I’ve been thinking a lot about the dude’s interview, specifically his comment about how when people have experienced some situational anxiety or apprehension, it’s easy for them to think they know what it’s like to live with an anxiety disorder. I’ve been lucky in that most of the people I’ve told about my experience haven’t expressed anything like that. Maybe they’ve thought something along those lines, but by and large people have been really validating.
But some people haven’t. And I’ve come up against that enough in the last couple of weeks that it’s time to say something.
I want to start by saying that, even after my therapist diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I didn’t specifically share that with anyone. I shared pieces of my experience: I said I was struggling with anxiety or described panic attacks, but I never actually told anyone that I’d been diagnosed with something you can look up in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). And I know that’s on me. It’s on me that I didn’t talk with people close to me in specific, concrete terms about this diagnosis and what it means. It’s on me that I didn’t call people out when it was clear that they didn’t understand what this is like. I think there was some shamed wrapped up in it, and I know that I also needed time to really figure out what that meant both for me and for my life. I advocate strongly here and write in detail about what living with anxiety is like, but I’m learning that that’s not enough. I need to speak up, too, especially with those closest to me. I owe it to them to help them understand GAD. I’m learning that the work is to educate people about what this is like and break down the assumptions that they have, and sometimes that requires a conversation – or two, or three – that is difficult/frustrating/hurts my feelings.
I want to share two recent experiences I’ve had with two different people – who shall remain nameless – that run the gamut. Both of these people are incredibly important to me, and I want to have further conversations with each of them. What I want to highlight here is the difference in how they reacted/behaved, and how that felt, because we all make the mistake of sharing our own experiences when we should be validating and asking how to help. This is something that is frequently on my mind, and I think that these two conversations really illustrate the difference that our behavior can make.
The “I get anxious, too, so I know what you’re talking about.”
I have to be honest, here. This one kind of broke my heart. This person has a stressful job and is often kept awake/woken up by a racing mind. Of all people, I thought they would get it, because this stuff happens to me, too.
I saw them on a day I was feeling very anxious, and in the moment, they were great. They made a joke that I didn’t respond to and took the hint, they gave me a big, comforting hug, and they invited me to dinner. We had that dinner a few weeks later, and we talked about the anxiety. They mentioned that I’d looked distressed, and I said, “I was.” But my thoughts were more like of course I was. I was close to a panic attack and I knew it and it sucked and I felt like I needed to try to be normal and that was creating tension and making everything worse. I realized in the moment that this person, even though they had seen this happening to me, actually had no idea what living with GAD is like. As the conversation progressed, they interrupted me several times to relate their own experiences or (incorrect) summations of what it’s like for me. From what they said and how they said it, it was clear that in their mind anxiety=stress, and therefore they assumed that they knew exactly how I felt.
This is exactly what the dude was talking about and, to be honest, I got so frustrated. I felt like they were not listening to me AT ALL and were not only dismissive of my experience, but assuming that they knew what it was like and approaching it from that point of view. When they did ask me questions about my experience, they were either great (“How does this happen in most people? What triggers it?”) or they focused on themselves. And while this person had every right to ask questions about their own influence in my life, there was no validating. There was no “that sucks” or “how can I help you?” And that more than anything else hurt my feelings. A lot of what they said felt like they were just waiting for me to stop talking so that they could give their own example that – in their brain – was the same thing. By the end of the conversation, I would have given anything to hear this person say something along the lines of “that sounds really difficult.”
This person is incredibly intelligent is basically every way: they understand super complex and abstract ideas, they are well-versed in all kinds of science, art, etc, they are an expert in their field and have been at the top of it for decades. And so I get them thinking they knew what GAD is like. They know what it’s like to feel worried and to not be able to sleep and that exercise really helps. I can totally see how they would hear me talking about those things and immediately draw connections to their own experiences – which aren’t wrong. But the thing that got me was that, for all of the knowledge and intricate understanding they have about our world, they couldn’t see the big picture. They couldn’t see that those racing thoughts aren’t always in response to something specific, or that their response made me feel like I was just blowing my normal stress out of proportion and that what is happening to me isn’t as important as what happens to them. As many times as I tried to explain further or to gently correct them, they were still clearly having trouble separating my experience from theirs and realizing that – though we have many things in common – mine is different because it’s all the time. It’s how my brain works.
At some point soon I’ll have another conversation with them and I’ll share how that conversation made me feel. I’ll tell them that I wish they would have been more validating and asked more questions, and that they made me feel like I was making a mountain out of a molehill when in fact GAD is a mountain with varying degrees of difficulty on its trails and the possibility of sudden, violent weather. And I’m sure it will be better, partly because I finally shared with them that I’d been diagnosed and we were able to talk a little bit about what that means. And if they happen to have read this, I hope they know that I get what was going on in their brain and I’m not mad; I know that, in their own way, they were trying to understand my experience. That I welcome their questions and I want to have as many conversations with them about it as they want; this blog is not an attempt to avoid that, but rather a way for me to sift through my thoughts so that I can better explain and help them understand. That I’m used to this kind of reaction and I don’t take it personally, but that there’s another way. That, while we have similar physical symptoms, this is on a whole other level. And I know that it will be good and that we will both walk away with deeper understanding and respect for each other.
The “help me understand”.
So, you know how I’ve said before that I(we) really hate it when people are like “don’t worry about it”. That shit drives me up the fucking wall and I’ve wanted to punch multiple people in the throat for saying things like that to me(ah, hyperbole, my old friend). I know I shouldn’t worry about it. I know it’s irrational. I know everything’s gonna be ok. What you don’t seem to get is that that does not matter in the slightest. My brain is just like aw, it’s cute that you think I can stop. Full speed ahead!
Oops. Got sidetracked. Sorry not sorry for the mini-rant.
This conversation happened when this person was telling me to keep in mind that what I was worrying about wouldn’t come true. I decided that I wanted to make good on my own word and explain what GAD is like – that it doesn’t matter if you know you shouldn’t worry or that it won’t happen. Your brain does it anyway. And it’s really, really convincing. Your brain is like that lawyer who has all the evidence stacked against them and yet somehow still wins the case because they are just. that. good.
I explained, and we went back and forth a bit, talking about the symptoms and what it’s like both every day and during acute moments. This person also asked me questions about GAD and it was great. Our conversation ended with them apologizing for not knowing what it had been like, and asking where they could learn more and how they could help me.
THIS is the ideal. This conversation made me feel like the last two years of my life weren’t just in my head, and it was clearly evident that they were feeling empathy and compassion. I loved that they wanted to understand, and that they acknowledged that they didn’t know everything about it. It was so awesome to have someone check their assumptions and actually listen.
When I stop to think about it, these two conversations started out identically. The difference between them is the validation piece. I know I certainly struggle with that; sometimes it’s so hard to say “that sounds really tough” or “I’m sorry you have to go through that” because it feels like it’s not enough. It feels like it’s a platitude, but it’s not. Saying something like that does so much for the person you’re saying it to: it communicates to them that their struggle is real, even if you don’t understand it. It tells them you’re willing to listen and that, if they confide in you, they won’t have to deal with unsolicited advice or hearing you turn the conversation back to yourself every time. It tells them that you’ve built a safe space for them to feel and express their feelings, and that you’re not going to judge them. I don’t know about you guys, but the more spaces I can have like that in my life – and the more I can build for other people – the better.
I guess what I’m saying is that it almost doesn’t matter to me if someone understands what I go through with GAD or not. I don’t actually care whether or not they can relate to the experience of racing thoughts or a flood of a panic attack. What matters to me is that they don’t dismiss my experience, either by equating it to their own basic stress or by showing me through what they say and how they say it that it doesn’t matter to them. I don’t care if they can’t understand what it’s like in my brain. I care if they can find empathy for the struggle. Words matter, and when someone talks over mine or doesn’t acknowledge them, it’s like they’re doing that to me personally. When someone negates my words by interrupting me or ignoring what I’ve said in order to tell their own story, it makes me feel like I don’t matter to them. Like our relationship doesn’t matter to them. Like what I’m going through doesn’t matter to them. It sucks. And for a brain like mine, that takes every small thing and analyzes it a thousand times for years and years and has tremendous difficulty letting it go, this is torture. I end up blaming myself or feeling guilty when I did everything right, and tbh, I’m doing my best not to live that way anymore.
And just as words are important, ownership is important. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether someone is right, wrong, makes a mistake, royally fucks up, whatever. But if they can’t own it – if they can’t admit that they don’t know something or that they messed up – then what’s the point? Maybe not telling people that I had been diagnosed with GAD was a mistake: maybe it made it easier for them to dismiss my experience or to assume they know what it’s like. And I own that. I made a choice, and I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but I do know that I’m going to be more clear about it in the future. I don’t care that you made an assumption, I care that you didn’t reevaluate it even when someone was telling you something to the contrary. I don’t care that you’ve experienced something similar to me(ok I do but that’s a different convo), I care that you can set yourself to the side and just be with me, feel with me. I don’t care that you don’t know, I care that you can acknowledge that.
I know that these two conversations will be on my mind for a while and I will go through many different iterations of what I want to say to each of these people the next time anxiety comes up. That’s the nature of anxiety, and maybe that’s the best way to explain it to people: here are two examples of how people behave. This is what my brain does in response to each of those.
For now, I’ll end with this: your struggle is real. I may not know exactly what you go through, but I know what that pain and fear feel like. You’re not alone. It sucks. And I’m really proud of you for everything that you do to manage it, to talk about it, to just get through the damn day.