People…I’m a hot mess. I’m like the inverse of the manic pixie dream girl. Instead of being charmingly adorable, full of whimsy and ready to enable my male lead to live his dreams, I’m sitting on the couch, with no pants on, covered in Twistie crumbs loudly whinging about how Hollywood misrepresented adult life to me. This isn’t a humble brag either. I’m not trying to point out how nuanced I am as a character because I’m not into human joy.
I’m telling you this, because it’s a side of myself that I don’t normally broadcast. I like people to think that I’m fun, bubbly and charismatic. I like people to think of me as someone who’s always down for a party and always up for shenanigans. But the truth is, most of the time I’m a nervous wreck. I have crippling social anxiety. I hide it really well, which is what they refer to as “high functioning” anxiety. This also makes it a lot harder to diagnose and treat, because I’ve gotten really good at never letting anyone know how badly I’m coping. Which brings a set of unique problems if you’re in an open or poly relationship.
Social anxiety is usually depicted in the media as someone being a bit clumsy, or bumbling and occasionally blurting out something a bit socially awkward. We’re meant to find them adork-able, and very clearly see through their slight social blundering to the otherwise perfect person underneath. What they don’t show you in the movies is how sometimes the symptoms of anxiety can be so bad that they present as a brain tumour (which is how I got diagnosed). Anxiety can change the way you breathe, which means everything that can be affected by the oxygenation of your blood gets impacted. I rocked up to my GP with phantom smells and sounds, mild hallucinations, the inability to pick up and hold small objects, slurred speech and moderate drooling. My doctor advised me it was either a brain tumour or anxiety, but either way I probably wouldn’t have a date on Friday night. It turns out my brain is tumour free, but is completely unable to function under social pressure.
Fortunately for me, I’m a very good liar. When I was quite young, I’d get depressed at random intervals, for no reason. But when you’re a four or five year old, you’re not allowed to be sad for no reason. Grownups will ask you what’s wrong, and you always feel like you have to have an answer. So you learn to make shit up. When someone says “what’s wrong” you find an easy lie to explain your sadness. Incidentally this is why I’ve fictionally killed off a family member at every job I’ve had.
People often describe depression as the “black dog”. It loyally follows you around like a shadow and sits on your chest, making it impossible to move or do anything. Well I like to think of anxiety as a trembling chihuahua. Because it just sits there shaking, and pointing out things that could kill me. Anxiety is like this terrible game your body plays where at some random point in time, your Brain just goes “Hey you know what would be fun? If we flicked all the switches on your body that said you’re about to die,” and then it laughs maniacally like a demented dictator riding a mechanical bull.
With anxiety, you learn to hide the sweating, the nausea, the light headedness, the acid reflux and the hair loss. You cover up every symptom with smiles and politeness, because you’ve learned over a lifetime of anxiety, that no one actually has any empathy. You learn that when you voice your concerns people tell you to “just stop worrying”, or they call you names like “paranoid”, “worry wart”, “neurotic” or “overly-sensitive”. So you don’t let them see how sick your anxiety is making you. I’ve taught myself to suffer through so many physical symptoms that I once sat through a burst ovarian cyst at a dinner party without even my own partner noticing. When you have anxiety, you become an oscar worthy actor, performing almost every single day.
The problem with all this subterfuge is that sometimes you make decisions or take actions that seem to come completely out of left field to the people around you. I’ve ended friendships based on my own anxieties, without ever letting the other person know that I was doing it. Just eight years of friendship, gone, because my anxiety convinced me that was a good idea. So you can imagine how well this goes when you’re in an open or poly relationship. I’ve gone from being completely fine with everything my partner is doing, to all of a sudden being nauseous to the point of throwing up because he didn’t respond to a text message in a reasonable time. But I hide it. And then eventually it builds to the point where I can’t hide it anymore and he’ll come home to find me sobbing hysterically on the floor because he baked me cookies and clearly that means he hates me (literally has happened).
Fortunately I rarely get anxiety about the people my partner is dating. It’s usually about the people I’m dating. Dating is a pretty social endeavour to put it mildly, and the thing that never fails to turn my anxiety up to eleven is interpersonal conflict. To put it simply, if I meet a person and it looks like we’re going to disagree awkwardly about something, I will throw a smoke bomb and get the fuck out of there before that can ever happen. If I’m talking to a person on a dating app and they say something that I even vaguely consider might come into conflict with my personal beliefs, I ghost out of there quicker than Casper. I ghost on everyone who makes me uncomfortable. Even slightly. If someone says something a little bit racist, or something sexist, or even just something about hating DC comics, I tell myself that it’s not worth it. Because I can’t handle the possibility of confrontation as much as I can handle not dating this person.
When you’re in an open relationship, but you have anxiety, it can be kind of like trying to look for a job when you already have one. There’s no urgency to do it, and the process itself seems too stressful to justify bothering with. While I love having additional partners, my anxiety often makes me terrified of the process of acquiring them. I love meeting people, whether it’s on dates, at parties, or functions, or pretty much anywhere. But my anxiety cripples me with all the possibilities of what could go wrong, or how these people might be feeling about me.
If I message someone and they don’t message back, my anxiety tells me all the different ways my message could have been misinterpreted and how the recipient is now probably furious with me. If I haven’t heard from a friend in a while, it’s definitely because they’re cutting me out of their lives for something I did wrong. Occasionally I’ve had to quit social media because some random stranger took a joke I made the wrong way and I spent the next week wondering how I could seek forgiveness from someone I’d never met, who in all likelihood was probably neckbearded Trump voter.
Dating especially fills me with a sick dread, because I don’t know how to say no. Because saying no causes conflict. If I match with a person, but I’m not 100% sure I want to sleep with them, I will try and bail on them before we ever meet so that I don’t have to come up with a polite way of saying “I don’t want to see you naked.” Saying no to people invites the potential for so much conflict. I’m so much more terrified of rejecting other people than I am of being rejected myself. Sometimes, upon realising I don’t want to have sex with someone, I’ve taken up to six months to politely get out of the situation, out of a fear of saying anything that might cause conflict. Which is why being able to mask anxiety isn’t necessarily the best. I know that I’m making the choices I am because of anxiety. But to the person on the other end, they’re getting a litany of excuses that don’t seem to make any sense, and they’re sticking around because I don’t have the balls to tell them not to.
Then there’s the other side of the coin; when I do want to have sex with them. I just don’t know how. And I sit with my anxiety and it tells me all the multitude of ways it could go spectacularly wrong. Having been sexually assaulted several times in my life (because #YesAllWomen), I now get a sick feeling of guilt whenever I even consider having sex with people other than established partners. It makes me feel like I’m doing something shameful and dirty and I feel physically ill. And while I know rationally that all of that is nonsense, and that I’m a slut to my soul, it means that every time I want to have sex with someone I have to overcome an entire luggage department of emotional baggage. All of which takes time. Time that I’m stringing someone along, trying to come up with excuses that help me look normal. So while I know that I’m making decisions based on anxiety, to the other person I’m just coming up with random excuses not to catch up with them until I get to know them better (which is hard to do when you keep making excuses not to see them).
So you end up accumulating a pile of people that you maybe want to date, but you keep coming up with reasons to cancel on them. Because you can’t cure the anxiety that’s eating you alive every time you think about going out to meet them. I’m terrified of having people in my home and not being able to ask them to leave. I break out in a sweat when I think about going on a date and having them lean in to kiss me, and me not wanting that. So when I’ve scheduled a date, I sit and think about all of the ways it’s going to be the worst. All of the ways it will put me in a situation where I can’t escape conflict. This is usually when I start convincing myself that I don’t actually want to date. I convince myself that I don’t want to sleep with other people. Because I can’t handle wanting something and not being able to pursue it because I’m too screwed up in the head. That just doesn’t seem fair. So it’s better to convince myself that I don’t want it in the first place. But then sometimes I’ll go on a date with, or meet someone at a party who also has anxiety. And they’ll tell me how they didn’t want to leave their house tonight. They’ll tell me how long they thought about cancelling this date, or bailing on this party. And I realise how glad I am that they were stronger than their anxiety, because if they weren’t, I wouldn’t have met them.
So, dear readers, let me tell you this. Anxiety is a shitty, shivery chihuahua that should never have been bred into existence. If you have anxiety, I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that. No one does. I wish I could tell you that it gets better, but I don’t know that it always does. What I can tell you though, is that you’re living life with the difficulty turned up to max. Every day is a boss battle. Which makes you a fucking legend for making it through each day alive. You work harder than most people to achieve the same results. In my eyes, that makes everything you achieve a lot more valuable. You got out of bed and went to work or school today, even though your body was telling you that doing so could kill you. You made that awkward phone call, even though it made you drip with fear sweat. You went to the party with the noise and the people, even though you felt like your heart was going to explode. You did something today that your anxiety told you couldn’t or shouldn’t. Your anxiety may not get better, but you will get stronger. To all of you living with anxiety, you inspire me to be stronger. Keep up the amazing work, you’re my fucking hero.
That is all.
You may go now.