People · Personally Speaking...

The Way My Anxiety Is Set Up…

Note: this is a long read.

I second guess myself a lot. The act of simply greeting strangers when I walk into a room takes a lot out of me. I also feel greatly embarrassed if I miss a social cue, then I don’t give myself a break for two hours. Making friends is tough. Introducing myself to someone new is even tougher.  I’m on super high alert when in an area I’m not familiar with. When I get immensely frustrated, I feel like crying. I am braver online than in real life. Walking into a coffee shop I’ve never been to requires heavy decision making. I’m usually very quiet, especially when I have nothing to say. I am an introvert. I am often talked over, so I decide to reserve my opinions for another day. I screen every thought I have in my mind before I decide to vocalise it.

All of the above are things about me that a person who has never felt unsure of themselves would say are overreactions and “making a too big of a deal about it”. I cannot definitely say I have anxiety disorder; I’m still undiagnosed (we don’t have ‘psychiatrist money’). However, through my years, I’ve exhibited the type of behaviour that could be attributed to anxiety. Some of the symptoms I’ve had come and go.

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I’ve gone through long periods of not being able to sleep or sleeping too much, not going outside thus missing class (when I was at university) and cutting myself away from people because of my own fears (and because I think I annoy people with my presence). Some of the things that have remained constant are not being able to confide in my parents (because they seemed to have problems of their own and I didn’t want to pile on my own), forgoing certain things because I anticipate failure, mini panic attacks in the form of my throat closing up and my heart beating too fast, unsure of what to do or how to act because I’ve messed up in previous social interactions and I don’t want to repeat my mistakes, and my brain replaying memories I wish I didn’t have in the first place (induced by embarrassing situations).

I always need to keep my cool, know what to do and never falter, I need to feel like I’m in control of my situation. My tendency to be anxious almost all the time prevents that. I don’t believe I’m mentally ill, but I am not alright in my mind. I pushed through my teenage years with pessimism about the present and a pinch of optimism for the future. “It gets better”, I believed. Now I’m in the future that my teenage self was probably thinking about and I don’t think “it” is better. So I’ve stopped spending so much of my time anticipating the future and am now working on the present, because disillusionment sucks.

One thing I know is that I’m not as anxious as I used to be. I do get the regular bouts of apprehension, but I’m trying to manage it because I have to, in order to “function”. When I told someone that I’m not fond of riding taxis because it’s an unfamiliar environment for me, I as an English speaker stick out as much as a White person in a taxi, and I always hope that the driver doesn’t suddenly take a detour I didn’t plan on (because they do sometimes), they said “hayi no, that’s not a nice way to live”. Maybe I should have told them all the reasons, but I was silent with shock. As if I specifically asked to live like this; to be twice as aware and on edge about things that I’m not familiar with or can’t control. My mother even told me “You can’t let your anxiety control your life.” Too late, it’s already grasping all the levers. Plus, I didn’t let it, it just appeared one day. I was suddenly afraid of doing things.

I don’t even want/like anyone except my mother, my son and my boyfriend to touch me.

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With people not understanding the dread I feel about being in a new place alone or in a new situation all the while trying to act as if I know what I’m doing, I have to act like nothing is wrong with me. It’s tough to explain to someone who doesn’t understand such things, why I fear the worst, when I don’t know exactly why.

A few times I’ve wondered if I’m really okay, but just being cowardly. Is it really something or am I just being delusional?

I dim my own light

An example I can make of how anxious I tend to be is when my mother would buy me clothes. She’d buy me things she wants me to wear, but I would continue wearing the regular, drab, dark-coloured clothes I had already. She always complained that I never wore the clothes she bought for me and swore that she’d never buy me clothes again.

I appreciated the clothes she bought but when I was in high school and university, as much as looking good was important to me, I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. So I didn’t wear many bright colours. For years, a lot of clothes were only worn, at most, three times then relegated to the back of the drawer, then given away. Also, I didn’t optimise my wardrobe because I thought some of these clothes have to be so nice that I can only wear them on special occasions, and how unfortunate that I wasn’t allowed to go out much (a tradition I kept even when I got to university and had unlimited freedom).

I’m afraid of failing at anything and am destroyed by criticism

At school, I was an average student, faltering at times. I stopped feeling so hopeless when I gained the courage to ask the teacher for help. Yes, I actually went through many years of school without asking for help. Because I convinced myself that it was a sign of weakness. It didn’t help that when I did badly, my mother reacted in such a way you’d think that I was getting straight Fs. This led to me believing that I was just not smart, and I didn’t bother putting much effort into school.

She would always assume she knew the reason why my grades slipped (she never knew) and would blame it on me having a hobby outside of school. While I was still looking for work, she used this tactic again; assuming that I wasn’t looking for work at all because I was too busy working on my story. She had always accused me of not having my priorities straight, so I’d stress about apparently not being serious about something (when, in fact, I was giving it the right amount of attention and priority).

My mother wanted me to be good at everything. In high school, I was obviously doing subjects I didn’t like alongside ones that I did like. I like reading about historical events, but am not sweet on History as a school subject. History GCSE exams are too demanding, nobody can write that much, plus my memory was not A1. I got a D for History and she lost her mind. I was doing well in Maths, English and French but noooo, History was the problem.

So, my fear of failure was driven by the reaction of my mother to my failure, and I never wanted to upset or anger her. Her mood can set the tone for your life. Her anger is uncontested and it was always the same, even for minor offenses. As a teenager, I saw that and thought “this woman hates us”. Now, I just call it “mismanagement of stress”; she has problems and stresses, she also wants to be in control.

There are things that bother me and they bother me for hours, and I don’t want to talk about it. This results in me having muted-pissed-offness radiating from me, and it’s not easy to dial down. So I find my son, wherever in the house he’s causing terror, get down to my knees and give him a hug. We’ll sit there, hugging him, bobbing side to side, smiling like losers. I tell him I love him and he responds, “Ah luvyuuu!” then we separate and he resumes driving everyone else up the wall.

My mouth stays shut

At work, I am quiet at the desk, quiet at lunch, and I don’t feel the need to make conversation when I’m waiting for the bus in the evening. All I’m thinking about is getting into my warmest, ugliest housewear and hopefully laying in bed. It’s not that I dislike speaking to people, I enjoy engaging conversations, but if I have nothing to say, I don’t see the point in forcing small talk. I can see, in the corporate world, there’s this idea that it helps to get to know the people you share the building with, especially managers, because building relationships like that can help your career prospects. I understand needing to know how to communicate with people in order to get work done, but aligning yourself with somebody on the chance that it could open doors for you higher up is too much. I don’t have the energy to schmooze.

You can call it “not wanting to put the work in to advance my career”, but — as idealistic as it sounds — I want to ascend based on my work, not who I happen to know.

I feared being in public spaces with men

Another thing that has shaped my anxiety over the years is street harassment. The lot in every woman’s life; to have her commute/errand-running interrupted by two quick beeps from a carhorn, men yelling what they perceive (in their deluded minds) to be compliments, or even being physically prevented from continuing with life until they accept a man’s advances. And what happens when a woman stands her ground and refuses?

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Men of most adult ages have accosted me in public since I was thirteen. So I tried to avoid attracting attention by wearing baggy clothes, but it didn’t make a difference. It’s my absolute refusal to deal with such bullshit when I’m just going to the shops that makes me anxious whenever I leave the house. I would try not to wear clothes that are too tight or “show skin”, so they don’t see me as desirable. I wear whatever I feel like now, because I know it’s not how I’m dressed that determines whether I’ll get catcalled.

When a man makes a decision to shout out of the window of his car at a female pedestrian, it’s because he’s been taught to view such behaviour as normal, learning from the examples of other men in his life. He doesn’t see it as a problem, because there is no backlash. The targets of street harassment are never given the opportunity to fight back, and if they flip the bird, there’s a small fear he might get so enraged he’ll stop the car, get out and start getting violent. It all just goes back to the whole thing of men being led to believe that they don’t have to be responsible for their actions, and they can act however they feel.

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The paragraph up there, is how my brain gets, when it feels some type’a way.

When in public, I’ve trained myself to act invisible so that I don’t have my day dampened by a man I don’t know from a sack of rice, trying to talk to me. When I’m out, I’m really not trying to talk to anyone except a cashier. And people will demonise you for saying that you reserve the right to not feel like talking to someone you don’t know. Probably the same people who urge their children to respond to a stranger who should know better than trying to talk to another stranger’s kids.

Even in Orwell’s 1984, women and children weren’t public domain.

I can also be paranoid

After embarrassing myself, I feel like all of the eyes are on me, every mouth behind a hand is talking about me. That’s never true, but my type of anxiety makes me overinflate a situation. Things are worse than they really are, and when things are good, I don’t believe it, I must be dreaming. The previous week, I went to my boyfriend’s house for a braai on Freedom Day (to which my mum begrudgingly gave permission) and I had a good time. But because I hadn’t seen him in a long time, been with him alone for months, I felt like I was imagining it all.

At work, my manager is seldom around because she travels on the job, which leaves me with very little to do. This is a regular occurrence for everyone who works in our part of the building. I wonder if they know that I’m not doing much except hoping she comes in tomorrow, and might they see my presence as unnecessary?

That’s excessive, I know, but if it’s a thought, my brain has it. I overthink everything.

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I think I’m a shitty mother

If you ask the only one whose opinion on it matters (my son) if I’m a good mother, if he could articulate (and understanding the meaning of most words), he’d say “Yes”. Ask me and I’ll give you a long winded answer that can be paraphrased to a simple “Not really”. I don’t have much experience in parenthood except what I’m doing now, but I tell myself it’s not genuine or authentic because I’m “getting help”.

“Getting help” to me means that my mother watches him when I’m at work, my grandma looked after him while I was at school (apparently this is a single mother taboo in North America, more on that later), my mother had bought most of his clothes, basically everything he has is because of her. I felt like I’ve contributed nothing except giving birth to him and doing the “bare minimum” (giving him baths, preparing his food, kissing his boo-boos). This is just me being deluded into believing that the strength of parenthood is being able to raise your children by yourself, emotionally and financially support them. I actually de-legitimised my role as a mother.

It didn’t help that my mother would get on my back for forgetting to do something in the apparently long list of motherhood duties (e.g. “How do you not have antiseptic/Vaseline/wipes?”). In her eyes, from what I perceived, my life is supposed to revolve around my son and everything is supposed to be about his well-being. I don’t dispute that, but my nefarious mind interpreted it as “You can’t enjoy your own things anymore. You’re not allowed to have your own life anymore. That’s selfish. Your child is the only thing, THE ONLY THING that matters.” and that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t want to become that parent who has devoted their entire adult existence to raising their children, only to find themselves aimless once the kids have gone off to university or moved out.

Yes, my son matters a lot to me, but before he came around, I had dreams and aspirations of my own. Do I just throw those to the wayside? Obviously not, and my mother wouldn’t want me to abandon myself but it sometimes seems like I’m being asked to choose between myself and my son. Why not both of us? (I despise ultimatums). I can do well, if I’m given the space and time to.

I mentioned earlier that when I was at university, my grandmother took care of my son. I would go see him during semester breaks, and in between semesters, we’d go to see the rest of the family when they used to live in Paris. In the beginning of his life, I signed up on the forums on BabyCentre.com, just to connect with other mothers and hopefully gain some insight. I made mention of being a university student and having to be far away from my son seven months out of the year, and I got a response that I did not expect.

“Why would you leave your child with your grandmother? Why can’t you take care of him yourself? It’s possible to go to school and raise a child. A lot of single mothers are doing it now.” I didn’t need to geo-track most of those women’s locations from their profiles (if I knew how to), but I could tell these were White women from North America or Europe. I was hurt by the comments, and didn’t feel like explaining that 1. Where I’m from, it’s not uncommon for babies to be raised by grandparents (or in my case, great-grandparents), 2. I didn’t “dump” my son on my grandmother, my mother suggested it so I could finish my tertiary learning, and 3. I was a FULL-TIME student. No children allowed in the dorms.

“Mommy forums” can be a cult. I’m sure there’s more shaming rituals that occur there than on Black Twitter. And all the acronyms!!

Despite knowing that I was doing the best I could, I felt like a fraud because I didn’t live with him all the time. Now, of course I know my mother doesn’t have a problem with me still living at home, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not giving my son enough. I can’t afford to enrol him in a crèche, and the pressure is on because my mother makes it sound like agony to be left home alone with him and I start feeling like he and I are burdens.

One of my friends reassured me that I’m doing the best I can with what I have, and I shouldn’t think I’m failing my son. It lifts my spirits for a while, but then the despair settles in once my mother criticises the way I do anything.

Functioning and anxious

I have a hard time being in social situations like parties where I may not know everybody. Hell, even at my own graduation party, I avoided folks I didn’t know as well as the ones I knew. When I had to make a speech, I burst into tears because I could not control all the emotions. I was already crying before we got to my speech. Everything was bubbling up at once, and it spilled over. I’m sure I made everyone except my sisters (who were crying too) feel awkward.

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Despite all this, I am apparently good at public speaking? That question mark is not a typo. I’ve made more than 50 PowerPoint presentations in my life, abiding by the universal rules of PowerPoint every time. I would put a world of effort into making sure I knew what I was going to say but every time before I’m due to stand up and present, my heart is acting like a damn fool. Beating in places I know it doesn’t reside. I would feel like my whole being is quaking and everyone can see it. The cue cards would shiver in my hands. But I would soldier on through it and the teacher would give me a good mark for presentation.

I guess I’ve trained myself enough to perform stability and seem well-rounded when up in front of the class, that I’ve even fooled myself.

I’m even trying to walk around by myself, teaching myself to not need a companion if I go anywhere.

“You’re not gonna fall in those heels?” my brain asks, with snark.

“Shut up.”

“Do you even know where you’re going? You’re gonna look like a weirdo just wandering around.”

“I have a clear purpose. I’m going to the petrol station to buy something. It’s a straight walk, GAWD!”

“Yeah, but what of all the obstacles that will face you on your way? #staywoke #shouldajuststayedatyourdesk”

I suck at maintaining friendship, especially with someone I don’t see everyday. I sometimes get caught up in myself, and forget to check up on a friend. I did say making friends is hard, but I didn’t mean the talking part. If I feel comfortable enough around someone or in some place, everything happens naturally. I even take the initiative and go and introduce myself. It’s very rare, though. I’m trying to be receptive when someone approaches me, but I can’t do anything about the automatic look of fear that glazes across my face. How many times has someone said to me “you don’t have to look so afraid, we’re really nice”? And my brain responds with “Guilty until proven innocent u_u”.

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