in my chest or stomach, and the chaos that has gathered it in my body threatens to spill it out of my chest cavity into the world.

Our understanding of anxiety has largely been reduced to sweaty palms and a palpitation here and there over an event or situation that makes one nervous. What if there is no situation? What if it’s all of the situations? Maybe you are the reason another is feeling down. Maybe you aren’t. Perhaps they don’t even care about you at all and you have been spending a week agonizing over this, when they have already forgotten about it. Or maybe they have not. It’s an excruciating, untethered, back-and-forth between you and what is supposed to be your logical self — the self that is supposed to help you survive by guiding your instincts and fueling your gut intuition. My gut is filled with acid, remember? No space for intuition or believing in myself. What you’re left with instead is a second-guessing game that starts to seep into everything you do, say, think and feel.

Slowly, we are coming to a place where we can begin to discern that anxiety and depression are more than just “feeling blue.” Blue can come in 7 billion variations and as much as we can try to group, categorize and organize, there is only so much we can do to map over 7 billion physiological reactions to trauma or just existing in this hellish world. There’s generalized anxiety, social anxiety, chronic anxiety, anxiety related to phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. All trickle down into numerous sub-categories of symptoms that go on forever because one size does not fit all.

The path of destruction that mental illness weaved through my life had ample opportunity to sprout roots before I even knew what I was up against. Five years went by after my mother’s passing before I even uttered the words “depressed” or “anxiety” when speaking about my own mental health. My way of dealing with my body’s physiological responses to trauma was to bury or ignore instead of to understand and to address. It had gotten me far and I had learned to play the part so well that it took my body literally intervening with a panic attack the night before an Economics exam in my 2nd year of university. It’s not like I never knew academic struggle but succeeding in this one module felt like a Herculean task. I ultimately failed the exam and the module, twice, before I dropped out after being diagnosed with major depressive disorder and chronic anxiety.

That period in my life felt like the end of the world and the anxiety I felt was so potent that I can still remember the way it contorted my body. What I know now that I didn’t know then was that a dam had broken when I came face-to-face with something I considered a major failure on my part. It had begun as a crack in the wall I built after my mother passed away; the barrier stood on a foundation of general kindness, compassion and a great academic record. I could not handle such trauma on my own so I built someone that could and buried the years of anxiety and oppression under it until I could not anymore. Even when I was going through all this, I never even gave myself the leeway to ask myself “Hey, are you maybe struggling with mental illness because of all this trauma you’ve buried?” because my pain and the subsequent symptoms were never categorized as something as serious as an illness — especially as a Black woman, that was just life. It hurt.

Contextualizing my anxiety with my experience as a Black woman has been one of the hardest exercises in my mental fitness journey; there is not a day that goes by without the experience of Black women being met with some form of gas-lighting or the other. To exist in the world that already downplays mental illness and then walk through that world as a Black woman — with misogynoir and the accompanying harassment — is an experience that few have found the words to describe. It’s why radical self-care is crucial to bridging the gap between trying to convince the world of our humanity (stop doing that, it’s a given) to trying to convince even those around us of our mental struggles. On top of understanding the many ways in which anxiety shows up, I’d like to learn more about how it shows up in those of us who have been forced to take the worst of what is thrown at us while being expected to smile?

I smiled. I soldiered on. I took and took and thought that the endgame was my becoming better at taking. None of it worked and that was the wisdom gifted to me by the experience. My depression was valid. My anxiety was valid. My anxiety is valid and so is yours. As much as it may feel like it has forgone its usefulness as a survival tool, perhaps it takes over your body to point to the survival from within. Not a marker of the worst to come but an indication of the worst not yet addressed. My anxiety is valid and so is yours.

If you would like to contribute to this conversation, the #myanxietylookslike tag on Twitter is a great place to start. You are not alone.