You think of everything you want to say to that person sitting next to you, but the words get stuck at the base of your throat and just twist and turn there until you finally just mouth them to the ground, knowing you’ll never really say them out loud. You don’t smile back at that person across the way, because the panic has got ahold of your face, frozen it into a veneer of distrust or boredom – and then you’re glad you didn’t smile back anyways because now that person won’t make an offer of friendliness again – you are clearly not interested – and you are saved from having to make painful, getting-to-know-you conversation that won’t go anywhere anyways, because who would want to be friends with you? You work for months toward an event and then don’t sign up because you are too terrified and know it won’t be fun anyways because of the fear. You skip opportunities for so many reasons (such as having to ride a different bus home than usual). You act disinterested to anyone dateable, while your heart palpates with fear they may actually be the first person ever to actually ask you out, and then you’d have to come up with a lame, obvious excuse to say no because you can’t actually go on a date – a real life, talking to someone, activities, phone calls, potential for the future, physical contact – DATE. You can’t get a job because you get exhausted when you are away from the house for more than a few hours. Besides, what if you had to count change while someone watched – quarters and nickels are hard to tell apart when your heartbeat is echoing inside your skull like a countdown to a bomb, you can’t catch your breath and your fingers are slick with sweat, numb, fumbling the coins – and you can’t remember what comes after five or how many quarters are in a dollar. So, you find that you are happiest when you are at home, friendless, dateless, jobless. Working slowly toward a degree so that you have some kind of path. Terrified about what comes after that someday commencement.
You’ll never see generalized or social anxiety disorder listed as a serious mental illness. But if you look at my life, you’ll see a reasonably smart, generally healthy twenty-one year old who leads a very limited life. I take part-time classes at my hometown college, while living at home with my parents. I do not have a single friend, and I’ve never had a job or a boyfriend. The reason for all that is not because of my bipolar disorder (a serious mental illness) but because of my anxiety disorder. What really impedes my day to day functioning is the persistent fear, worry, dread, anxiety, and panic. It makes my life a big missed opportunity, in many ways. There is little chance of “seizing the day” when the terror and anxiety that accompany simply riding the bus preoccupy me for hours beforehand.
To be clear though, my bipolar disorder completely strips me of my ability to be happy during depressive episodes, whereas I can be happy, though my life may be limited, with my anxiety. So, these illnesses are disabling in different ways. My anxiety limits my ability to function more consistently, while the cyclic nature of my bipolar effects me severely, but episodically. My rather muddled-up point? Anxiety has the potential to be very severe and disabling – please don’t dismiss it it as a casual concern!