Opinion: Anxiety is not just a statistic

“Did you know? Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults over the age of 18 — or roughly 18 percent of the population. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those suffering receive treatment. People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.”

Also, the previous three sentences were copied verbatim from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website. And for the rest of this piece, none of those statistics will matter.

As someone living with anxiety disorder, my most common feeling is that those not dealing with anxiety just don’t get me. They may know somebody else with anxiety disorder, may have experienced a single, isolated breakdown in their lifetime, or may only know the details of anxiety disorder from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website I just copied. My mind believes that people don’t think about just how personal, convoluted, and idiosyncratic the struggle with anxiety can be. However, many people with anxiety disorder — like myself — don’t stop to think about the widespread prevalence of anxiety, with more people struggling with the disorder than any with other mental illness. The experience is deeply personal, yet omnipresent.

For me, anxiety disorder is a void where all the good in my life collapses into a singularity of negativity and self-depreciation. I don’t realize how deep I’m in it until the gravity reaches an unbearable intensity. Even then, I let the black hole of anxiety swallow me deeper and deeper until I’m too embarrassed by my depressive actions to own up to my poor behavior. And it’s a vicious cycle that affects my quality of life, as well as the mood of those in my proximity.

As I experience my own struggles, I often feel like an authority figure for the other anxiety sufferers in my life. I feel like my own experiences can be a panacea for another person. I try as I might to bestow my anxiety-crippled peers with sage-like wisdom, but it never really sinks in for them. I ask myself: “We’re both suffering from the same illness, so why don’t they believe that the coping mechanisms I’ve given them work?” But then I realize that, just like me, these people suffer from their own voids — their own singularities — that make them feel just as alone in the struggle as I feel.

A year and a half ago, I lost a friend of mine to a combination of depression, anxiety and drug abuse. Most of us didn’t know until after her death that her struggles with drug addiction took root in her inability to overcome her low self-esteem. She self-medicated with drugs to forget about how hopeless, alone and inadequate she felt. She diverted her attention outward — to her friends and family — preferring to focus on helping her friends instead of helping herself. When I experienced my first seizure, she promptly visited me, despite us not being close friends. In the following months, she offered to be there whenever I needed her — even for a simple walk around the neighborhood. I never took her up on the offer. To this day, I still wonder if making myself more available would have given her somebody to relate to, somebody who knew just how deep the anxiety well can go. Could I have helped pull my friend out of her own void before it was too late? It’s impossible to know now.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about anxiety disorder, it’s that — like the uniqueness of people themselves — each person experiences their anxiety in a unique way. It’s not something any one of us can standardize with statistics and universal coping mechanisms. Getting to know a person’s anxiety is just like getting to know any person in that there’s a lot of depth to navigate. With an anxious person, that depth becomes like a four-dimensional tesseract with no discernible beginning or end. This puts a lot of stress on those of you who don’t deal with profound anxiety, but with a little patience, you could help both you and an anxious person ascend to a higher dimension of understanding.

Some of you readers may suffer from anxiety disorder, just like me. Some of you may feel totally helpless, others fairly functional, and some on the cusp or in-between. Just know this — you are not alone. Even if you and your anxious bubble feel isolated from everyone else, a vast sea of like-minded peers exists nearby.