I’ve been going to therapy regularly for several months now. I’m an anxious person, and you should read my birthday post to get a clearer picture of how that manifests in my life. Recently, though, as I learned more about myself and my own impulses and emotions, I began to want more clarity. Yes, I experience anxiety, but–I thought–did I really “have anxiety”? Doesn’t everyone feel a sense of deep, crushing responsibility and mild doom regarding the commonplace comings and goings in their lives? Isn’t this totally normal?
So, at the end of my last appointment, I casually asked my therapist about it. “Do you…ever do…diagnosis?” I said (LOL at that question, come on, man). “Because I was just wondering…if you were to diagnose me with anything…”
“Oh yeah, I have to, as part of my practice,” she said. “I diagnosed you with generalized anxiety disorder.”
She went on to say something else about how she has to diagnose me with something for the sake of insurance. But I was riding high on the cloud of generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder.
Let me emphasize that the diagnosis didn’t come as any surprise. If I’d had to guess at a disorder for myself, GAD would have been my first or second pick. But I was elated to learn that even if it was all just some insurance formality, I had something real and definable.
GAD is something that a whole bunch of people have. GAD has symptoms that I can point to when I’m getting tunnel vision, spiraling tighter and tighter in on the demands of the day and how I’m going to meet them. When I’m obsessing over the way a person spoke to me, or how to word a delicate email, or all the ways that a halfway-risky move I make could go wrong, I feel like now I have a chance to step back and go: It’s not as bad as you think. The anxiety is blowing it out of proportion.
Last week, a few days after The Diagnosis, I made a mistake at work. Not a colossal, catastrophic, grounds-for-getting-fired mistake, but one that any conscientious worker would be rightfully embarrassed about. I handled it well in the moment (the great Alison Green of Ask a Manager would be proud!), but oh man. The sweat was pouring down my back, my mind was racing, and I’m certain that when I went to tell my boss what had happened, my face and neck were flushed bright pink. IT SUCKED. Even so, I was able to tell myself, it’s not that bad! Remember that you have actual anxiety as diagnosed by a medical professional and it’s making a sucky situation way worse than it really is! You’ll survive this!
And after a while I kind of believed it.
Could I have done that without a formal diagnosis? Yes, of course. But funnily enough, I think the anxiety itself often stopped me from doing just that. After all, who was I to decide? And what could I possibly have to feel anxious about? My life is good. I am lucky and hyper-privileged in many ways. I assumed I was just a nervous, uptight person for a long time. Even when I began learning about anxiety disorders, I felt like diagnosing myself was a grandiose, melodramatic move.
And, of course, the anxiety itself has propelled me forward in certain areas. Worrying about a bleak future can be extremely motivational. Without anxiety I don’t know if I would have done as well in school, or molded myself into a stellar employee. I take good care of my health because I’m so afraid of being old and frail and alone. So yeah, it has its benefits, and I don’t want to forget about that.
But it can also mean laying awake at night because you just went to high school orientation and learned about “credits” and you don’t know how you’re going to earn enough “credits” to graduate because you’re still not entirely sure what they are and it wouldn’t occur to you to ask. The only way to survive anything, you figure, is to stay in control as much as possible and keep yourself quiet and safe, and then maybe you’ll make it to the end of your life with as few scrapes and bruises as possible.
Now, I feel like I have the tools to be able to react a little differently. I’m able, even if it’s just for a little bit, to realize that not everything is my responsibility; there are some forces in the world entirely outside of my control. It’s a new and interesting feeling. Yes, things can go wrong, but sometimes they go okay. Sometimes they even go really, really well.