Talking about my anxiety disorders has been really helpful for me, as I discussed in my first blog post. And while sharing my story has typically been met with sympathy and understanding, sometimes my attempts at being open have also been met with some ignorance. For example, when I shared my diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder with an acquaintance recently, he told me that I had such a good life, what did I have to be anxious about? He said I just needed to gain some perspective, and reflect on how good I had it compared with some people in this world, and that would take care of any anxiety I felt.
I tried to take the opportunity to educate this guy (as pleasantly as I could) about anxiety disorders, and why his assumptions were wrong. I tried to explain that shedding my anxiety wasn’t just a matter of counting my blessings (God, if only it were). But he wasn’t interested in my point of view, he just kept repeating his own. I think he really believed if I just listened to him and followed his advice, my anxiety issues would vanish. I could see I was having no impact and his words were just making me more frustrated, so I put on a false smile, briefly changed the subject, and wished him a good day.
As so often happens with me, I thought of plenty of things I wanted to say to that man – after I got home (I do have a tendency to replay conversations in my head afterwards like a sports broadcaster doing post-game analysis, inevitably coming up with ways I wish I had handled things differently). So I had a bit of a conversation with this guy in my head.
I wished I had told him that he’s likely confusing “anxiety disorders” with normal, everyday anxious feelings that everyone has. I think he imagined that my experience is similar to the anxiety other people feel when they worry about money problems, or their nervousness when they have to speak in front of people. But my anxiety disorder comes in the form of worries that are virtually constant (to varying levels), and frequently about irrational things. And no matter how hard I try to stop worrying, no matter how much I tell myself that I’m being irrational, those negative thoughts persist (in fact, I’m starting to learn that trying to control my anxious thoughts actually makes things worse – more on that another day!).
I wished I had told him that I would do just about anything to avoid going through the things that GAD puts me through: feeling either wound up or worn out most of the time, the pains in various parts of my body from constant tension, feeling frustrated with myself due to my inability to think clearly sometimes, and the low self-esteem that results – not to mention the toll it all inevitably takes on the people in my life. And that’s just to name a few.
I wished I had told him I’ve spent a whole lot of time and energy over the past few years pursuing treatment options, trying to just get to the point where I could function at the same level as people without anxiety disorders. If I could make it all go away by just “realizing how great my life is,” I would have done that a long time ago.
I suspect that people like that guy think that anxiety disorders aren’t real disorders, that they’re just a character flaw, or a cry for attention – I used to think that about anxiety disorders myself, I think. But I know now that GAD is a well-recognized psychiatric disorder, and there’s lots of evidence that GAD is related to abnormalities in the brain. When I first learned that, it made me feel a bit better about my situation, that I wasn’t stupid, or weak – I just had a different kind of brain, one that could hopefully become more like regular brains with treatment.
I imagine the feelings I had after that conversation must be similar to how people with depression feel when they’re told to “just cheer up.” I honestly hadn’t thought there were people that ignorant around these days, but that encounter showed me how wrong I was.
That man was right about one thing, though. I do have a great life. I have an amazing, supportive husband; a job I like; financial stability; and activities that I enjoy. I really have no earthly reason to be anxious. It’s just that my brain, for reasons that I desperately wish I knew, doesn’t seem to get that sometimes. And maybe that’s what really frustrates me. Not so much that some people don’t understand anxiety disorders, but that sometimes I don’t either.