When I was in the fifth grade, I was prescribed eyeglasses. I was angry. Of course there was nothing wrong with my vision; I had gone my entire life seeing the red hues of my swing set, or polka-dotted ladybugs that crawled onto my palm. I was fine.
One week after I refused to wear my glasses, Mrs. Fields asked me to read the time on the clock.
“I can’t see; it’s too far away,” I told her.
“If I’m 45 and can read the clock, you sure can!”
But I couldn’t. I saw a white, blurred shape with black scattered lines but could not decipher the numbers.
I remember telling my father when I got home. We stood behind the window in our kitchen.
“Do you see the trees in the backyard?
“Of course. They’re big and green and tall,” I said.
He handed me the purple frames I refused to associate with and I tried them on.
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The tree wasn’t a large green blob in the distance anymore. I could see the different shades from light to dark colors, the lines on the bark, and I watched the world grow.
It has been 12 years and most days I forget I cannot see because I always take glasses or contacts with me.
Anxiety is different. I seek help, I breathe, I give myself cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) thought records, and even with improved vision, I’ve learned that the world will always look a little blurry. I feel ashamed because even though I can manage my anxiety better, it does not go away. If Mrs. Fields were to witness my panic attack the day I took the GRE, she would remind me she is much older yet she can take a test calmly. But Mrs. Fields doesn’t understand. It doesn’t matter how much older she is than I am if our eyes don’t see the same things.
I know I cannot hate my anxiety and love myself. We often hear writings begin with, “I am who I am, not because of the distressing events that happen to me, but in spite of them.” This may be true for many people, but I am who I am for a wide range of reasons, anxiety included. I am better than I was; I will be better than I am. However, I will have anxiety symptoms all my life despite the significant strides I continue to make. It won’t be until I replace shame with radical self-acceptance that I can attain self-love.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic intervention created by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a woman who created an evidence-based treatment for individuals like herself who struggle with borderline personality disorder (BPD). She helped coin the term “radical self-acceptance” and in so doing, created a therapy that has helped numerous clients who saw the world through the same blurred lens that she did.
My anxiety is a chronic mental health condition.
Sometimes, I swear I came out of the womb shaking and terrified. A life with anxious tendencies is the only one I’ve known. Yet, I am a happy, loving, resilient, optimistic human being who feels grateful to be alive. I care about everything all the time, at the highest level; it makes me an advocate, a friend and empathic. My ability to experience “life to the fullest” is a constant, central part of who I am. It is not until we accept who we are and the symptoms that shape our lives that we can begin to conquer the extra mountains that then face us.
I am anxious just like I am funny, compassionate and obsessed with mystery novels. I consider it only one part of who I am. Yet, many people tell me I should view anxiety as a weakness and therefore imply I am weak for having anxiety. They imply I should try to scrub my anxiety off in the shower or see it an infection that has left me damaged, different and small. Only it isn’t just a mental health condition. It is central to who I am and recognizing this has led me to be the closest I have ever been to loving myself while simultaneously working to alleviate my anxiety symptoms.
Like most psychologists and aspiring clinicians, I once sought therapy (CBT). When I began to talk about my anxiety, the psychologist told me, “Before we speak about the ways in which anxiety has obviously harmed you, can you think of ways your anxiety has helped you?” To my surprise, I had many reasons. For instance, if I hadn’t been so anxious, I may have never been so ambitious or hardworking and achieved my dream of getting into a Ph.D. program for Psychology. I couldn’t have been an emotional support to loved ones without having known struggle myself. I couldn’t have loved others so deeply or felt the passion needed to be a creative fiction writer.
Post-traumatic growth theory (PTG) postulates that individuals who endure significant trauma or pain during their life can become better for the worst events that have happened to them. Dr. Kanako Taku, associate professor of psychology at Oakland University, writes: “This is when someone who has difficulty bouncing back experiences a traumatic event that challenges his or her core beliefs, endures psychological struggle (even a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder), and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth.” It’s a process that “takes a lot of time, energy and struggle.” Similar to post-traumatic growth theory which references post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), individuals with other chronic mental health struggles can experience growth because of their illness. As with the five areas Dr. Taku notes in regard to PTG, they can gain a greater appreciation of life, improve their relationships with others, find new possibilities in life, gain personal strength and experience spiritual change.
In middle school, I would cover half my face with hair so that no one could see me. By high school, I only covered my mouth, and now I only touch my hair or mouth on rare occasions when my hands begin to tremble. I used to sit in class and hear whispers from dozens of students from every side of the room and I imagined it was my name on their lips that I heard despite being strangers. I touched my mouth and stroked my hair for minutes; a compulsion. When I tried to stop, my anxiety would increase. I reverted to touching my face and my hair again. This semester, my anxiety has significantly declined. I can comfortably converse with my graduate school friends, even in the classroom.
During kindergarten, I was practically mute in school; however, I was loud and confident with family and friends. In adolescence, I always spoke. However, the voice that came out was a faint shadow of the voice within me. I cannot always project, and I know it’s because I fear what would happen if I were to be heard and someone were to listen. While I continue to improve and my voice can be adequately heard in most settings, I sometimes still struggle when I am with new people or in new places.
My world is still blurry, and I love my anxiety.
In adolescence, I had an intense fear of abandonment and of other people’s anger. An unanswered text meant the person hated me; I feared everyone would leave me; I felt I did not deserve to have friends. Five minutes would pass; my texts would then be returned; my friends would laugh. I would cry, and it would take days to put myself back together. Anxiety is feeling the spectrum of human emotions at once, magnified while an invisible hand stifles your words so that no one can hear your thunder. When people experience deep rage, irritation, sadness or grief, they typically react. Perhaps they’ll snap or kindly articulate their pain and needs to their loved ones. But I never yelled, set boundaries or felt my own emotions. The feelings of others always mattered and resonated more deeply to me than my own feelings. I felt such tremendous hesitation in expressing my anger, and saying the words, “I am angry because your actions have hurt me” is still a relatively new achievement. I am still digging and shoveling out my buried, unexpressed emotions. Yet I am healing. I now know the only option available when someone hurts me is to talk to them; while it takes me longer to confront a hurtful person than most others, I now do so.
My world is still blurry.
And I love my anxiety. While it presents intense challenges it has also made me who I am. And I am learning to love that person.
Just like Dr. Linehan, who created DBT after experiencing a chronic mental health condition herself, I am going to treat anxiety disorders once I am licensed as a psychologist. I am getting my PhD in Psychology as we speak. A major motivation for this passion is my knowing I have been in the place my anxious clients will be in. My world is blurry, yet my vision continues to grow. Sometimes it is in the blurriest corners that I best see those who cannot simply put on glasses. It’s where I can connect and empathize with others; it is in this gentle and foggy space that my best friends gravitate towards me and my love knows no bounds.
According to research findings about underdog status, the most satisfying victories are the ones where the odds of winning are hardest to reach. All anxious people or individuals facing chronic mental health conditions deserve to feel pride every time they feel brave enough to ask a salesperson a question, present a project publicly or speak up in class. There are mountains we must fight to climb where people without these problems may have a straight path, all while we lack the glasses when we begin the journey. However, it is courageous when we try and embrace the world, and with each exposure, we are likely to see the world more clearly.
A past client of mine with selective mutism had parents who yelled at him because he was too fearful to use his voice in new places. My supervisor told me that shame serves no purpose; it was the parent’s reaction that had to be challenged first, not the child’s inability to speak. And he was right. Research shows that we cannot feel motivated to overcome an obstacle if we do not feel we have the competency to overcome it. Shame only creates shame. I pride myself in using my voice in settings that scare me even when what comes out is only a whisper, and even if Mrs. Fields yells in a single try.
We grow and thrive as a consequence of our most beautiful experiences just as we grow and thrive as a consequence of our most challenging and stressful ones. Anxiety is a part of me, and I am grateful for all I have become and learned to overcome.