People rarely say the right thing.
They very rarely say the right thing to a person with anxiety, that’s something I know for sure.
They try, people really try, but I think, probably because they are not the ones going through hell with a screaming monster in their brain telling them in no uncertain terms that something truly terrible is about to happen, they fail.
That’s been the situation for me at least.
(Jacket from Will And Pop)
I spent years keeping very quiet about my anxiety, even to the people that I love the most. Particularly to the people that I love the most actually.
I was embarrassed by it. Really embarrassed and really ashamed.
I’ve written before about this and how long it took me to actually accept anxiety for what it was, as a part of me. For years I suffered totally in silence. I felt weak and foolish and that my thoughts and worries were totally irrational and ridiculous.
Of course, they were, but I didn’t understand or appreciate that that was not my fault. Not only that, but that it was okay to feel what I was feeling.
I admit to it now, and it’s changed my life. Although people don’t necessarily understand it, the ability to tell someone: “I am struggling” brought with it a sense of relief I didn’t know I could feel. When I say these words, I momentarily feel what life would be like if I didn’t have a constant weight at the pit of my stomach. I get a glimpse of normality.
To put it in a way that those who don’t suffer with an anxious mind can understand is hard, but I suppose it would be equivalent to you eating the biggest roast turkey dinner three times over, finding yourself stuck on the sofa with your jeans undone, and then poof, in an instant, the crippling discomfort in your stomach has gone and you’re hungry again.
People’s reaction to your declarations though, can snap you back into whatever twisted normality your anxiety allows, with a thud.
To stick with the turkey analogy, I suppose it would be like someone telling you, just after your hunger has come back, that the turkey you just ate was a week out of date.
You still have the relief that comes with being hungry, surely you wouldn’t be hungry if you were dying of food poisoning? but there’s still a feeling, just below the surface, that something terrible is happening to your insides.
There is very little a person can say to you when you are feeling anxious that will make you feel better. Is there anything that would make you feel better in the immediate aftermath of finding out you’ve eaten potentially murderous turkey? Probably not. Even when they’re making all the right noises, saying things that you knew they’d say, things that you know to be true, you just can’t hear it.
A week is a long time after all. And people spread terrible rumours about off meat.
The most common thing people will say to you is: it’s fine.
That’s a sentence that I can’t hear.
They want to make you feel better. This seems like an obvious move.
So why does it make me feel so terrible?
I’ve written before about the struggles I have with walking my dog. It’s the main way in which my anxiety manifest itself.
I can’t let her off the lead and throw the ball for her, I am convinced that she will be attacked by, or attack, another dog. (She’s a labradoodle in a nice part of London ffs!) It wasn’t always like this, but it is now, and it’s horrible. I am obsessed by this fear. It consumes me. It dictates my days, my life.
I dread walking her. I think about it all the time. It’s exhausting.
And I know I’m being ridiculous. I know it, but I cannot accept it.
When I can, I ask people to walk her with me. Well, I beg them actually, but whatever, it amounts to the same thing. I feel safer when I’m not alone. There’s someone else there to help. It won’t happen if someone else is watching.
So over the Christmas period when I was staying with my mum, once a day I’d walk the dogs with a member of my family. Five dogs is a lot of dogs to worry about. The potential for disaster is massive. I’d panic a lot and, since I’m a big girl now, capable of admitting to struggling, my companions would spend a lot of time telling reassuring me.
“It’s fine” they’d say.
Over and over again.
I wanted to believe them and I wanted to hear it, but I couldn’t. How are they not panicked by this? How can they not see what I see? How are they okay? And how do I tell them that I’m not? That it’s not fine. That nothing is even close to fine. How do I do that without annoying them? Without making them want to shake me? How do I explain the thoughts zooming round my mind at a thousand miles an hour? How do I articulate emotions that I don’t understand myself?
And that makes me angry. Not with them for their total lack of understanding of the insanity coursing through my veins, but with myself for the insanity in the first place.
People tell me that ‘it’s fine’ all the time. They think it’s what I need to hear.
I wish it was.
But it’s not.
What I need, when I am feeling anxious, is the ability to totally remove myself from whatever situation I am in. I need to walk away, immediately, from the perceived threat with my hands over my ears and not stop walking until I am back at home, safely, preferably lying down and hiding from the world under a cushion.
What I hear, when you tell me that ‘it’s fine’ is that I am being irrational. I hear condescending tones. I hear patience. I hear sadness. I hear frustration. And I hear something that makes me feel so alone and so far removed from everything good and everything right.
If it were fine, like you say it is, then I wouldn’t be feeling like this.
Because this isn’t what fine is supposed to feel like. This is so far from fine.
That’s what you’re telling me.
And I’m so not fine.
Fine is a bad word anyway.
Fine is ‘meh’, fine is ‘okay then’.
Fine isn’t ‘yes please!’ or ‘fantastic’ or ‘I would love to!’.
Fine is a word that I don’t like anyway, and in the context of my mental health, it’s the worst of the worst.
Unless you have anxiety, you can’t understand it. And that’s another really shitty truth for an anxiety sufferer to come to terms with. They’re on their own with this. They’re different. No one understands.
Our minds are wired differently. Our thought processes are absolutely nothing like yours. And because of that, what we need to hear is very different to everything that you need to hear.
‘It’s fine’ works if you hand in your homework a few days late and your teacher genuinely doesn’t care. ‘It’s fine’ works when you decide to have a second pudding. ‘It’s fine’ works when you’re telling someone you don’t need change for your coffee.
‘It’s fine’ does not work when you feel like your entire life is crashing down before your eyes.
And so this post is a multi-purpose one.
In part it’s for people who know or love an anxious person and who finds themselves uttering these words a lot: please don’t.
Tell your anxious person that it’s going to be okay, soon. That maybe it isn’t now, but it will be, in a minute. Tell them you are there for them. Touch them, hold them, help them feel protected and connected. If they want to talk it through, the fears, the irrational fears, listen to them, accept their story and validate their truths.
By telling them that it is fine, you are dismissing them. Don’t do that, don’t let them feel anymore alone than they already do.
When I feel like this I need to be heard and held and understood and made to feel less alone. Please help me.
And in part this post is for those people who suffer with anxiety and feel like they’re going to scream if they hear the f-word one more time.
Go easy on the person saying it to you. Even if it’s the last thing you want to hear. They are doing what they believe to be best. They are giving you the words that they think you want to hear, because that’s what they would need to hear. They are doing it because they don’t understand, and that’s not their fault.
Tell them what you need; tell them you need a hug, tell them that ‘fine’ is the worst word in the English language. Tell them that you don’t understand it but you need them to try to.
Just because your anxiety can’t hear reason, it doesn’t mean your friends can’t.
JACKET FROM WILL AND POP.