Once I had to drive myself to the hospital across town. Time was of the essence. On this particular day, all of the interstates were shut down due to a very high-profile funeral in which the Vice President of the United States attended. The normally congested side streets were even more choked with cars, accidents, and frustration. With every turn I made to circumvent the traffic, I found myself adding on dozens of minutes to the drive. My heart pounded out of control. I contemplated calling 911. I clenched the steering wheel and screamed at the top of my lungs as if that would move the cars blocking my way aside.
Maybe to anyone else, this would have been an extraordinary event. For me, the gripping adrenaline coupled with sheer panic felt normal, but for once, appropriately placed. I experience the same rush of emotions when I arrive home from work with the house a mess, a pile of clothes to wash, and hours of work to tackle. I feel the same panic that I did on the way to the hospital when I arrive at a friend’s birthday party when most of the faces there are unknown. The same sensations come over me if the copy machine jams at work and I have to push work day back by twenty-odd minutes. The only difference between those innocuous times and that long drive was that I allowed myself to scream out loud.
I was diagnosed with high functioning anxiety in the summer of 2017. In layman’s terms, people with high functioning anxiety carry on with everyday activities in the same way other people do. I get up, get dressed, go to work, take care of my kids without a lot of cognitive interruptions in my day. What people don’t see is that I’m white-knuckling my way through daily activities others would see as basic, harmless, and commonplace. It was fantastic to receive a medical framework to discuss my mental impairment after so many years of guesswork. Still, because high functioning anxiety looks different from other forms of emotional disorders, there is a lot I wish people knew.
If I’m Too Busy, Say Something
It’s going to sound counter-intuitive and silly. A way that I hide from my anxiety is by constantly staying busy. If I fill my day with tasks to be completed, I am separated from my own feelings. I have no time to worry about worthlessness or fear if I have a dozen of deadlines to meet. Naturally, staying busy means I inherently have more to worry about. The house of cards I’ve created with menial responsibilities comes crashing down with a soft blow. To make matters worse, my already heightened sense of fear, rejection, and value is amplified because it’s not just one ball I’ve dropped, it’s an entire ball pit.
I need someone to step in when I’m taking on too much. And while making remarks about my self-induced stress is a nice beginning, an even better way to help is offer suggestions on how I can lessen my load. I’ve created a haze of anxiety so thick, I won’t be able to see my own way out.
Word choice is important.
One of the most uplifting things to someone with high functioning anxiety is being noticed for how well we’re keeping it all together. The confirmation that someone sees my juggling act and has been moved to speak on it is everything. Even if it’s something as simple as, “thanks for doing the laundry; I know you’ve been busy” or “I don’t know how you do it all,” don’t be afraid to communicate with me.
Conversely, there is language that consistently takes my triggered state to the stratosphere even if it’s said without malicious intent. “Stop being so dramatic” is likened to slicing my Bungy cord when I’m dangling above racing waters. Similarly, “it’s not that big of a deal” is certain to stoke raging anxiety I’m working so hard to keep at bay. If I’ve become brave enough to speak about what’s bothering me, please receive it with grace. My troubles may seem trivial, but they are weighing down on me.
Give me a break.
And by a break, I don’t mean some out of the ordinary day at the spa or a “night off” with the girls at a restaurant. My anxiety doesn’t take nights off. While I appreciate someone sharing my responsibilities, I will be worrying about all the work, household chores, money, and judgment that comes with being away. I need parcels of time where I can complete one task without having to juggle the 17 others that are nipping at my heels. There is no greater present than a well-timed, “I’ll take the kids, so you can go to Target alone.” I enjoy leisure time and fun, but I really appreciate the time spent to feel accomplished.
I spend every other minute of the day suppressing my illness. It’s exhausting. Most days I chalk up as successes because I’ve gone from dawn to dusk without a complete breakdown. But there will be an unexpected moment where all the balls I have tossed in the air will plummet down on me, and I won’t be able to handle it. When I fall, I fall hard. I find it in myself to not give in to the demons that tell me giving up would be easier than trudging on, but sometimes I falter. While my low moments seem to come out of nowhere, know this – I need someone to catch me when I can’t catch myself.