[Today is Bell Let’s Talk day on twitter. Lots of people posting about mental illness, about talking it out, being heard, reducing the stigma of not being mentally well. And while it’s nice to have people talking out of concern about the things that ail you, I just feel like sometimes people do not understand. They like to tell you it’s all in your head, that a little bit of yoga and a power walk will take care of your anxiety and depression. They want to talk, but they want to talk you out of your anxiety, because your mental illness is a burden to them. Today, I try to explain living with an anxiety disorder. Hashtag activism has its place, but in order to truly help you need to truly understand.]
There’s a place. It’s a closet of sorts, the kind of closet that appears in fantastical children’s books, a closet that opens up to a world that can’t possibly exist in those confines. It seems to reach out forever, to have no end. It is made of darkness, mystery, fear and nothingness. You don’t know what you’re going to see when you open the closet doors. And it’s not always a choice to open them. Sometimes they open on their own volition.
The closet looks neat and organized on first glance. Things are arranged concisely, in some kind of order. It’s when you push past that order, when you move the carefully created stacks of things and look behind the aligned rows when you realize there is more than meets the eye. You think there will be a backing, a wall of sorts. The thought of the wall being there is what makes you feel safe. It’s what keeps everything from spilling out of the closet. The appearance of order and the illusion of finiteness is what keeps you grounded.
You reach for the back of the closet to make sure it’s still there. Just to feel the safety. Just to know things are ok. And your hand gives way. It’s not like reaching into space, like swiping at air. You feel it with your whole body, with every ounce of your being. It’s a physical sensation, but one felt at the basest level of your mind. You reach. You grasp. You feel for the safety of that wall. It never comes. You meet with a murkiness, a slow moving tornado of sludge that grabs onto your wrists and pulls you in to its chaos.
A small hand wraps itself around your heart and squeezes. Tiny mites with cold feet run around your head, thousands of them stomping inside your brain, each stomp hammering in a small shard of ice. You are empty of everything now, everything but the sense of fear and panic. Your solidity, your safety, your neat little stacks of imagined order have fallen, crumbled and given way to the vast world behind them.
It’s all there. Free floating. Spinning. Projectiles you can’t duck because you are immobilized with fear. You have left rationale on the other side of the closet doors and a surge of electric worry courses through your body, your brain, your soul. The monster that you have kept hidden behind that false wall emerges, a monster with the unfortunate name of What If and it envelops you. The monster is cold and slimy, all sharp scales and pointed teeth. It scratches and bites and each swipe leaves a trail of venom that seeps into your flesh and takes a short ride to your brain where it manifests itself as irrational fear. Death. Car accidents. Heart attacks. Abandonment. Plane crashes. Mutually assured destruction. Things falling from the sky. Trapped. Drowning. Lost. Kidnapping. Pain. Randomness.
Your throat closes up — at least you think it’s closing up — the fist around your heart clenches tighter, the monster grips you harder. The fears multiply, come at you harder, faster, gaining strength from your panic. You know the other side of the closet is there. You know you are standing on solid ground, that the world around you is not collapsing, not the world at large, not your personal world, everything is fine and normal and you just need to get out of the Land of the Irrational, back to the world where the part of your brain that knows this closet does not exist is.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent five minutes flailing around in the chaos or five hours. It’s just as draining either way. You want to laugh at yourself when it’s over but you can’t because you know it’s just going to happen again. You want to tell someone about it but when you try, they don’t understand. Unless they’ve ever walked into their own closet and stepped into a land of chaos and panic instead, they don’t know. To them, anxiety is something they feel before a job interview. To you, anxiety is an ever present monster just waiting for you to show the slightest bit of fear. How could they know? Their closets are not open ended. Their neatly ordered stacks of things are not illusions. They’ve never swam in the murk in the Land of the Irrational. And they don’t understand why you can’t just make it stop. Don’t open the closet. Don’t go back there. Don’t fear. Don’t over think. Just turn away when you feel yourself opening the doors. It’s so easy.
It’s so easy.
Nothing is easy. Not when you know this place.
It gets harder each time. It gets harder to pull back, to loosen yourself from What If, to dodge the projectile vomit of the irrational world without ending up carrying some of that back with you like souvenirs from hell.
It doesn’t matter whether you go there once a week or once a month or every damn day. It always feels like forever. Even when the trip is over and you feel a small sense of relief when the panic subsides and you’re back in the Land of the Rational, it doesn’t matter. Because you know you’re going back. You know you will once again stick your hand in that closet looking for a solid backing, looking for something to tell you that your world is still organized and finite and ungiving and instead everything will unfold like a staircase and you will descend into the tornado of irrationality.
Don’t tell me it’s easy. Don’t tell me it’s all in my head. I know it’s all in my head. That’s why I can’t escape it.
Don’t tell me it’s easy. Don’t tell me that little pill I take every morning is bad for me or a crutch or unnecessary.
Don’t tell me I’m being stupid or weak. Don’t tell me to snap out of it.
Don’t tell me it’s so easy to just not be who I am.
Don’t tell me it’s easy to be a rational human being.
If you’ve never opened those closet doors only to find a vast world made of molecules of fear and panic, you can’t know how hard it is. Because that door, it’s really always open. Just a sliver is all it takes. Some days the chaos just seeps through the cracks and hovers around us in smaller doses, turning our molehills into mountains. Some nights it wakes us at 3am with thoughts that wouldn’t matter at 3pm. Sometimes it makes us panic about things that didn’t happen and worry about things that may or may not happen. And sometimes we just give in and open those doors all the way, letting loose the monster and its claws.
I’m almost always glad when people talk openly about mental disorders. But I also feel like sometimes they are giving us lip service, doing a once a year penance by regurgitating a hashtag and then not giving it a thought all the other days of the year. I just want you to know what it’s like. I want you to have some empathy. I want you to know it’s not as easy as just talking it out. I love and appreciate the awareness, but what I need is for you to be kind to people who are struggling emotionally. Talking is great. Listening is better. Thank you.
It's the weight of the world
But it's nothing at all
Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall
You got to give me a minute
Because I'm way down in it
And I can't breathe so I can't speak
I want to be strong and steady, always ready
Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak - Jason Isbell