Guest Post: “But you just don’t seem like an anxious person?”

Thursday, 29 September 2016

There are very few people I discuss my mental health with – even as I write this I have plenty of friends and family who to this day don’t know the extent to which I struggle with the way my head is wired. Since I was 12 years old I have struggled on and off with depressive episodes and periods of anxiety, although it wasn’t until this year that I finally felt ‘ill enough’ to seek medical help. Several doctors’ appointments, various prescriptions and a series of therapy later… I have a diagnosis. Generalised Anxiety Disorder. 

Even after this revelation, I’m still reluctant to tell most people. Of course, there’s the stigma – what will people think when they find out I have a therapist? But mainly the thing that stops me from opening up is the reaction I get from those that I’ve told already: “But you just don’t seem like an anxious person?” 

Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware that when most people say this to me they don’t mean to somehow discount the months of professional medical opinion and assessment that went into getting me my diagnosis, but it’s exactly what it sounds like to me. It’s a reaction that always surprises me, namely because I’d quite like to know exactly what they think anxious people ‘seem like’. Of course what they mean is, I have a rough idea of what I think anxiety is and you don’t fit that. 

I can understand why I don’t fit that. I used to work for a cosmetics company, doing Facebook live videos for hundreds of people. I now work in PR, where I spend most of my day speaking to journalists and clients or attending events. Last year I moved to a new city away from all my family. In other words, I appear like I have my life together. I hold down a job, I can comfortably speak in front of groups of people, and I’m generally not the quivering, sobbing wreck these people presumably expect me to be (or at least, not that they’ve ever seen). 

The point that they are missing though, is that there isn’t just one notion of what anxiety is. Anxiety – like a variety of other mental illnesses – can manifest itself differently in different people, and usually comes with a variety of symptoms. To me, my anxiety is not public. In fact, being around people is often the very thing that helps me to keep a lid on it. My anxiety plays itself out much more privately, and so I can understand why people might be shocked to hear about it in the first place. 

My anxiety makes me wake my dog up several times during the night just so that I know he’s still alive. It means that I will cancel plans in order to be with my boyfriend because I constantly obsess over the idea that he might die. It gives me 3am panic attacks because I can’t remember if I paid my phone bill. It convinces me on a weekly basis that someone will break into my house while I’m in the shower. It’s the reason I haven’t opened a bank statement in nearly 5 years, or taken my driving test. 

You see, the reason why I don’t seem anxious to you is because you only see me on the days when I win. You don’t see the nights I spend sobbing and gasping for breath, or the days when I can’t make it out of the house. You don’t see the mornings when I fight back tears on my way to work. So whilst most people see what appears to be a confident, relaxed young woman, to me my anxiety is very real and impacts my life in ways that you might not notice. 

My point throughout all of this is, is that however well-meaning these ‘you don’t seem anxious’ comments might be, all they do is stifle any meaningful conversation about mental health. When you tell me I ‘don’t seem anxious’, you are either doubting my diagnosis or perhaps even reassuring me that my cover hasn’t been blown – that my efforts to hide my mental illness have been successful and I’ve managed to pass myself off as ‘normal’. Both of these sentiments just force me to continue hiding my struggles, and perpetuate stereotypes about people with mental illness and they way they ‘should’ behave. 

My advice to anyone who has a friend or family member open up about their mental health would be to remain open minded. Be prepared to listen – take note of the things they say they find difficult and the things that help them. Remember that just because they don’t outwardly exhibit any symptoms you might associate with their disorder, doesn’t mean that they aren’t fighting their own battle privately. 

At the end of the day, mental illness is something that is a lot more common than you’d think, and by taking the time to support the people we know who are struggling we can end outdated and dangerous stigmas that prevent people from seeking treatment. 

Written by Emily Owens

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