Monday, July 2, 2012

My Mind and I

There are a lot of days when I feel like a crazy person.

Not crazy in a good or fun way. Crazy as in off-my-rocker-mind-long-gone-down-the-rabbit-hole crazy. Definitely not the good kind of crazy.

See, I have an anxiety disorder. I've had it for a while. And I've (mostly) learned to cope with it. My mind works a little differently than other people's does. My mind excels at finding the worst case scenario. It likes to run in circles around some terrible thing like an over-excited terrier chasing its tail. It can write a novel out of single glance or pause in conversation. It conspires with my sympathetic nervous system to create physical effects akin to that one might experience if one were being pursued by a bear. And of course, this happens late in the evening when I'm curled up on my living room sofa and all of a sudden I feel like I should be running a marathon, except that all I really wanted to do was sleep and really I can't go out running at this hour because (A) I'm not that fond of running and (B) running in Tucson at this hour might just make some of those worst case scenarios my mind so lovingly drew up earlier come true.

I officially discovered the name for my mind's quirks in my second year of high school after going to the doctor for some of the physical symptoms (dizziness, tightness in my chest, racing heartbeat, etc). Looking back though I can see its traces long before then. I've always been a perfectionist, but the perfectionism-anxiety link seems like a chicken-egg conundrum: I'm not sure which came first. But the minor crises and near-breakdowns about little things- classic mind trick. In all likelihood, the anxiety played a bit of a role in my struggle with depression, and probably a few other things I struggled through, but there's no way to know for sure.

The strangest part of this anxiety must be its simultaneous normality and abnormality. Taking note of all the emergency exits seems so routine, the clammy palms and trembling fingers an everyday occurrence, the terror of a room of people I kinda-sorta know a common practice. It can be tricky to remember to tell my mind to shut up and take a chill pill because going to hang out at someone's house for the night in no way equates or matches an encounter with an angry grizzly. But at the same time, the abnormality remains so isolating. Normal people don't break down when invited to two different events, unable to choose which to attend for fear of offending someone whom they care about and have no desire to offend. Normal people can watch movies in the theater without shaking involuntarily or go to a concert with pounding bass without having to take frequent breaks to go outside and let their heart rate return to its normal level. Normal people make me feel absolutely nutty. 

Over time, I've learned quite a few coping strategies to outsmart my quirky mind. Don't go see anything more intense than a kids movie in theaters unless you really know the people you're going with. Avoid concerts with cranked up bass. Stop and breathe. Remember that it doesn't really matter what this person thinks of you. Do yoga in the mornings. Get plenty of sleep. Go easy on the caffeine.

It's not all bad. My quirky mind does have a few benefits. I'm very perceptive-- I catch the little things that others don't, and I read relationships and people well. My overactive imagination excels in creative projects. And nervous energy directed into an intellectual project generally yields great results. My anxious mind has shaped my struggles as well as my areas of excellence. How else could I sit in a coffeeshop for hours on end obsessing over syntax? (I always took some comfort in the fact that, according to my high school English teacher, all great writers were either depressed or crazy-- there is hope for me yet!)

Relationships remain my mind's favorite affair. Other's expectations (real or imaginary) might just be scarier than spiders and rattlesnakes put together, and disappointing someone I care about is probably my worst fear. My coping strategy for a long while was thus to avoid close relationships- it's harder to disappoint someone if they don't really know you and, besides, who cares if you do as long as you don't care about them to much. Slowly, however, I learned that this coping strategy was far less than desirable. So I made friends and endured the anxiety that came with them. And over time I found that it got easier. See, once you have friends you know you can trust, you suddenly have much less to be anxious about. 

But then a friend and I decided to embark on this adventure called dating, and my mind has since had a field day. So many expectations to imagine and conversations to read too much into. So many decisions to agonize over and opportunity costs to worry over. Then we decided to get really daring and try talking about marriage. The anxiety kicked up into high gear- so many expectations, gender roles, cultural expectations, career ambitions, and other major issues to run all over. The what-ifs piled up. We made it official and all those expectations became public. And they weren't even all in my head anymore (People have some interesting assumptions about engaged girls). If even normal people go a little crazy when it comes to wedding and engagements, I don't even really know what happens to people like me. Marriage books terrify my little feminist heart, and wedding planning is a perfect storm of expectations and relationships and people I care about-- my quirky anxious mind has never been quite so zealous. (Note: this is not due to my family or anything like that. They have been absolutely lovely about all this, which I greatly appreciate.)

These next months are going to be quite the adventure for my mind and I. There have already been days when it feels like an elephant has taken a seat on my chest and an Alfred Hitchcock movies soundtrack might as well be playing in the background because I can't shake a feeling of overwhelming dread and I can't think of any logical reason why I'm experiencing either of those feelings and I want to do is cry. Those are the days when I feel like a crazy person, and there are probably going to be a lot of those days. But I do know a few things for sure. First, I have friends and family and a fiance who know my quirks and love me in spite of my tendencies to get over-excited. Second, my struggles with my own quirks has given me a much greater capacity for understanding of others' struggles. And third, these quirks of mine are a part of me that I wouldn't really know what to do without.

Besides, do normal people really even exist anyway?

Photo by Kara Haberstock, Prague 2009, all rights reserved

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