My relationship with Anxiety is like what they say about falling in love: “gradual and then all at once.” She started spending time with me when I was in college—only every once in a while—then, I slowly became more anxious as I started adulthood. With each hardship I faced, Anxiety became a more consistent companion.
Anxiety begged me to seek reassurance and validation for the lack of comfort in my new life. Together, we found it in the wrong place—a toxic relationship. What started off as an exciting fling became soul-sucking attachment. An attachment that I was fortunately able to cut off, but that left me feeling hollow and out of control.
I feared, and therefore, I wanted to appease Anxiety. I would do anything to avoid her visits. So, I started controlling every behavior: precisely how much I ate, how often I exercised, how many hours I slept, how I interacted with others, how much TV I watched, how many hours a day I read, how many drinks I was allowed to have per week, etc. Every behavior had a measurement where I would judge myself if I didn’t hit the correct range.
The results of this behavior weren’t noticeable to others. That is, other than losing weight, which was only positively reinforced by those around me. I built-in excuses for everything. No one really noticed my controlling behavior because I made it seem like I was just focusing on “self-care” and “self-improvement.” And I had convinced myself of the same message. Rather than realizing my need to be in control, I told myself I was an incredibly healthy person and my behavior was perfectly normal.
Even with these extreme efforts to dismiss Anxiety, she still visited me on a daily basis. I was anxious about time, my job, my health and my relationships. I isolated myself because I couldn’t handle the idea of changing my routine. How can I ride the subway to my friend’s apartment on a work night? What if we broke down, and I got home late? I couldn’t handle the idea of losing sleep in order to spend time with people. It was just easier to have less friends. And Anxiety liked that. Who needs friends when you have control instead?
After several months, I admitted I needed help and I started going to therapy. Through conversations with my therapist, I finally started to see and understand what I was doing. That my need for control wasn’t perfectly fine and normal—it wasn’t healthy even if healthy behaviors sprang from it. That my behaviors were rooted in avoiding the discomfort of Anxiety’s company. And that I was masking my negative feelings with exercise, diet and routine.
I’ve been in therapy for six months now. I’m still working on staying up past my bedtime without panicking, eating cupcakes without judging myself and doing things without fixating on the change in routine. But I don’t isolate myself anymore. Anxiety still visits often, but I’m beginning to accept that she is a part of my life.
Now, rather than doing every possible action to avoid Anxiety, I try to embrace activities that make her visit. When there’s something I want to do, and the only reason I don’t want to do it is Anxiety, I do it anyway.
For example, I love camping, but sleeping in a tent tends to call Anxiety to me. Especially because not being able to sleep while camping was her first real visit. Now I camp anyway—whenever I want. She will usually make an appearance right as I’m about to sleep, but I let her linger. I don’t wish her away or try to get rid of her. I accept her presence in the tent with me.
In my attempt to accept our friendship, I don’t let Anxiety stop me from activities that bring joy into my life. I don’t let her control my every behavior. And on some level, I’ve gotten used to her. After all, she is my companion.
Laura Greenstein is communications manager at NAMI.