photo by Cheryl via Flickr Creative Commons

photo by Cheryl via Flickr Creative Commons

Mental health issues are weird sometimes. We can only identify what we have names for, and it took someone else pointing it out to me for me to even realize that I have anxiety, and that anxiety was what was a big part of what was underneath all those feelings and experiences I lumped under the umbrella of being “easily overwhelmed” and “an emotional person.”

I grew up in a family that certainly doesn’t believe in therapy (my dad told me he wasn’t going to pay someone else to tell him that things he knew weren’t true are true so I guess he thinks a therapist is someone you pay to tell you what you want to hear?), and doesn’t even really believe in mental health issues? I found out in college that my mother was on antidepressants for a short time after our house was burned down by an arson. I think she should possibly still should be on them, or at least in therapy, but maybe the family could only rationalize them as a temporary necessity, like antidepressants and therapy for me after I attempted suicide in college. These things were something they somehow knew better than to outright deny me access to, but religion and prayer were the obvious preferred methods for dealing with such problems. Because if you aren’t happy and everything in your life isn’t completely smooth sailing all the time, you must not be right with the Lord. If I were just on the path God intended for me, I would never feel badly or experience stress or question anything. Or something like that.

Probably about a month ago someone shared a meme about anxiety on Facebook. I can’t find it now, but the gist was that panic attacks are only one possible symptom of anxiety. Other symptoms were irritability, inability to deal with change or things being out of place. Just like when someone close to me said it seemed like I was really struggling with anxiety and for the first time I had a word to match to my experience, that meme hit me hard.

I’ve been in polyamorous relationships for the past 4 years, and in that time, I’ve made a lot of progress towards owning my own emotions. I can now experience jealousy, for example, and use that feeling to ask myself what I need, rather than blaming it on the behavior of someone else. But I grew up in a family where I had “made” my mother upset or angry, and then had to somehow “make” her happy again. And I realized that irritability is an emotion I still haven’t quite learned to own completely. If emotions are tools, rather than learning from irritability, more often than not, I think I’ve been bludgeoning other people with it. If they weren’t being so $&%*! irritating maybe I wouldn’t be irritated, why can’t they just do it X way like I do or put Y back where they found it, etc, etc.

But I don’t want to act that way. And that meme made me start to question how much of what up until now I had just considered parts of my personality are actually caused by anxiety.

I hate to be late to anything. I would rather be twenty minutes early than one minute late.

I have a very specific way that I organize my belongings, and it bothers me if people deviate from my (“correct”) system.

If I am surrounded by clutter I cannot concentrate.

I compulsively make and re-make to-do lists.

Sometimes, when presented with a variety of options and asked to quickly choose, I freeze, uncertain of which is the “right” choice.

I plan ahead. I rarely make plans at the last minute, and am upset if someone else cancels without much notice.

If I expected something was constant, and it changes, I can get upset because I was counting on the stability (see planning ahead).

I am easily overstimulated in large groups.

If I’m trying to concentrate on a task and am interrupted, I am easily irritable. It can be hard for me to switch back and forth between tasks if I don’t know in advance I will need to do so. (If I’m at work, I know a customer can come in at any time. At home alone, I might expect to be able to finish my work in silence.)

I find myself questioning, am I really an introvert? Or is that anxiety? Am I prompt and organized, or is that anxiety? Is my lack of spontaneity due to anxiety? Who am I, really, or who would I be or what would I even be like without anxiety?

I remember being in grade school. Our mother would come pick us up from school (long story – house burned down, parents didn’t want us to change schools, bus didn’t run to our house – OK not that long, really) and if she was more than five minutes late I would start to cry. At age seven or eight I couldn’t understand that I was anxious. I just couldn’t stop wondering if maybe she’d gotten in an accident, how would we get home if she didn’t come, what if she died?

My parents would fight, my father would leave and slam the door, and I would cry in my bed because I was sure he was never coming back. What would we do without him? What would happen to us? Would our mother be able to take care of us alone? I didn’t know I was anxious. I just knew my stomach hurt.

I was never a particularly physically adventurous child. I was afraid to climb trees because what if I fell and got hurt? Was that anxiety, too? And where does a five-year-old even develop anxiety from?

If I’m trying to relax by watching a show or a movie, and someone keeps asking me questions, I can get irritated. If the house is cluttered, there are dishes in the sink, or debris from the floor keep sticking to my foot, I can get irritated. If I’m trying to work and someone tries to talk to me, I can get irritated.

But it’s because I can’t properly escape from reality if I keep being drawn back into my living room. Because housework is just another thing on my list that feels like its falling through the cracks, and I can’t keep up with it all on my own. Because I can’t go to sleep until I finish what I’m doing, and I don’t know exactly how long that’s going to take.

I think of my mother, who would yell at us even if we folded the towels and put them away because they weren’t folded the way she wanted. Who would get upset if we left glasses of water around the house. Who could never decide where she wanted to eat for dinner.

Maybe she was just anxious, too. Which doesn’t make the behavior okay, but possibly makes me understand it a little bit better. And I don’t want to repeat those patterns. The thought terrifies me.

I don’t really know what to do with this information yet. But now, when I feel irritable I’m trying very hard to not act on those feelings. I don’t want to snap at people. I don’t even want to be upset. Maybe I can learn how to figure out what I need in those moments to be less anxious, and how to talk to people about it. To figure out what I can do, but maybe to also let people know what the most volatile triggers are, so they’ll understand if I do slip up or call me on it.

Somehow it’s easier to understand the tight chest and feeling of claustrophobia I get in rush-hour traffic as anxiety.

And I know that the being late thing is anxiety, too, especially if I’m going somewhere I have never been or doing something I rarely do.

But when I want to crawl out of my skin if someone asks me one more question or I can’t stand being in the house anymore or the sight of a counter or sink filled with dishes makes me want to scream, maybe that’s anxiety, too.

I don’t like feeling as if I’m not as on top of my anxiety as I had thought and as I would like.

Maybe working from home isn’t as viable as I thought when I don’t live alone. Maybe I need to make the desk in my room more workable or else find a quiet coffee shop in my neighborhood.

And maybe I can either find a better way to distribute chores around the house or just learn to let some things go. But if a clean kitchen is the only thing in your life you feel like you have any control over (and cooking is a major form of self-care), and then even that goes to hell, it’s hard sometimes.

But I guess you can’t solve problems you don’t know exist, so maybe I’m better off knowing so I don’t make the same mistakes and repeat the same patterns I grew up with.

And I’m back in yoga, and going to try to ramp up to an evening walk or bike ride every week, too. And there’s always therapy.

Oh, life. You are so complex sometimes.

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