By Chelsea Fagan
Hey. Yeah, you, with the anxiety. I’d like to talk to you for a second, because I feel – between the all-consuming monster that is Introvert Culture, and the enabling, garbled pseudo-psychology that is Tumblr Advice – that we’ve gotten a little out of control about what it means to be anxious, and what that entitles you to. While it’s an excellent thing that we’re finally talking somewhat openly about mental illness (or, well, anxiety and depression, which are basically the only things the internet likes discussing asides generalized introversion), it’s important that we talk about these things in a constructive way. So let’s do that. But first, some credentials, because I don’t like yelling about things I don’t understand. (Yes, I do.)
I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (for the first time about two years ago), and have since taken various medications at different times for its symptoms. I have long taken Ambien for my anxiety-induced insomnia, which I initially thought was its own, separate thing. I have taken Xanax for the more acute symptoms. I have also taken a whole host of herbal and holistic remedies, and have drank more tea and taken more long baths than anyone should in a lifetime. I have practiced #RadicalSelfCare and #RadicalSelfLove. And though my particular symptoms tended to manifest very physically – constant tremors, splitting headaches, severe indigestion — I also experienced many mental signs of the disorder, ranging from “extreme distress in social situations” to “inability to effectively communicate at work and in my personal life.” So I get it, I do.
And I’m probably one of those people that Tumblr would hate, because you know what finally made my symptoms dissipate nearly-entirely? You know why I no longer take Ambien, Xanax, or any of the many herbal remedies (except on planes, because those things are Fucking Scary)? It’s because I am now getting regular physical activity, eating a balanced diet, and working a job that does not trigger any of my stressors. I also have a dog now, which is by far the most soothing and helpful thing that’s ever happened to me. Point being, though, I was able to work on myself actively and intelligently – which mostly involved treating my body much, much better – and I was able to manage my symptoms. Do I still have a tendency to get into my unproductive anxiety spirals? Sure. But it’s not the same as it was.
But that’s not the point, because what worked for me won’t work for everyone, and I get that. I could very well still be in the depths of my anxiety, when I was on the verge of losing every important relationship I’d ever built, including my long-term boyfriend and my parents, none of whom could deal with my constant shit. I could still be at the place where I was losing jobs and missing out on others, because my tension and hesitation was keeping me from following up on perfect opportunities. I could still be there, as many people are today. And if I were, the last thing in the world I would need is this dumb fucking self-care rhetoric that essentially tells you, “You’re a golden anxiety flower, and everyone else has to deal with you.”
Seriously, nothing is worse than the writing and the ~comic strips about mental illness~ and the pandering videos which tell us that people with anxiety are these fragile butterflies who must be catered to at every turn. “Just take care of yourself,” this rhetoric says. “Practice self-care! Take a bath! Cancel your plans! Don’t explain yourself! If your friends can’t give you space and be totally understanding, that means they’re not your friends!!! They’re toxic! GET THEM OUT OF YOUR LIFE. You have no obligation to keep around Toxic People. If you need to throw your phone into a river and spend two weeks locked in your room eating Ding Dongs, that’s what you need!! :3”
Do you know where someone would be if they practiced this terrible, indulgent advice? Jobless, friendless, and very possibly homeless. (Of course, this advice is directed to coddled young people on the internet, not single mothers of three who have no choice but to forgo treating their anxiety to keep a roof over their childrens’ heads. But who cares about them?? [Insert robotic laugh here.]) The point is, this terrible and enabling advice a) only applies to people who can afford to drown their sorrows with a Lush bath bomb and a glass of Pinot Grigio, and b) encourages you to treat everyone around you like total shit, because your anxiety is some sort of Get Out Of Jail Free Card to abuse and neglect your social circles.
But the truth is that your friends/family/coworkers are HUMAN BEINGS, TOO. Just because they don’t have clinical anxiety or depression (and maybe they do, you don’t know their life), that doesn’t mean that they can act as your neurotypical punching bag until you finally decide you’re well enough to act like a decent person again. If you ignore them, cancel on them frequently, snap at them, take out your stress or anger on them, or simply not pull your emotional weight in the relationship, they have every right to drop your ass as a friend. Maybe they will be kind and deal with some of your episodes because they love you, but if they are not getting more out of that relationship than they’re putting in, they should walk away. Do you know why? Because anxiety is very capable of making you a Toxic Person, and indulging your worst impulses only makes you more of one. When a very close friend told me, honestly, “I don’t know if I can be your friend anymore. You’re so angry and stressed all the time,” she was absolutely right. She was GRACIOUS not to drop me as a friend. I didn’t deserve her, because I was being selfish, and taking everyone in my life for granted.
Your anxiety is not an excuse to be an asshole. It’s not an excuse to not follow through on things, or be caring, or be dependable. If you break the social contract and decide to be the full asshole your anxiety-riddled self wants to be, fine. But you don’t deserve close friends, because no one deserves that. No one has to put up with your bullshit, and if you don’t actively work on making yourself a better and more rewarding person to be around, no one should wait around for you. Only in making conscious, proactive decisions towards better-ness did some of my closest people start warming back up to me after a serious low point, and I am forever lucky and grateful that they did. Because I could very well be alone right now, after a long stretch of believing that I was a Special Anxiety Snowflake who was entitled to being a selfish, irritable, flaky jerk. I got through to the other side, and maybe you will, too. But not by being an asshole.