I arrived to work one morning recently and remained in my car for about 10 minutes. My boss texted me to ask if I was okay. I replied explaining I was fine–just feeling anxious and needed to calm down. I entered work and she asked me if everything was all right, referring to my text. Confused, I said, “Yeah, I just needed to calm down.”
It occurred to me about five minutes later that she doesn’t know me well enough to understand what “feeling anxious” means.
Nothing was wrong. My boss was concerned that something bad happened to make me anxious. That’s just it. Nothing made me anxious. I was just feeling anxious.
(To my fellow mental healthees who may be arguing my previous statement: Yes there “is” a reason I felt anxious– chemical imbalance in my brain, time of day, routine, my mood, and previous thoughts could have all contributed to making me feel anxious in that instant. BUT as many of you know we tend to say “for no reason” when the occurrence is sporadic with no obvious trigger. Happy?)
I tend to forget how non- anxietors view the state. There has to be a trigger which causes you to be anxious. Same with sadness. There has to be trigger which causes you to be sad.
“HA!” said the people with anxiety.
“HA!” said the people with depression.
Some of my friends know when I say, “I need a minute,” I really mean, ‘I’m obsessing and/or compulsing. Don’t talk to me, don’t touch me, and don’t look at me. I’ll tell you when I ‘m done.”
They know to respect my privacy and be patient. I normally need between 30 seconds — 3 minutes. Then I’m fine and we go on with our day. I don’t expect that even some of my closest friends really understand what I feel or do. That’s okay. They show me respect and empathy and that’s all that matters.
In this blog post, I undertake the task of trying to explain what it is like to feel anxious on a clinical level.
I was thinking about this on the way to work on a different morning. Solo car rides are notoriously difficult for me. I’m by myself for an extended period of time and have limited options to occupy my brain. I drive to work at least 30 minutes each way. So I have an entire hour each day to try to not obsess. Hooray! Anyway, I was thinking about thoughts and trying not to think. I am always drawn back to a quote from one of my psychology courses at college regarding our stream of consciousness. I can’t remember or find the exact quote, but it basically said how you can’t take one instance out of the stream. It never stops. You can’t fixate on one thing because the stream continues.
So I’m in my car trying to picture this stream and how it flows and how I flow with it and I realize it’s not a stream it’s more like a fucking ocean. I also realize that I’m not in the stream; I’m on the beach running alongside the ocean or standing by it. The waves [my thoughts] lap at my feet and pull me in sometimes. I chase the wave out following the thought because I think it leads somewhere, but it doesn’t. It’s a wave which becomes lost in that vast ocean, and I’m drowning and have to struggle back to shore.
So how do I let the thoughts ebb and flow in my mind without getting pulled under?
Well with OCD, its easier to shut off the thought and not think about it at all. Typically you can’t just “kind of” obsess. The deeper you delve into the thought, the harder it is to make it back to shore. I think this is part of why so many people with OCD suffer with black and white misperceptions. We are taught to shut out these obsessions– all black. No! Don’t do it. You’ll reinforce the cycle of anxiety if you entertain these thoughts.
But… all of my thoughts are in that ocean. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m obsessing until I’m knee deep in the water. Sometimes that obsession even leads me somewhere, well, good.
Meanwhile, as I’m on that beach, my life goes on around me. There are things to do, people to see, work to be done and I need to keep up with everything else going on around me on that beach.
But here I am. Standing, staring at the ocean, wading in deeper and deeper as my life continues in the background. I’m chasing something that isn’t there. No one sees my ocean. It’s just for me. I’m drowning in my own mind, sitting in my car for 10 minutes when I’m supposed to be working. Of course my boss wonders what is wrong. She can’t see the ocean–she doesn’t even know it exists.
(I will be posting at another time about how anxiety interferes with personal relationships. When you need time to stare at your ocean, causing your loved ones to just sit on the beach, waiting and waiting for you.)
I’ve found over the years that this immense ocean is in fact, not so scary as it first seemed. It’s a part of me. It’s a part of me that I cannot and would not change. All those times when I felt like I was drowning in my ocean made me stronger–because I always make it back to shore.
So I walk along my beach with ocean waves constantly lapping at my feet. The tides change with the days and years, but they’re always there. I’ve learned how to ignore it. The waves of intrusive thoughts leave a feeling like sand stuck between my toes. It feels uncomfortable at first. That discomfort makes me want to turn back, explore that wave further. I know I shouldn’t. So I’ll walk along my beach next to my ocean with sand between my toes until I forget its there.
Sometimes I’m drawn back into my ocean though. Sometimes that sand is too much to bear and you have to rinse your feet in the waves. Inevitably, the waves may suck you back in again.
And that is okay.
One of the biggest misconceptions among OCD sufferers is that if you are drawn in by your thoughts, then you are weak. You failed. You gave in.
It’s not true. Some days the tides are higher and it’s harder to ignore.
It is okay to obsess. It is okay to worry. It is okay to be sad.
You haven’t failed.
It’s okay to have those moments.
It doesn’t mean that you are weak or didn’t try hard enough. Your ocean waves were just too rough that day.
No one can live by an ocean and never set foot in it.
To anyone else who struggles with anxiety, please know this: you are incredible for making it through each day with an ocean contained within you.