The Quiet War of Worrying: Living with High-Functioning Anxiety
“Does it look like I have my life together?” I asked someone recently, to which they replied “Yes, you do, like 150%.”
“Exactly, I said look — ”
“I answered your question.”
I wanted to go on to say how hard it was to always be in a war with my mind, struggling to separate my rational and irrational thoughts, having to remind myself that it’s okay for me to enjoy myself, that I deserve good experiences, and that things out of my control aren’t my fault. this is a quiet war that I have to fight every day, before and after getting out of bed, going to school, going to work, interacting with people. Despite what it looks like on the outside, it takes so much out of me.
I was raised by a narcissistic parent, and often the children of narcissists are raised to be projections of themselves — the children’s accomplishments are used as an extension of vanity. Growing up, it was a combination of grades, awards, and once social media came along, anything that was worthy of posting about on Facebook. For a long time I felt like the things that happened to me, or the things that I worked for didn’t belong to me. There always had to be an audience for anything or my sibling did. And if we did something that didn’t live up to the parent’s standards, we were ostracized.
In high school, if there was a choice between honors and regular classes, my sibling and I had to take honors classes. We didn’t get to have a say. Our academic careers were something that our parent vicariously lived through for bragging rights. It didn’t matter if we were stressed, or if we didn’t have a high enough grade requirement to take the classes in the first place — all the parent wanted was to say that their children were AP students. Because of this, a reputation that I felt like I didn’t deserve was created for trying to keep up with it nearly destroyed me.
In my junior year of high school I realized a change in my behavior. I wasn’t sleeping as much as I used to. I would wake up in the middle of the night and stay up until the sun rose, my eyes heavy from exhaustion but my mind stirring. I was obsessively checking my grades. I was always worried about being punished if I went out with my friends. Because of the way I was forced to present myself, my peers assumed that I was smarter than I really was, but in actuality my GPA wasn’t even high enough for me to be tapped for National Honor Society. Nonetheless, I was teased relentlessly — the tiny blonde with the thick-rimmed glasses and quiet demeanor. A classmate who barely knew me snarkily asked if I was going to Harvard. While everyone thought I had everything together, I really felt like I was drowning. I felt like everything I did had to add up to something bigger, or something bad would happen to me. I lived with an inexplicable fear of consequence for being a person outside of academia. I was always expected to be serious and well-composed. Something in me finally broke in the weeks leading up to SATs and AP exams. A teacher snapped at me in front of the entire class for asking a question about an upcoming test and once I stepped foot outside of her classroom, I rushed to the nearest bathroom and let everything out. I cried thinking about all of the work I had to get done, and what would happen to me if I didn’t do well. My hands were shaking. When I got home from school that day, I tried to explain to my parent about how stressed I was, and how it was scaring me. “You’re just being over dramatic,” they said. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” This interaction left me no choice but to keep any future concerns I had to myself.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I identified my behavior and constant worrying as anxiety, and I saw a counselor a couple of times. While a lot of my anxiety came from the toxicity in my home life and the way I was treated growing up, I knew that it was deep-rooted in my fear of not being enough. A majority of my adolescence was spent trying to prove myself to someone else, someone who has complex mental health issues of their own that were taken out on me.
Now that I’m in my twenties and well into my second half of college, I have a new set of responsibilities that occupy my mind. As I’ve gotten older, my triggers have changed, but there is still that underlying fear of not being enough. But it’s not so much about being enough for another person in terms of approval — it’s about being enough for myself, being enough for the world — am I stable enough, am I working hard enough, responsible enough, productive enough, etc. My anxiety lives within the question “Am I going to get to where I need to be, and am I going to survive on the way there?”
We often fear the things we don’t understand, and a lot of people don’t understand what anxiety is, or why people have it. Mental illness has always been a sensitive subject in my family, and has never been easy to talk about, but the influential narrative that the media has placed on mental health hasn’t been flattering. My family members are able to recognize a change in someone’s mood or behavior but it’s rarely discussed in-depth due to lack of personal experience. But I’m still lucky enough to have people in my life who understand my thinking process and know how to tell me to slow down.
It was hard for me to accept the fact that I have anxiety at first, and open up to my family about it, but it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in this; over 40 million adults in the United States over the age of 18 struggle with anxiety, and 41.6% of college students are affected by it. While my anxiety and the fears that come with it are a part of me, I know that I’m more than the things that I worry about. It’s still challenging sometimes, though — I fall into depressive moods, even on days that I consider to be good — I’ll shut down emotionally and start panicking, and turn into someone I don’t recognize. But living with anxiety has taught me to be more self-aware. I try to make sense of the mess in my brain by writing a lot.
Looks can be deceiving, and it’s important to know that anxiety doesn’t have just one face. It exists within so many people, in the form of different fears and feelings of dread. It’s a constant battle, and deserves more appropriate awareness. Having a mental illness shouldn’t be perceived as unflattering. It’s a reality for millions of people, and at the end of each day we’re all just trying our best to organize the chaos that lives inside of us.