Guys. I’m so sorry that it’s been a while.
I’ve been really wrestling during the last couple of weeks with the effect that anxiety has had on my social life. For the last two years, the only people I’ve seen regularly are the dude, my sister, my dad, and my step-mom. And the only people outside of that group that I’ve communicated with regularly are my mom and the bird. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen anyone outside of that circle in the last two years. And that SUCKS. I used to spend six weeks every summer with my best friends, and was usually out to dinner once or twice a week. I’d go out on the weekends. I’d have long phone conversations with friends or go sit in Sheep’s Meadow or Washington Square Park after work and read. But I don’t do those things anymore. I go to work, I come home, I do yoga, I shower, I eat dinner, and then I watch TV and cross stitch until it’s bed time.
And honestly, I don’t regret that I’ve spent most of the last two years that way. Part of why I was so active is because before I met the dude I was dating a lot. It was exhausting. I’m so glad that all of that led to a partner and a relationship that I delight in. I LOVE coming home and having a quiet night with the dude and the dog. And I love that I live a life that allows me to do that most days. I like my little life, and I’m really proud of myself for practicing some solid self-care. That’s really hard for me, and I’m glad I’ve been able to make it a priority. I’m also really glad that I have friends and family who understand that I’ve needed to do that. When I’ve reconnected with a few friends lately, I’ve apologized for being M.I.A., and to a person, they’ve all told me that it’s totally ok and that they hope I’m ok. My family has been great about checking in with me, but also not only focusing on the anxiety and treating me as a whole person. While I’m thankful for the people in my life, I feel bad about having mostly kept to myself over the last two years.
At first, withdrawing was about hiding. I had no idea what the fuck was happening to me. It took about 8 months of therapy and work to start to determine triggers for anxiety and panic attacks and to start collecting strategies to deal with them. During that time, I stepped away from pretty much everything because I felt so overwhelmed and because I had no idea where or when a panic attack would hit. The idea that I could be out in a restaurant or with the dude’s friends – many of whom I had only met once or twice at that time – or even my friends and start having a panic attack was unbearable. I withdrew because it allowed me to minimize the chances of that happening. It allowed me to feel some sort of control when I often felt I had none. It was a way to feel like myself when I felt anything but.
Once I started identifying triggers and getting to the root of what I was anxious about, withdrawing became part of how I was healing. I didn’t make plans so that I could go home and practice yoga regularly. I stopped eating lunch with my colleagues so that I could meditate. I stopped drinking. I stopped ordering in so much and tried to cut out as much sugar as I could. I started to cook a lot more. I read everything about anxiety and panic attacks that I could get my hands on, and devoured Brene Brown’s books. I watched TED talks. I had many, many lengthy conversations with the dude and my sister; I cried a lot. It was exhausting and exactly what I needed.
I’ve found a pretty good rhythm recently: yoga 3 times a week, 4 if I can. Chores on certain days. Therapy at the same time every week, and a consistent date night with the dude. Regular meditation at lunch. Still no drinking. It’s a good schedule; it allows me to stay late at work if I need to without feeling like I’m sacrificing my mental health, and I have some open spots in my schedule where I can start to go to dinner or make plans with friends.
The thing is, though, that I’m kind of hiding again. Only this time it’s not out of fear or necessity; this time it’s because it’s been so long since I was so socially active that I’m worried I won’t be able to handle it. And it also feels like self care and friendship are mutually exclusive. They’re not, and I know that, but I’ve been giving my self care so much priority that I’m having trouble remembering how to do that and still see people. But more than that, I feel like I’ve experienced a big shift in the last couple of years. I’m still essentially me, still funny and compassionate and organized as all get out. But something feels different enough that I’m unsure about starting to regrow relationships. Part of me wonders if I’ll be able to be as close with people again, and enjoy being out with them the way I used to, or if I’ve lost those friendships that mean so much. Part of me is afraid that I’ll decide it’s too much for me, and that is very very bad. And part of me feels like I owe it to myself to have a conversation with people about what the anxiety is like and how I feel different so that we can resume our relationship with honesty and I can honor all of the work I’ve been doing for the last two years. To be brutally honest, that feels really overwhelming. I don’t want to have that conversation at all, let alone the 6 or 7 times that feel really necessary. I want to avoid it and ignore it and just pop back into the way things used to be. But I’m not that person. I’ve been through something big and life changing and I’ve learned so much, and I feel like I would be doing myself and my friends a disservice to pretend that that didn’t happen.
I guess I’m in that stage where I know what I have to do but I’m still resisting it. And I think that’s because anxiety is so invisible. You can only see it if you’re someone like me who has physical symptoms, but those don’t happen all the time. It can be easier when someone has an illness or has been through trauma to see the effects that has on them. Anxiety is more subtle. It’s like a slow creep of ivy on a brick wall: it’s very tiny at first, but left unchecked it can take over everything and pruning it back takes consistent, strenuous work. I’m not saying that It’s harder to deal with than trauma or illness, I’m just saying that most of the work is internal and sometimes it’s hard for people to give weight to something they can’t see. It can be hard for people to understand how something so invisible can be so debilitating. And that’s ok. I get that. We live in a culture that values stoicism and dismissiveness. Where, above all else, you should have your shit together. Anxiety doesn’t show people why you don’t have your shit together the way illness does, unless you’re having a panic attack. It forces you to tell people. And in a culture where we are all afraid to be vulnerable and to volunteer anything that could be used as a chink in our armor, that is extremely difficult.
It’s also hard because anxiety is inherently process oriented. There is no result without the process, and we can’t just be better. We will never be “better”. We will forever be managing and struggling because anxiety is a chronic condition, not an acute one, as are many mental health issues. And that’s something that people just don’t get. If you’ve never dealt with a chronic condition – either your own or someone you know – it’s hard to understand that it’s present all the time. It’s hard to understand the strength of will and the determination required to manage it. It’s hard to understand why it never just gets better. It’s hard to understand the mental and emotional effect of know that you will be dealing with this every second for the rest of your life. It’s also hard to understand that we’ve heard things like “don’t worry about it” and “you just need to let it go” a million times, and it is infuriating. Being supportive to a person with a chronic condition when you’ve never been in contact with one is really fucking difficult. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying that when some sort or chronic condition hasn’t touched your life, there’s a fundamental piece of experience that you simply don’t have. For many people, their empathy helps them overcome that and they can get it. Some people can’t, or don’t want to do the work to try to understand, and they are the ones that treat mental health like it’s a personality flaw.
I’m thankful that people in my life get it. Not a single person has gotten on my case about withdrawing. Everyone that’s important to me has reached out at some point to see how I’m doing and to reconnect with me. I have felt so loved and supported, and I’m really glad to have gone through the last two years because they taught me just how much the people in my life care for me.
So, it’s time for me to care back. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this whole process, it’s that there is always a reward in vulnerability. Things may not go the way I planned, but I always learn something from the experience and I’m always glad I stepped up. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?