The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Ashley Simpo, a writer, social media manager and mother of a 5-year-old son. Originally from Northern California, she relocated to Brooklyn, New York after her grandmother’s dying wish urged her to follow her creative dreams. She currently lives with her best friend in a communal co-mothership raising their combined three children under one supportive roof.
I don’t quite remember a time in my life when anxiety wasn’t gripping my arm. When I was in elementary school I would get struck with images of my family being brutalized. I was never exposed to visuals of violence, so I have no idea where these terrorizing thoughts came from. They would simply invade me — in class while thumbing through a textbook, while trying to fall asleep late at night, riding bikes with my sister. It’s changed and evolved through the years, becoming less random and more centralized around the stress of adulthood. In my early 20s anxiety showed up as a social barrier. I would start off my day ready to run errands and then spend an hour in the parking lot absolutely frozen and unable to get out of the car. People thought I was a procrastinator, and I wished it were as simple as that.
Anxiety and I are co-dependently committed to each other. I have never taken medication for anxiety. I grew up with a mother who suffered from chronic depression and embraced medication after suffering too long on her own. I didn’t want to medicate, become complacent, less engaged, aloof or lose my creative edge. So I have bounced between these two worlds.
It’s a tightness. I clench my fists unknowingly, and tighten my mouth. My boyfriend says my brow straightens when I’m anxious. Everything in my body feels like it’s receding, my toes curl, my neck shortens, the back of my ears and my palms sweat. It can feel like I’m dying, like my heart is about to burst or fall out of my chest or both. I try to drink the air, attempting to catch my breath, fail, try again and somehow receive enough oxygen not to pass out. Sometimes I cry, other times I grow incredibly silent trying to will myself out of the episode. When I was in my early 20s, I completely dissociated. I don’t remember doing this, I simply sat down and completely checked out while my mind raged on.
Often times my temperament changes immediately, as if I’m bracing myself for impact. My sentences become condensed and sharp, my tone is aggressively passive, the distance between what matters and what doesn’t shortens by miles and everything rises to the surface.
Then I retreat to a routine of procrastination that numbs it all away. A mindless show on Netflix, takeout, the refusal to do anything that requires effort outside of what is absolutely necessary. My big curly afro is kept hidden away in what I call a “stress ponytail.” Worst of all, I clear my schedule so I can do absolutely nothing. I will ignore emails, texts, and say “I can’t” to absolutely every offer of social engagement. I’m labeled as boring or flaky or unreliable. In reality, all I am is exhausted.
When it all crashes and I feel like I can’t take anymore, I retreat. I let things pile up and collect and I wonder how I’ll ever hold the weight of my own body up again. I do this until I can’t anymore, and then I get up and fix all the things I let break.
The worst days are the days I don’t deserve to feel anxious. When I accomplish something that seemed impossible or an amazing opportunity presents itself. Everyone around me is patting my back, telling me I’m blessed. I know I should feel excited and gracious and happy but I’m actually sinking into the floor. I’m already 20 steps ahead, anticipating the disappointment that is surely to come, the pressure of up-keep, of letting people down or failing to make lightning strike twice. A few years ago I wrote an article that I was incredibly proud of because it was strong and true and it lifted women up and made them cheer. People from all over were emailing me, thanking me for writing such honest words and quotes from my piece were being discussed in blog posts and forums. My editor at the time sent me a text that said, “better follow this up with something really good.” He didn’t mean it the way I took it. He wanted me to know he believed in me. But I didn’t write for two months after that. I was buried under the weight of high expectations and low energy. I was afraid to strike while the iron was hot, while all eyes were on me. So instead, I let the moment pass.
Failure is so familiar and warm. It’s on the days I succeed that my anxiety kicks in the hardest. That’s also when I can talk about my anxiety the least.
I am a mom who smokes pot. I stand by this both as a native Californian and as someone who worked in the legal cannabis industry which instilled me with a proper “education” about the multi-use plant. When things start to feel heavy and the world is slowly closing in on me and all I can hear is that voice in my head telling me I need to panic in order to make it right, I take a few long tokes of a nice sativa strain and feel immediate release. I can look in the mirror and say “you got this” and actually believe myself. I can muster enough energy to ask for help. Sometimes I retreat to the bathroom to cry and audibly remind myself that what I was feeling before was not real. Then the release happens.
Suddenly, I can breathe easy again, enjoy my son, slow the world down a bit and handle all the things in front of me without feeling like the ceiling is caving in.
I used to walk with a lot of shame around using cannabis as my preferred method of coping. Someone once told me that mothers aren’t allowed to smoke pot in order to deal with anxiety and stress. Someone told me that if I can’t handle my own demons, then I should just grin and bare it and stay positive. I refuse to believe that motherhood or life in general was meant to be suffered through just because you have anxiety. I refuse to believe that we can’t find the things that bring us peace, barring they don’t harm us or the people around us. We all deserve the chance to get a grip.
Anxiety is called the “silent killer,” but it’s only silent to the people around us. I once explained my anxiety by referring to it as static. It’s like trying to live life with the sound of loud static in your ears. So you walk around half listening to people and trying to shake away the noise long enough to get a handle on things. Anxiety is also a word that gets overused by people who don’t actually have it. So society tends to believe that people who truly deal with it are just chronic complainers, or people who can’t handle anything in life, or people with negative outlooks. “Just pray” they tell me, “practice self-care.”
No one knows that you’re falling apart when it’s happening (unless you’re hyperventilating), and no one knows that you’re used to falling apart. When you’re a black woman with anxiety, people think you’re just a b----. They don’t know you’re trying to make it through a moment that is drowning you. I try to compensate for having the wrong tone by over-explaining but then people think I’m patronizing them. I try to soften my voice and remain passive, but then people think I’m a pushover. I try to make jokes and be funny but people tend to associate comedy with toughness, and I don’t feel tough in those moments. What I know it this: My anxiety reminds me how strong I am. Maybe not in the moment when it feels like I’m suffocating, but after.