Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Elena Kadvany, a 28-year-old journalist covering food and education in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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I never had a name for it, but it was everywhere. In the way I organized my closet obsessively, over and over again. In how I relished a clean room and felt uncomfortable to my core in the presence of messy things, both physical and emotional. In the compulsive brain games I played, like keeping track of each person who walked by me on the street and mentally marking “yes” or “no” for whether I would want that person’s body instead of my own.
The only way to calm it was to control it. I kept journals I can barely stand to read now where I diligently tracked what I was eating like a school assignment I was determined to excel at: Tuesday, six almonds; Wednesday, three drinks and a late-night cheeseburger. Tuesday, I was proud of; Wednesday, I punished myself for. It was like entering evidence in the court of private shame.
I always thought everyone was judging me as intensely as I was judging myself, which often made social situations, particularly those involving food, heightened and stressful.
I now understand that obsessing over food is a symptom of the root causes of my anxiety. But the deep irony of the whole thing is that I actually love food. Like really, really love it. I love to eat; I love to try new foods; I love reading about food; I love to cook.
After college, it felt natural to become a food writer, making a career out of my compulsion. I am now paid to do something that constantly tests my ability to manage my anxiety and my relationship to food.
My chest tightens. I clench my fists. My stomach knots. My mind races.
I feel overwhelmed. I want to flee. I want to be alone. It feels like the only safe scenario is to shut down and withdraw. Voicing how I’m feeling is the most terrifying, threatening thing of all. I feel anxious about being anxious, and that makes me more anxious.
My mind is a runaway train of risk analysis.
I assess it methodologically, then excessively. Have I eaten healthily enough and exercised enough to justify this meal? If I go, are there certain things I can eat that I won’t feel bad about? Will anyone notice if I don’t finish my food? If I over-indulge, when can I work out next to make up for it? This can be particularly hard to manage when I need to eat somewhere for work or immerse myself in a food story.
On my worst days, my anxiety controls me. I make up excuses to avoid social commitments and withdraw into the comfort of addictive habits (restrictive eating, over-exercise and isolation). I become a really unpleasant shell of myself, waiting silently for those I love most to read my mind and pull me out of my misery. It was the experience of one of these days, almost a year ago exactly to date, that prompted me to go to therapy.
Ironically, though, I hide it well. To those who don’t know me well, even on my worst days you see a very high-functioning, high-performing person on the outside.
Consistent therapy and reaching out to friends. Understanding where my anxiety comes from through therapy has been incredibly helpful — not to eliminate it completely, because that’s unrealistic, but to manage it. With that awareness, slowly but surely I’m better able to recognize and catch that runaway thought train before it leaves the station, staying present rather than obsessing about the future. (Most of the time.)
There’s a lot of shame wrapped up in anxiety. I often feel like I have a terrible secret for which I am entirely to blame, which makes it really hard to talk about what I’m feeling. Even writing this piece I feel a little panicked (okay, a lot) about how people will perceive me after reading this, especially given my career focus.
Also, progress isn’t linear. There’s no right or wrong way through anxiety.
Some days are better than others, and I expect it will be like that for the rest of my life. I have endless appreciation for those who understand and remind me to accept that path for what it is, without judgment or pressure. There might be someone in your life that needs that reminder more than you know.