Brené Brown says vulnerability is a good thing, so let’s talk about my mental health.
I have an anxiety disorder. My imagination gets me in trouble; it’s vivid and unrelenting and, occasionally, quite grim. I’m truly gifted at the game of What If.
My anxiety has gotten markedly worse since my mom fell backward down a flight of stairs and broke her neck last October. She’s fine now, other than sporting a wicked scar and losing some range of motion. But I’m still a bit fixated on her fall, because it’s a variation of one of my recurring What Ifs—and it actually happened:
“What if, while home alone, one of our girls slips down the stairs and breaks her neck or cracks open her head? And what if she left her cell phone upstairs, so she has no way to call for help?”
That might sound like a run-of-the-mill worry, but my brain is enough of a jerk to come up with a slow-motion play-by-play of what could happen and, even worse, what the result would look like. It’s horrifying, and if I don’t quickly find something to divert my attention, those images will just keep looping. Most of the time, singing the SpongeBob Squarepants theme song to myself does the trick. I know that’s a ridiculous coping mechanism, but it works (usually) and it’s a whole lot healthier than consuming an entire package of Oreos.
My most recent What Ifs include, but are not limited to, the following topics: my dad’s cancer; finances; car accidents; the unlikely event of a water landing; bridges; thunderstorms above the treeline; bungee jumpers; murderers; mystery smells; undercooked meat; cliffs; my terrible memory; being electrocuted; driving (that’s a brand new, particularly irritating one); power tools; retirement; parenting; spousing; moving heavy furniture; and the interaction between 15-year-old boys and alligators and/or lions (that’s not as random as it sounds, but it’s a long story).
Some of my imagined scenarios are sort of reasonable, but a whole, whole lot of them are laughably implausible. Such as:
“What if I just ran over a small child?”
For real. If I’m driving through a neighborhood and I run over something—like the curb—I have to look back to make sure I didn’t hit a human being. Even though I know it was the just the curb. Because what if there was a pigtailed four-year-old sitting at that curb playing jacks or drawing flowers on the sidewalk? And what if I just ran over her?
I use up a lot of energy worrying about such things.
Here’s another one:
The photo doesn’t do it justice, but I’m convinced there’s a sinkhole under our driveway. Jack says it’s not a sinkhole; it’s ants. Now, think about that for a minute. If we have enough ants that their little underground highways are causing our driveway to fall apart, we are in serious trouble, and Jack’s attempt to relieve my anxiety didn’t help at all, because now I’m picturing a sinkhole filled with ants.
I’m only sort of kidding. It could happen, you know.
All right. That’s PLENTY of vulnerability for one day. But please read these next two paragraphs carefully.
My anxiety is not (usually) debilitating, I don’t suffer panic attacks, and today I can laugh at my brain. But I can’t do that every day. Please know I’m not making light of anyone else’s struggle. There are some forms of anxiety that are just never funny, and if you’re close to someone who has anxiety, it’s not at all helpful to laugh—unless he or she is laughing, too. People with anxiety aren’t just “worrywarts.” Anxiety is real and it’s difficult and it’s illogically logical, and we’re not doing it on purpose to irritate you. Also, telling us to “just stop worrying about it” won’t do any good. Please be patient with us. Let us talk about our concerns for the umpteenth time. Getting that crap out of our heads can be incredibly therapeutic, and sometimes it takes more than one round of spewing. (Confession: Even though I have anxiety, I don’t always deal with other people’s anxiety all that well. So this is a good reminder for me, too.)
Now, if it’s YOU who’s dealing with the anxiety, you aren’t alone. And anxiety and depression are closely linked, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed and hopeless talk to someone. If you’re afraid to reach out to someone you know, call 800-273-8255 or use Lifeline’s chat. The world needs you, so don’t give up.