As long as I can remember I have been a perfectionist. I would erase mistakes in my kindergarten artwork to the point that there were holes in the soft, pulpy paper. I practiced my spelling words on the walk to school and was often the winner of bees. If my mom asked me to clean my room, you could eat off the floor later that day.
I was also a people pleaser. No one’s opinion meant more that my mother’s. When she was proud of me, I was on top of the world. Every one of the twelve years of my primary and secondary education, there was at least one teacher who would have called me their pet. I was a good student and a well-behaved kid and I was rewarded for that with special privileges and praise that made me feel good about myself. From the ages of 6 to 21, student would have been the first thing I would have mentioned if you’d asked me to define myself.
When it came to other kids, things were a little different. In elementary school, I had a close knit group of neighborhood friends. I was friendly to everyone else, but shy about putting myself out there and getting to know new kids. I skipped many outings with my close friends if they involved crowds of people or unfamiliar settings. I remember one of the girls’ moms taking a group of girls to roller derby matches at the Charlotte Coliseum. I never even asked my mom if I could go. The thought of going into such a crowd of people was anxiety provoking. In junior high, I skipped every dance. I was anxious just thinking about other people watching me dance. In high school, I avoided parties like the plague unless they were at my own or my best friend’s house.
My social anxiety was mildly annoying . I felt bad that I missed out on the things it made me avoid, but just explained it away as shyness. If asked, I would usually blame my absence from a party or other social gathering on someone else’s presence there. “Oh, I don’t want to go to that stupid party. Julie will be there.”
I had to force myself to go to my Senior Prom with my boyfriend of two years. I had skipped my Junior Prom and been jealous of the pictures and stories of my friends, so I was determined to make myself go. My anxiety that night was about a seven on a scale of one to ten. Not pleasant, but tolerable.
That was usually my experience when I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. After the fact, when nothing catastrophic had happened, I was glad to have gone on that date with my brother’s friend who I had had a crush on for years, to have gone on the school ski trip, to have joined the International Relations Club (though, at the last minute, I skipped the Washington trip all my friends went on and for which I had raised money).
Sure, I recognized that my general anxiety made me different from my friends. If I hadn’t recognized it as strange, I wouldn’t have lied so often to explain my absences. Everyone knew my mom was strict, so it was always easy to say I wasn’t allowed to go. I was often jealous and sad not to have participated, but I was also relieved to have avoided the accompanying stress.
As my friends began to talk about life after graduation, I was as excited as they were to consider different colleges, even though I still remembered how touring the campus at Carolina with my older brother four years before had made me anxious. (One look inside the high rise dorm he’d been assigned to had made my pulse quicken.) I applied to Carolina, UNCC and Appalachian. I was thrilled when I was accepted at all three. I chose Appalachian, arranged to room with my childhood best friend, and started buying stuff for my dorm room.
The Prom, Awards Day, Graduation Day … they fell away like dominoes. Senior Week at the beach was only stressful when some idiot on the floor above us broke their toilet bowl with a baseball bat and flooded our room with several inches of water.
And then my world came crashing down around me …
The day after senior week at the beach ended, I started stressing out about going away to college. While my friends were too excited for words at the prospect of dorm life and leaving home for the first time, I was losing about five pounds a week, throwing up everything I ate, stressing about those same things. I lost about fifteen pounds in the first month. My stress level was at an all time high. I began having panic attacks, convinced I was dying of a heart attack each time.
My glass had never been half full in my life. I’d always had a worst case scenario mentality. And now, facing the prospect of leaving the familiar, safe, protective home I had spent my life in and going out on my own into a world where I would be living with hundreds of other kids was not only daunting, it was overwhelming. I could not sleep, I could not eat. I felt like a human pressure cooker on full boil and about to explode all over the walls at any second.
Once I had that first panic attack, I became hyper vigilant, always anticipating the next one. I avoided the things I used to love, like going to concerts, because the threat of another attack sucked all of the joy out of them. All I could think was “What if …?” And the fear attached to all those scenarios that ran through my mind was all-consuming. Fear led to avoidance, a shrinking life. I became nearly housebound. Every time I tried to go out, to live a normal life, I anticipated a panic attack, which often led to … you guessed it … a panic attack.
My parents had no idea what had happened to their perfect child. And since I had never given them any problems in my life, they were ill-prepared to deal with me in full meltdown mode. My mother offered to take me to a psychologist and I jumped at the chance, hoping something, anything, could help with the overwhelming, crushing anxiety I felt every minute of every day. The doctor taught me some breathing exercises and defined my condition as normal “separation anxiety”, which was like calling a tsunami a wave.
I’ve never been able to explain exactly how my mind worked until I discovered the book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith. He perfectly explained the cascade of negative thought this way: “I am anxious. The anxiety makes it impossible to concentrate. Because it is impossible to concentrate, I will make an unforgivable mistake at work. Because I will make an unforgivable mistake at work, I will be fired. Because I will be fired, I will not be able to pay my rent. Because I will not be able to pay my rent, I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park. Because I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park, I will contract HIV. Because I will contract HIV, I will develop full-blown AIDS. Because I will develop full-blown AIDS, I will die disgraced and alone. From free-form anxiety to death-by-prostitution in eight short steps.”
I’m sure you laughed as you read that passage. I know I did. But it was a painful laugh because what he described is exactly how my Monkey Mind was working as I thought about the prospect of actually leaving home for the first time.
Psychologist David Barlow defines anxiety as “a future-oriented emotion, characterized by perceptions of uncontrollability and unpredictability over potentially aversive events and a rapid shift in attention to the focus of potentially dangerous events or one’s own affective response to those events.”
I’m pretty sure my photograph is right beside that paragraph in the textbook.
If you fear something like flying, or bugs, or speaking in public, there are conditioning exercises that can help you slowly dispel those fears. But what if what you fear is fear? Before I could ever leave the house, there was a dialogue going on in my head that began with, “What if I get there and, in front of all those people, I have a panic attack? I will be embarrassed. I will embarrass whomever I am with. Someone may call 911. I might be taken to a hospital. In the hospital, they may decide I need to be committed because I am, obviously, crazy.” And on and on and on.
My anxiety was so overwhelming that it was often a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d buy the concert tickets, then give them away last minute out of fear of what would happen if I had an attack while there. I forced myself to go on to Appalachian, endured a semester of constant anxiety and then gave in to the messages of doom from my brain and transferred to UNCC and came home. The sense of relief when I handed in that paperwork was better than any sex I’ve ever had, the equivalent of popping a fork under the rocking valve on a pressure cooker and letting out all of the pent up steam inside. I’m sure my smile looked like someone who’d won the Mega Millions Lottery as I drove down the mountain towards home. I’m sure it was plastered there …. until the first day of classes at UNCC, when I was wondering, “What if I can’t find a parking place? What if I can’t find my classes? What if I don’t make any friends? What if I have a panic attack and can’t make myself go back to classes? What if I flunk out? …..”
I worried that I would pass out walking down the aisle at my wedding.
Every day-late menstrual cycle, I was convinced I was experiencing an unwanted pregnancy.
Today, every slow week at our 35 year old business is the first sign that we are going to go out of business.
The funny thing is, most people would never know I suffer from anxiety. Even those who are closest to me, like Darryl, rarely see it. I’ve become adept at hiding it because of their reactions to early attacks. For the most part, I have learned to look calm and collected on the outside when I am often cowering or screaming on the inside, tortured by insomnia and constant negative inner dialogue.
I’m 54 now and, with the occasional help of Xanax, I haven’t had a full blown panic attack in decades, but that doesn’t mean the fear and anxiety are not still there. I’ve come to believe that the desire for perfection in all I do that has existed in me for as long as I can remember is the root of the problem. And in putting all of that pressure on myself to always be perfect and to please everybody else in my life, I made myself imperfect, broken. Even the slightest possibility of failure was so abhorrent to me, that I quit things before I had the chance to fail at them. I wish I could go back and tell that kid I was to lighten up, to relax, to live a little, to try, to fail, to learn from that failure, to move on, to do better next time.