I have always believed you can pick an anxious person just by looking at their hands.
I can say with total honesty that I have never met a person with fingernails more hideous than mine. My lifelong habit of biting has left me with split, ragged nails torn back to the quicks.
When anxiety hits, I go into a trance-like frenzy of chewing that leaves my fingers looking like chicken drumsticks that throb with pain in the middle of the night. I feel so deeply ashamed that I ball my hands into fists when I’m sitting next to people, so they can’t see the disgusting mess I’ve made of my nails.
Years ago, an ex-boyfriend (who was possibly even more embarrassed by my nails than I am) suggested I get fake nails. I ripped them all off within a matter of days. Thankfully that relationship didn’t last, but my anxiety did.
I assumed it would decrease with age. But it seemed to get worse.
Naively (O.K, stupidly), I thought that becoming a mother would help.
One of my friends loves telling the story of when I was sitting on the couch with her – heavily pregnant with my first and only child – and I dropped this pearl of wisdom:
“Having a baby will be good for my anxiety. I’ll be too distracted to get anxious.”
My friend (herself then a mother of two) nearly spat her coffee across the room. Shaking her head, she simply said “You have no idea, do you?”
And I didn’t.
I had no idea that having a baby would send my anxiety levels off the charts. That my every waking thought would involve worrying about my child. That I’d beat myself up every day, convinced that my mothering skills were crappier than the nappies I was changing.
Having a baby didn’t solve the anxiety. It simply created a new focus for it.
Anyone else who suffers from it will know that the nail-chewing on the outside is NOTHING compared with the chewing away of your insides by irrational thoughts.
The way your stomach lurches when you imagine the worst case scenario.
The cold stab of fear when you’re convinced it’s going to happen to you.
Or your family.
I avoid watching medical shows on TV, because I just end up diagnosing myself with some terrible degenerative disease (Oh God, I’ve got at least one of those symptoms – yep, that’s definitely me!”)
I also stopped watching Orange Is The New Black, because it left me racking my brain, trying to work out if there’s anything I’ve done in my past that might land me in jail.
And coming from the world’s most obsessively law-abiding citizen, I know how ridiculous that sounds.
You fear living. You fear death. You fear the world your child is growing up in and feel helpless to protect them from it.
You fear situations: I used to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of taking my son on a plane, because of the monumental tantrum he once threw at the airport when he was a toddler. There we were at the departure gates – waiting to board our flight to the Gold Coast – when he flung himself on the floor screaming and decided to do his best impersonation of a human surfboard, lying as stiff as a plank. My husband had to stick him under his arm like a tradie carrying a ladder, and wrestle him on board. Thank God for the hostie who immediately calmed the tears by handing my son a cup full of ice and plastic spoon, which he happily played with almost the entire trip.
He was fine. But I was nervous wreck, thinking how close we came to being the most hated passengers on board.
Anxiety and depression are a bit like an old married couple – they get around hand in hand. One seems to complete the other.
They can also suck all the colour out of life.
Which is why there are four things you should never say to an anxious person:
“THINK POSITIVE.” Well, DUH. If it were that simple we would have done it years ago.
IT’S A REAL WORRY, ISN’T IT? The worst thing you can tell a worrier is that they should be worried about something.
GET OVER IT. Get over yourself!
WORRY IS A WASTE OF TIME (OR SOME OF THE ZILLION OTHER WORDS OF WISDOM/ POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS I SEE DAILY IN MY FACEBOOK FEED) We KNOW worrying is a waste of time. We just can’t find the ‘off’ switch.
The best thing you can do for an anxious friend is to listen to them. Let them crap on. Reassure them. And if they then ask you if they’re being a giant pain in the bum, feel free to say “Yes, you’re a bloody lunatic and you’re driving us all nuts. But you’re OUR lunatic, and we love you.”
Because laughing about it does make it better.