For me, anxiety comes with shame. In school, I wanted nothing more than for my struggle with anxiety to go unnoticed by my peers and teachers. You could not have paid me a million pounds to admit it to anyone; all I wanted was to seem just like everyone else. Even now, it makes my cheeks go pink when I am reminded that I, so used to identifying as smart, capable and “normal”, have a disability. This shame is one reason why I am always so reluctant to let others know the about what’s really going on in my life below the surface – who, I think, wants to hear about how this week I was too anxious to get public transport and chickened out twice?
I have been told by well-meaning friends and family members (who are of course unable to understand the extent to which my condition affects me), that I “seem to be coping well” and that I “seem a lot better now”. You would be forgiven for thinking that this would make me feel good about myself, and in theory I would have thought the same. But instead I felt overwhelmingly more distant and isolated than I did 5 seconds prior.
Whilst I don’t expect anyone, not even other anxiety sufferers, to perfectly understand my experience of the condition, there’s an issue with the word ‘seem’. Making assumptions about a person’s psychological well-being based solely on their appearance is going to be both inaccurate and disheartening for the sufferer, who will most likely feel unheard and misunderstood.
This approach spreads the underlying message that if you can’t see it when we're face-to-face, it’s not there. For example, it is not hard for me to greet friends and family with a smile and laugh along with them, because I love them and truly enjoy spending time with them. That is the person I am and always have been. But what is harder is forcing myself to leave the house every time I go to meet them, when I am sometimes crippled by intense physical symptoms and terrifying thoughts. So, to avoid seeming like a Debbie Downer, I expend all my energy hiding and controlling my condition to avoid the embarrassment it brings upon me when it’s ‘exposed’ in front of other people. I’m not trying to play a little violin here, but as you can imagine it gets tiring and boring quickly!
An event that stands out to me in this regard happened a week before my first A Level exam. I had been revising hard despite anxiety, and was feeling rather confident (if I say so myself!). However at the end of a rather tough day, I found myself in A&E having an anxiety attack accompanied by very vivid, scary thoughts. I left vowing that I would quit sixth form in the morning. Yet in several days I was back at sixth form, smiling with my teachers and classmates, joining in with their disbelief that exams were just days away. Having told no one, I wondered if anyone at school might notice I was acting different. To my relief (at the time), no one did.
Like all types of prejudice, the stigma of anxiety and other mental health conditions is one big contradiction; I simultaneously feel forced to both hide my anxiety, and yet to visibly display it so that others will believe me. As long I and other sufferers are sent this confusing message, the shame and stigma persist.