This Is Anxiety

The worries would go on and on. I wasn't getting much studying done, or much of anything else either. On occasions when I could forget myself and my fears enough to enjoy a moment of conversation with a friend, part of me would feel that I should excuse myself by saying, "I need to go worry for a few hours."

Now that I teach English at a small liberal-arts college, I speak rather freely about these struggles. The other day a student said to me that she had never heard an adult say that he or she has OCD. When I was young, I yearned for an adult to share this sort of experience with me; I wanted to know that I could still have a decent and creative life, that I could make a contribution. When I talk with students about these things, I emphasize the importance of seeking help from professionals. Counselors and medication have been crucial for me. I speak freely and listen as openly as I can. We share our very human stories.

Jerry Harp
Portland, Oregon

A bottomless bin of toy figurines, a bulging suitcase of costumes for aspiring prima ballerinas, and a sleeve of sparkling cinnamon graham crackers. For many, these items evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, a warm and fuzzy feeling that accompanies memories of childhood friendships and simpler times. Not for me.

Instead, this seemingly innocuous list throws me into a state of panic, as I am plagued by endless questions, swept up in a whirlwind of self-doubt: Are mass-produced, made-in-China toy figurines an indication of my shameless consumerism? Have I perpetuated gender stereotypes by providing my daughter with an abundance of tutus, primarily of the pink variety? Am I promoting unhealthy eating habits by allowing the occasional sugary snack to win out over carrot sticks? The anxiety was born with the birth of my daughter. And now, as my daughter attends preschool and the playdates are in full swing, my nerves are entirely fraught. Now, my parenting choices are on display for all to see. Now, I find myself tackling a bizarre set of proportions every Saturday morning: What is the ideal ratio of Cinderella to Sid the Science Kid? Of tiaras to doctor's kits? Of cookies to cucumbers? I haven't come up with any solutions yet, but that doesn't stop me from staying up all Friday night searching for answers.

Eimile Green
Toledo, Ohio

I have been medicated and yes it works for me. Some days I could use a bit more kick, others a bit less. I see a doctor weekly and discuss "my feelings." I am always asked "what I am feeling right now." I feel a lot, but cannot describe it most times, and would truly give anything to not feel anything at all, most days.

I have read that individuals like me experience life on a much more magnified level, that normal feelings are amplified or we experience them as such. I mean, who wouldn't think that the end is near every time your heart begins to race, or you feel the slightest bit dizzy or strange. I have learned to recognize the signs and what brings on that good old fight-or-flight response. Growing up, I never had an "Incredible Hulk" moment when I was bullied or got into a fight at school, but now I get them when pulling into the parking lot at work, or booting up my computer to check my email in the morning?

Recognizing that this is a medical condition provided some solace. I know that I suffer from a "normal" problem, and that I am healthy physically, but my mind would like to think otherwise at times. I see the same struggle in others and am happy that I can provide advice, just as those that I know who suffer from this have helped me by sitting with me and not leaving me alone when I get hit with an attack. It is now common practice for me to be honest with others about my condition. 


I seemed to be living the dream. I had full scholarship for rowing at the University of Alabama, an above-average GPA, a luxurious off-campus apartment, and a perfect car that I had purchased all by myself. I had it all, and I took pride in my incredible accomplishments in athletics, school, and my active personal life. From the outside, it was impossible to discern any of my inner turmoil.

Like Scott Stossel, my anxiety and depression stems from a combination of genes and my parents' messy divorce. My parents divided up the time I spent with them exactly equally in my early life; I switching houses two times each week or more. Every day was just another day in anticipation of The Switch. My belongings would get unevenly distributed, or something forgotten, and I'd need to figure out how to get my retainer/soccer jersey/critically important essay to the other end of town.

I was not old enough to have a cell phone or operate a moving vehicle, which made the logistics incredibly stressful to coordinate. Add in a parent's frustration and things got extremely messy. And while my dad remarried a few years after the divorce to my wonderful stepmom, my mom's love life was not nearly as successful or neatly put together. My mom was always moving, jumping from boyfriend to girlfriend to boyfriend again, always moving into their houses. I had moved nine times by the time I was in high school, each move bringing unbelievable anxiety with it.

During a move in first grade, I had a paralyzing fear that one of the pine trees outside the classroom window was going to fall in on the school. I had visions of the tree breaking the glass and crushing my classmates and me. My fear was crippling. I was constantly distracted, always looking over my shoulder at the ominous pine and jumping whenever the tree creaked. I was completely obsessed. After a meeting with my parents, my teacher moved me close to the front of the classroom and my parents put me in therapy. The therapy didn't last long.

Years later, my mom was moving again. Around the same time, we took a vacation to Hawaii, funded by my grandfather. He took us out to Ruth's Chris steak house on the second night we were there. While sitting at the table, I felt the same inexplicable feeling that we were all going to be crushed, but this time I was convinced the ceiling was going to fall in. I ran outside crying, my mom and grampa embarrassed at my antics. Frustrated that they wouldn't heed my warnings of impending doom, I sat outside, sobbing uncontrollably and rocking on a retaining wall while they ate overpriced steak and baked potatoes. These are just a few examples of the anxiety attacks that I have experienced over the years. More moderate anxiety manifests itself into my life in a few other ways, like my debilitating fear of being late, or my perfectionist tendencies leading to procrastination. If I can't do it perfectly, then why do it at all? 

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.


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