I don’t own anxiety

So, I saw this sarcastic tweet: “Funny how so many young girls have anxiety these days…” It implies that women in their teens and early twenties are exaggerating their feelings or think it’s cool to have social anxiety. I’m pretty dead certain that’s wrong.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of this sort of thinking. I’ve felt oddly protective over my illness. I’ve denied others the use of the label because I believed their experience wasn’t the same as mine.

That’s the only thing I was right about. Their experience won’t be the same as mine. No one’s is. Everyone experiences illness differently. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get to call it what it is. I don’t own anxiety or depression. I’m not an arbiter of who gets to say they have these things.

I understand the arguments against self-diagnosis, and for what it’s worth, I encourage anyone who thinks they might have depression and/or anxiety to talk to a doctor about it. But that’s easier said than done – especially if you are depressed and anxious. It took me six years of depression before I spoke about it, and fourteen of anxiety.

I knew what depression was because it runs in my family. So I knew that was what I had, even though I didn’t want to admit it. Anxiety, however, was something completely foreign. I thought it was just part of depression, part of my personality, part of being a teenager. I made up plenty of excuses for it, because I didn’t have any language around it.

But it’s different for teenagers now. Anxiety is commonly acknowledged and talked about. And I, for one, think that’s a good thing. I honestly don’t care if there’s a few people who might “just be shy” or introverted or have other stuff going on, who say that they have anxiety. Yeah there’s a difference between experiencing some anxiety in some situations, and having Generalised Anxiety Disorder or other disorders. But I’m not going to go around saying that my GAD means my experience is worse or that my anxiety is more real. That’s bullshit.

Maybe there’s a “cool level of anxiety” – a tumblr level where you get to say you’re socially awkward, but you don’t experience bone-crushing fear at the thought of leaving your room and having to talk to your flatmates.

But honestly, who is anyone on the outside to determine that for you? And when you’re young, and you’re already going through so much shit, and you’re trying to find the words that fit with your ever-changing, developing identity – if this one helps, then fucken go for it. Hell, if you’re sixty and you’re just now discovering there’s a word for feeling like you’d rather die than go to the grocery store – take it. Be my guest.

Naming something can help you get power over it. My counsellor reminds me to try to say “the anxiety” rather than “my anxiety.” Sometimes that helps, to think of it as a separate thing. Not an inescapable part of who I am. But something that happens, that I can control.

Mental illness isn’t pretty. We do have a culture now where that belief can be encouraged – the tumblr aesthetic of pale girls, bruised lips, screamed song lyrics. Depression looks more like unwashed sheets and bowls crusted with days-old cereal. Anxiety, for me, looks more like constant stomach cramps, originless panic, total inability to speak.

But, again. I’m not going to be the arbiter of someone else’s experience. It’s incredibly painful to have someone accuse you of faking an illness, physical or mental. I’m not going to do that to anyone. I don’t care who they are. And I’m writing it here to remind myself.


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