Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Jessica Lincoln, an English student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who works as a freelance writer.
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If there was a time before I had anxiety, I can’t remember it. Sometime around the beginning of elementary school, I was diagnosed with selective mutism, a little-known anxiety disorder that made me unable to speak to nearly anyone at any time. In day-to-day life, it meant that “shy” became the adjective that defined my identity, the excuse for my tendency to turn invisible in public. In my head, I justified my silence: it was someone else’s turn to speak, or what I had to say was just irrelevant.
In most cases, selective mutism goes away with childhood, but that hasn’t been my experience. Even in my last year of high school, people I’d gone to school with since kindergarten expressed surprise when I happened to let out a sentence or two. The only real change has been that my anxiety is now intermingled with depressive episodes, which come up frequently enough that I can identify the warning signs. While I have sought therapy, I doubt it will ever go away completely.
Because of the way my anxiety operates, I don’t tend to physically communicate what’s going on inside my head. Still, there are a few nervous tics: pulling out or messing with my hair, fiddling with jewelry, pushing my glasses up, and others. When I’m in a crowded area or in any type of social situation for too long, I can get headaches and clammy hands, along with a jittery impulse to leave the situation permanently. When the depressive episodes come in, there can be fatigue, excessive hunger and sometimes dizziness.
It either takes over or affects nearly every part of how I think. If I haven’t had enough alone time, my ability to communicate just shuts down. It’s as if someone has locked me into my own mind from the outside, and it takes an enormous amount of mental effort to say even the smallest thing. When I do manage to stutter something out, my mind immediately switches to criticizing every detail of how I said it, assuming that I’ve somehow embarrassed myself.
I also tend to have issues with short-term memory. Names, dates and other things I’m told in conversation can vanish almost instantly from my mind. The more anxious I get, the less I’m able to focus on what’s being said and the less I’m able to remember just minutes later.
On the worst days, I become almost completely non-functional. If I can, I stay in bed all day, tired no matter how long I sleep. I lose all ability to clean my living space, and it’s not uncommon for me to go a day or more without saying a single word. My mind becomes deadlocked, often spiraling into the thought that no one wants me to speak to them anyway. Through all of this, I don’t feel any emotions except for the occasional bout of sadness. When one of these episodes reaches its worst point, suicidal thoughts can creep in, although they have never been backed by serious intent on my part. These episodes can last, with the same or less intensity, for a week or more.
I’ve had some success with medication in the past, although I tend to avoid it during good periods because the medication I use comes with nausea as a side effect. When I’m not on medication, I often cope by allowing myself temporary breaks. When social situations become too overwhelming, I’ll go to the bathroom or find a less noisy area to collect my thoughts for a minute or two. When I happen to be alone, fiction works well at distracting me from the worst of the anxiety. Watching YouTube or reading a book distracts me from my own self-deprecation, and it gives me things to talk about with others who share the same interests. That and time away from crowds usually prevents the really bad days from happening.
I wish people knew that what comes off as rudeness can often just be a sign that someone is dealing with more than they can say. I’ve been told many times that I should speak more because people will think I’m being proud, when I’m really just convinced that I’ll make things worse by speaking. Dismissing a person as rude because they’re anxious or shy only reinforces that person’s idea that their contribution to the conversation is unwanted. It destroys any confidence they may have had in their ability to get through a conversation. Patience and understanding might go a lot further in helping people get away from that place of vulnerability and fear.