What It’s Like: Generalized Anxiety Disorder

This is the fourth post in a series. See posts 1, 2, and 3.

To reiterate: none of these posts are meant to be a conclusive picture of everyone who has the diagnosis. All of these are simply my experiences of a given diagnosis. GAD is a wide ranging diagnosis that takes lots of forms. If your experience of it is different from mine, I’d love to hear from you!

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is like having a broken alarm system. This is probably an overused metaphor, but whatever. Imagine you have a home alarm system that’s supposed to let you know whenever you’re in danger. It’s a magical alarm system that doesn’t just alert you to intruders, but also tells you if there’s a natural disaster or some sort of accident in your house waiting to happen. It’s suuuuper helpful. This is what normal anxiety is like. Normal people get afraid or worried or anxious when they have reason to believe that something is going to harm them. Sometimes this is in a very obvious way like if your car goes out of control, sometimes it’s in a more long term sense, like when you’re anxious about a test or a job interview (which has the potential to affect your future in positive or negative ways).

For most people, the strength of the alarm corresponds to the severity of the potential harm. If a bomb is about to fall on your house, your alarm system will be FREAKING OUT. If there’s about to be a thunderstorm, your house might beep at you a little and get you to look out the window. Same with emotions: we get very anxious about big things (like the bar exam or being very close to a large and dangerous animal) and kinda anxious about smaller things (a small quiz or slack rope walking a few feet about the ground). This isn’t across the board true, and certainly some people have one or two irrational fears, but for the most part anxiety follows a pretty predictable set of patterns.

Now imagine you have a house that has an alarm system that goes off whenever something is going to hurt you, but also will randomly go off at things like the neighbor’s cat or a kid on a bike, and when you try to turn it off it just keeps starting right back up again. Sometimes when it should give you a little nudge, like for a thunderstorm, it gives you the blaring DANGER DANGER of a bomb above your house.

Some of you might say “well just start ignoring the alarm.” But the alarm does still go off at all the right times too. You’re left with a near constant confusion about whether you’re in danger or not, trying to figure out how you can differentiate what’s a real threat and what’s not. It starts to wear on you, the noise and the uncertainty. You think you’re going crazy because you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, when it’s reasonable to jump out of bed and pull out a baseball bat or when it’s reasonable to just wait it out.

This is a lot like what GAD is for me. It isn’t that I’m afraid of everything, or that I’m timid, or that I can’t talk to people. It’s that anxiety and uncertainty will hit me at the most unexpected times, sometimes for no discernible reason. A very big part of it is my anxiety just happens BIGGER than almost anyone else I’ve ever met. Catastrophizing is basically my middle name. Once in fifth grade I got a B on a test. I started freaking out and crying, leaving my teacher and my parents somewhat uncertain about how to reassure me that it was totally fine. In my mind I could see exactly how my future would go: the B would mean I wasn’t put in the honors classes in junior high, which meant that when I went to apply for high schools (because I went to a private school, high school required entrance exams and applications) I would be laughed out, and I would end up in the worst school ever which meant I wouldn’t get into a college, which meant that I would never have a good job and be miserable forever.

My brain is very, very good at consequences. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m a rule follower, and part of this is being acutely aware of the long term consequences of my actions. The problem comes when I start drawing out long, ridiculous chains of events that COULD happen and would probably ruin my life. It’s often paralyzing. If I think something’s gone wrong I generally have one of two reactions: I either have a huge adrenaline rush and start accomplishing absolutely everything I possibly can as a kind of ritual to prevent badness, or I freeze up and can’t do anything.

But I also get anxious over the stupidest things. I’m fine with heights and needles and blood, spiders, snakes, death, disease, germs…most of the things a normal person might be a little worried by. But having a day at work with nothing to do? Cue a panic attack because I will get fired and it will be the end of my life as I know it. It’s a very physical kind of a disorder for me. I have some seriously impressive knots in my shoulders and neck (I got a massage last week and the masseuse told me everything felt fine, except my shoulders and neck which felt like “you’ve been hit by a bus”), I get the pounding heart fluttery breath feeling, the tight throat, my whole posture curls into itself. It actually just happened about 20 seconds ago because someone wanted to put off hanging out until after dinner instead of ASAP after work and my brain just started chasing itself in circles chanting “they don’t like you, they never want to see you again” and then laughing like some sort of evil torture expert. It will likely take a few hours before I can work my way back into a basic state of normal heart rate, normal breathing, and relatively calm muscles.

Possibly the worst part is that if I’m bored and my brain has nothing else to do, it tends to just manufacture anxieties. This has led to the additional anxiety I have about getting bored, because getting bored leads to being anxious. I have a lot of recursive anxieties about being anxious.

Any other experiences of anxiety out there?

What Discrimination Looks Like

When you think about discrimination what do you imagine? Most likely someone without a college degree, working a less than stellar job. Perhaps someone who has been abused. Do you imagine someone with a college degree, nearly no debt, working for a nonprofit and happily able to pay their bills? Probably not. Do you think it’s even possible for that person to be discriminated against? Do you think it would affect their life?

I’d like to use myself as an example of how discrimination can hurt those who look highly successful, and how discrimination is far more pervasive than we think it is as it’s often invisible. Often, people who experience discrimination but who are doing fairly well in other areas of their life won’t report because the police and legal system aren’t stellar towards people who are in an oppressed category, and because it’s long, painful, and sometimes expensive. You never know who has been affected by discrimination or how it’s changed their life. These are my examples. I am one of the more privileged people I know, so I’m sure that nearly everyone else out there reading has more, but if I can have my life impacted by discrimination, then so can anyone else. It is a serious problem.

From the moment I entered the workforce I have experienced discrimination. The following story reeks of privilege and I understand that, but even with that reeking of privilege, I want to point out the gender discrimination that happened. When I was 16, my parents decided that I should probably get my first summer job. When my brother was my age, he had gone to work for my dad’s company. My dad worked for a company that made staging equipment, and my brother went to work in the shop doing physical labor. He was paid $10/hr. Obviously having parents who can get you a well-paying summer job is a huge privilege. I am not denying this. However when I reached the age to start working, my father made the same request: could his daughter work the same job that his son previously had? The company responded with “we don’t let girls work in the shop. It’s not the right environment.”

As some background, I was entirely physically capable of any job that my brother was. I was swimming almost 12 hours per week at the time and in incredibly good shape. There was absolutely no reason that I should be denied that job. The company didn’t even try to cover it up by saying they didn’t think I was capable of the job, they simply said that they would not hire me because of my gender. What they offered me instead was an office job paying $8/hr. Now as all of you know this is highly illegal. Thankfully, my mother is a lawyer and not someone who takes that kind of shit lightly, so she called them up and kindly informed them that they would pay her daughter the same amount of money they paid her son or she would sue their asses off. I was so lucky to be able to get a job for $10/hr, but they didn’t hire me back the next summer and hired someone for a lower pay rate, despite the fact that I was an incredibly dedicated worker at a really sucky job (data entry is the most soul-killing endeavor ever). My brother on the other hand worked for nearly 5 summers there, easily making more than I made at any other job I could get. I now know for a fact that I’m starting out my post-college life with less than he did. In addition, in college he was offered a job through my uncle’s river rafting company that a. paid well and b. was amazing. I was not offered this same opportunity despite expressing interest.

Again, I understand that these things didn’t leave me in a really bad situation. I am not homeless. I am not without a job. I wasn’t left with no way to start saving for college. However they did leave me with a significant dent in my finances that my brother didn’t have, when in nearly every other way we were identical (with the exception that I had a better GPA than he did, but apparently that counts negatively??). In the long term, these things make a difference. They limit my ability to do things like take unpaid internships. They make my current position as a VISTA a much more significant risk than it would be for him. They mean that I’ll be starting with less resources than he has, and that impacts my future. They have significantly contributed to my anxiety surrounding money. They have left me feeling like less of a person in many ways. They have impacts, even where it appears that they don’t.

But beyond sexism, and the effects of discrimination that I may be able to make up for in other ways (like be being a super awesome badass), I’m also currently experiencing some discrimination that may seriously impact my life and will likely be a lot harder to recover from. Last week, I asked my therapist if she would consider basically “prescribing” me an emotional support animal (a cat to be specific). As y’all probably know I have an eating disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and sub-threshold borderline personality disorder. One is entitled to an emotional support animal if you have a disability which affects your ability to do basic functions in your home (I would argue that the inability to eat due to eating disorder, the insomnia due to anxiety, and the lack of personal safety due to self-injury would qualify here), and if the animal will improve those symptoms and is not an undue burden to the landlord. This applies even if the landlord has a no pets policy. Cats really do alleviate my symptoms. They are incredibly helpful for soothing anxiety, they lighten my mood, they help me sleep, they calm me if I’m having a bad day or having difficulties with food, and they are really really good at interrupting purging and self-injurious behavior (seriously have you ever tried to hurt yourself when there’s a cat who keeps knocking your razors on the floor? It’s too ridiculous to even attempt).

Having this animal is important to my safety and mental well-being. In fact, it directly impacts my quality of life, my ability to function at work and at home, my health, and perhaps even my life (I don’t imagine I’m anywhere near a suicidal state of mind right now, but it’s happened before and it is a very real possibility for someone with my conditions). However when I called my landlord to run it past him, let him know that I had appropriate documentation, and make sure he didn’t have any questions, the response I got was “No, no way no how, you are being underhanded and dirty, you are an improper tenant, and you don’t get to live here if you want to have this animal that you need for your health”. This response has directly put me in jeopardy as my anxiety and anger shot through the roof. Since then I have been exhibiting some unhealthy exercising and eating practices, and it took all my self-control not to self-harm after that phone call. Looking at me, no one would know the kind of impact that this discrimination is having on me, but it is serious and it is potentially life threatening (because yes, not eating, over-exercising, purging, and self-harm are all potentially life threatening).

In all sorts of places that you would not expect, there is discrimination and its consequences are real and they are serious. For all the privilege I have dripping out of my ears, I have now been put into a seriously unhealthy position because of my mental health. I am now left with the choice of whether to attempt to manage my mental health without what would be an extremely helpful tool, or to try to go through a court battle (which I don’t have the money or time for, which would stress me out immensely, and would most likely exacerbate all of my symptoms). No matter what someone looks like or how their life appears, you have no idea how systems of power affect them. They are pervasive and intensely harmful. This is one life, one set of stories. Imagine multiplying that by all the people my age, or all the people with my mental health status, or all the women. We have not solved these problems. They are very real.

P.S. The little cutie in the featured picture is the baby that I really want to take home with me.

Feelin’ Twitchy: The Inside Scoop on Anxiety

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog addressing what it’s like to have an eating disorder and what it’s like to self harm. I’ve done a fair amount of talking about depression as well as BPD symptoms. But one thing I have not addressed is my third diagnosis: generalized anxiety disorder. In general, I think this is a fairly overlooked and forgotten diagnosis. In my personal life, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about anxiety, but I recently ran across a post that tried to describe what it’s like to have anxiety and it hit me that anxiety is one of the driving motivators for many of my other behaviors. I also realized that many people don’t really have any idea what it’s like to have clinical anxiety. Many of you (including those I know personally) probably don’t know that I have this diagnosis. But I’d like to try to separate out what pieces of my life are anxiety, to help you all have a better understanding of what it’s like.


For a long time I didn’t realize I had anxiety: I thought that it was just part and parcel of my depression, or just how people act when they’re stressed out. My therapist didn’t tell me when he gave me the diagnosis, and originally I was put on Prozac as an anti-depressant, only to find out that it ratcheted up my anxiety to no end. I didn’t realize that they hadn’t taken into account my anxiety. I thought that was just part of how depression worked. When I got on anti-anxiety meds, I began to realize that not everyone felt like the whole world was on hyperdrive all around them and they couldn’t keep up. Yet even though I peripherally knew that I was on an anti-anxiety medication, I still didn’t really think about the implications for my mental health. I think about my depression, about my self-harm, about my eating disorder, but I forget that the panic of a to-do list is not something that other people experience. So now I want to give myself the time to actually identify what my anxiety is, and how it differs from the experiences of others.


My current therapist tends to think that anxiety and depression are simply two sides of the same coin, but I feel them as a war inside my own mind. My depression is like a weight pulling me down. Sometimes it feels like someone has stuck a giant fishhook into my chest and is trying to rip it through my body. It pulls, it drags, it’s heavy, and it’s momentum is all downwards. I get lethargic when depression kicks in, and most of my thoughts in depression land circulate around hopelessness, pointlessness, and emptiness. Anxiety is the complete opposite. It’s as if there’s a constant fire directly under my ass, as if my body can’t contain all the things that are happening in it, as if my mind is running and running and running and can’t quite ever catch up to the ideas and the tasks that it needs to understand. My brain won’t focus, Depression holds me still and anxiety fuels me to move.


In my day to day life, anxiety tends to manifest itself as perfectionism and fear. Perfectionism is the most apparent. In school, I completed all of my assignments a week ahead of time and still felt that I was behind. When I feel that I’m not accomplishing enough, I load my schedule with more and more until I start to crack under the pressure. I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough, or that I’m failing, or that I’ve embarrassed myself and screwed up. These feelings are nearly constant, and they’re like a little gnawing worry going at the back of my brain taking up my energy and making me desperate to do better.


Part of the perfectionism is fear that things won’t go the way I intend them to, or that I can’t control things. It shows up in the fact that I am a compulsive lister- I cannot make it through a day without trying to plan what I will be doing, in what order, and for how long. I start to panic when I have long stretches of time without any plan: who knows what might happen? And although lists have been a life-saver in many ways, they also intensify the anxiety. Some people might look at a neatly drawn up list with clear and reasonable time frames and think that it makes things more manageable. I look at it and wonder why I can’t do it all at once, my brain jumps from place to place trying to solve every problem, I can’t focus, and I start to feel as if no matter what I do, it will never be enough or never be good enough.


In conjunction with this fear is the fact that I cannot handle boredom. Probably in part due to a fairly major surgery as a young child, I have some really strong emotions about boredom. I don’t experience boredom as an annoyance: I experience it as worthlessness, meaninglessness, and a kind of pain. When I get bored I feel trapped, I feel lonely, I feel like I need to smash my head against a wall just to do something. And so I operate in a constant state of anxiety that I need to be doing more and that if I stop moving for one moment, then boredom will get me. With boredom comes depression and pain.


A huge part of anxiety for me is my inability to let go of thoughts. I think there’s a fair amount of overlap with some of the OCD characteristics I tend to exhibit. Once something anxiety-provoking is stuck in my mind, I can’t get rid of it. Oftentimes when I feel I have too much to do I will make a list and burn through it, completing everything I need to do in a haze of anxiety and fear, certain that I’ll never complete everything in time. Usually I finish quite quickly, and then spend the rest of my day feeling as if I have more to do, unable to calm myself because even though I can keep checking the facts and seeing that nothing else needs to be done, part of my brain is still left in the dust, worrying over the original tasks.


The interaction of some of my BPD symptoms and my anxiety is that I take everything personally, and thus can’t disengage from anxiety-provoking situations. I have a lot of fear that people are attacking me or don’t want me around, and so I spend a good deal of time rehearsing scenarios in my mind: possible explanations for why people around me are doing what they’re doing, things that I could do to improve my relationships, or simply how I will handle future anxiety-provoking situations. As an example, I dislike talking on the phone. Before I pick up the phone to call someone, I will review in my mind at least five times how I intend to initiate the conversation and the potential ways that the conversation will go, working through my potential responses to what they might say. Very rarely does this help me actually prepare for the conversation, but I feel extremely vulnerable in that situation and so my anxiety tells me I need to be afraid and protect myself from embarrassment. Whenever I go into an unknown situation I spend a great deal of time imagining it and emotionally and mentally preparing myself, otherwise my anxiety will shoot through the roof. It’s a waste of my time and it interferes with my ability to engage in other tasks beforehand, as well as escalates my irritability and fear, but I can’t stop myself.


Anxiety also manifests for me in thoughts of the future. I have always had a tendency to exaggerate failure and problems in my own mind. To take an extreme example, when I was in Jr. High I got a B on a mid-sized project. My brain extrapolated from that that I wouldn’t make it in to the correct high school, thus not the correct college, and I’d end up a crack whore living on the streets (un PC language is from my 13 year old self). I have a fairly quick moving brain to begin with, so I can move through all those steps in the space of about 5 seconds, and I spend most of my life trying to stop my brain from drawing out all the possible conclusions of a situation. Most of them are not good. This can leave me crying, anxious, desperate to please, or any number of other bad things.


The size of the future drives me crazy, as does my inability to control it. I am terrified that if I don’t have complete control over everything, it will all fall apart, but I’m also afraid that I will miss out on everything. I love the potential and the size of the future. It excites me. I love all the possible things that I could do. And I absolutely want to do everything. Unfortunately, that means that I hate it when I can’t do something. And so when I have to choose between things and cut off one avenue of my life, I freeze up. I can’t make decisions. My college decision process got so bad that the day I had to declare my dad walked into my room and said “Answer the first one that pops into your head, St Olaf or the U of M,” and I confusedly burst out “St Olaf!” because the logical methods of decision making had failed me. I always am left wondering what my life would have been like if I had chosen differently, and that makes me feel as if my current choices are bad and wrong. This leaves my mind spinning in circles over possibilities and what I could have done and where I am now and comparing where I am to others until I’m absolutely flooded and overwhelmed.


Oftentimes I forget that other people don’t experience the world the way I do. Other people tell me about procrastinating, about getting anxious about things and then putting them off because they don’t want to deal with them. Other people are capable of forgetting about their work or their homework when they’re away from it. Other people aren’t always feeling the huge weight of the future, or the burden of a thousand small failures they always need to make up for. Other people are capable of choosing to do something fun before they finish their work. These things all seem like complete impossibilities to me. This may be the biggest sign of my anxiety: certain actions that could involve lower anxiety or putting off anxiety-producing things, or stepping away from anxiety don’t even exist in my life.


Many people don’t totally know how to recognize my anxiety, or don’t even know it’s there. I’m not entirely sure my family is aware of the diagnosis. They know that I’m “sensitive”: I cry easily, often out of frustration. But very few people think of “anxiety” as a diagnosis, or as something on par with depression. Everyone feels anxious, right? Perhaps this is because my coping mechanism for anxiety is to shut down. I get very quiet, I begin playing with something or getting little tics like picking at my fingers, my voice falls into monotone. Because the feelings of anxiety are so large, I often feel afraid of actually expressing them: I have to keep them under control, and so I tamp down on them as hard as I can. I think this often leads to me looking zombie-like or dissociating. There is almost always the constant buzz of some anxiety in my life, but when the buzz becomes a roar I stop moving. I become paralyzed.


The odd thing about anxiety is how invisible it seems to be to others. In my family we talk about my depression and we talk about my eating disorder. For some reason anxiety doesn’t really come into it, even though it’s intimately tied to both of the others. There’s a reason that the sight of food can send me into a panic, and it’s because my panic button is a very delicate thing. I think that even I forget that my sensitivity and my extreme susceptibility to stress are not just character traits: they are in fact a mental illness as serious as my depression. I forget that I don’t simply self-harm out of feeling helpless. In fact I rarely do it for that reason. I do it to calm myself, to bring my mind back to the present, to remind myself that I am not actually in all the million places my mind is at once, I am not being ripped in a million directions. I am here, in my body. Anxiety leaves me feeling very ungrounded, but I often forget it’s the culprit and so I fight depression and eating disorder instead of anxiety.


My anxiety tends to stem from feeling inadequate, and so whenever I get the smallest reminder that I might have screwed up, not done everything I could have, might not be as far ahead as I could be, or might have more I could do, my brain simply goes haywire. It’s as if my brain has a filter that looks only for “evidence you suck” and then constantly feeds all the results to me. And so my baseline of emotion is nearly always higher than other people’s.


My anxiety takes all of my worries and all of my fears and finds them constantly in my everyday life. Then it tells me that I’m in danger, I need to be on alert, and I need all my senses to be on high, while also completing every possible task to protect myself from danger. My anxiety asks me to fix the world so that it is no longer dangerous to me. And so I spend most of my days trying desperately to keep up with what my anxiety expects of me and panicking when I cannot. Meds have been extremely helpful in toning down some of this feeling, in giving me back some sense of an emotional skin. But many times the best I can do is to practice skills that calm me down when anxiety begins to hit. I’m still practicing at that. I hope that soon I won’t have to always worry when I’ll fall apart.