I don’t know what sets it off. One minute I’m enjoying dinner with my friends, squished together in a booth in the dining hall, and the next I’m panicking. I need to leave. Right now. My heart starts beating faster as I’m struck with the thought that I need to be doing something else, anything else.
It’s a very private feeling–no, that’s not quite right. I’m sure something in my face must be giving away that something is off. I might me looking off in the distance, letting my face go slack and fall into its natural frown. My friends probably notice, and aren’t commenting to be polite. What I really mean is it’s a very isolating feeling. Here I am, filled with dread, focusing all of my mental energy on sitting still when my body insists on bolting out of the chair, while all of my friends are still talking and laughing. It’s like they’re operating on a separate plane, and I’m trapped behind glass watching.
Eventually, we leave. I think I put my plate away a little too quickly, slip my coat on with a little too much relief. Or maybe my casual announcement that I’m going for a walk is less casual then I thought. Either way, as I turn up my music on my headphones and head out, my friend texts to ask if I’m okay. I shoot back a yes, and for a few minutes I believe it–I just need to walk some of this excess energy off, then I’ll be able to settle down and start doing my work.
But as I continue walking across campus I realize that’s not the case. No matter how fast I walk, trying to force the adrenaline in my chest out through my legs, it doesn’t go away. I turn my music up louder, try to let it fill my skull, but I can still hear my cycling thoughts, repeating over and over that I have too much to do and that something horrible will happen.
I decide to meet up with my friends again–maybe they can help me calm down. As I come back inside and enter the study room they’re sitting in, my energy level drops. The adrenaline seeps out of my limbs, but it leaves a numbness in its place. I need to lie down. I plop down on the floor of the study room and explain my stress to my friends–my assignments are due earlier than I thought they were, I have to give a creative writing reading tomorrow and what if I screw up? What if my writing is terrible and my professors decide I’m a failure?–and being the incredible friends they are, they slow it down. My performance won’t be bad, and even if it is, it’s not the end of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, their words make sense. I can say with absolute certainty that they’re right, and that I’m not worried anymore. That top layer of consciousness, the one that gets to do the talking and explaining, says over and over that I’m not stressed anymore. But the layers beneath it, the ones that don’t get access to language but express themselves through the body, say otherwise. There’s still a disconcerting lightness, a weakness, to my arms and legs. I have the feeling that even if I could sit up to do work, my eyes wouldn’t be able to focus. No matter how much I tell myself I’m calm and ready to do work, that won’t be true until I physically do something else. I decide to pause, turn it all off–I go take a nap.
That whole episode took around an hour and a half, and though it was the one of its kind this week, they’ve become a regular occurrence in my life. The increase in these episodes–and my occasional tendency to do worse than go for walks or naps to make the panic go away–led to me making my first counseling appointment in about a year.
I met with a different counselor than I’d met with before, and the difference was clear from the beginning. While previous counselors gave me a lot of space, focusing on listening and allowing me to define my experience, this one labeled me before the first appointment was over. My worry sounded like generalized anxiety, and my coping mechanisms like dissociation.
It should be clear to you by now that I think words are important. And discovering that there were words for what was happening to me–that my feelings fell within the definition of a word–is immensely comforting. My feelings are real! They are recognizable! I can say “generalized anxiety” to someone, and they would have some idea of what I’m going through.
More than granting me legitimacy, these words grant me clarity, further insight, to my experience. Realizing that my reactions to anxiety are not “coping,” by “dissociation” means realizing that I’m not dealing with my feelings, I’m running away from them. As my counselor put it, I’m trying to escape my life. And while I can’t deny that recognizing this is incredibly important–you can’t find a solution without knowing what the problem is first, and all that–it does raise some difficult questions for me moving forward. Why do I want to escape my life so badly? What is it about my life that makes me not want to be in it?
And further, can I make my life one that I don’t want to escape from anymore?