This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
For a while I was thinking of getting a tattoo on the palm of my hand that said, “I’m doing the best I can.”
Not only could I look at it when I was feeling shitty, I could hold my hand out to anyone who thought I was failing them – or more likely, who I felt I was failing – and hope they’d understand.
If love means never having to say you’re sorry, then having chronic anxiety means always having to say you’re sorry.
(Although actually, love definitely doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, so…) People I am constantly feeling apologetic toward include, but are not limited to: my children, my boss, my friends, my boyfriend, and many various and random people I encounter in my everyday life.
Ever since I started having panic attacks and was diagnosed with anxiety, I’ve worried that people will think I’m flaky when an episode of anxiety cripples me and causes me to skip an event, decline an invitation, show up late, or miss a deadline. It’s painful, because I’m someone who believes in saying yes, showing up, and keeping commitments. I absolutely hate being late, disappointing people, or missing out.
But when overcommitting and relentlessly pushing yourself results in being doubled over, wheezing and having your life flash in front of your eyes, something has to give.
The day after the last United States presidential election was a good example of a time when I fell apart — and made it worse by keeping my mouth shut and trying to soldier through. I stayed up that night watching election returns until the bitter end, when Donald Trump made his victory speech in the wee hours of the morning. The next morning, I stared at my laptop screen and couldn’t stop crying. I knew I needed to work; I was supposed to write a story about the election results, for one thing. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
All day, I kept thinking I’d be able to get it together and get my work done, and all day, I cried and cried, only occasionally stopping to stare blankly at my screen and feel numb. When my boss discovered that the news hadn’t been posted and I’d gotten nothing done, she was understandably angry — and I felt terrible.
If only I’d emailed at the start of the day and explained that I was going to be out of commission — taking a sick day, as it were — it would have been okay. My boss is super understanding; she only asks that people keep her appraised of what’s going on. But my anxiety, pride, and fear were all mixed up, making me freeze up and burrow deep into myself.
I learned my lesson that day, when it comes to work.
Now, if I’m frozen with anxiety, I grit my teeth and reach out, explaining that I need an extension. And funnily enough, doing that often lessens my anxiety.
In my personal relationships, it’s a little trickier. I want to be the perfect girlfriend, friend, mother – don’t we all? I love taking care of people and being there for them.
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But sometimes, I just can’t.
I don’t know how to respond to a text from a friend, so I don’t respond at all. I want to respond to an email with a more detailed reply than I have time or psychic energy for, so I leave it sitting in my inbox for weeks, making me feel guilty every time I scroll past it. I’m afraid to bring up a thorny issue with my boyfriend, so I pick a dumb fight about something else instead.
I’m learning, though. The other night one of my kids was texting me, frantic about something that we needed to figure out, asking me all kinds of questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, and that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Instead of exploding on her, letting my anxiety get the best of me and completely losing my shit, as I probably would have done in the past, I texted back and told her I’d be able to talk about it with her the next day, but that it was too much for me at that moment.
One of the ways my anxiety manifests sometimes is that I overcommit to things, for fear I’ll have free time and not know what to do with it.
(Heaven forbid I should be alone with my thoughts any more than absolutely necessary.)
But then I get frantic, feeling like I have no down time and am stretched too thin. So when I recently went back to my hometown for a while, to get away from the city and take stock of my life, I purposely avoided packing my schedule to the gills with visits and activities.
Living with anxiety can make me feel bad about myself sometimes, but in certain ways, it’s proving to be a gift.
It forces me to stop and listen to myself. I have to be more aware of my feelings than I used to be.
It’s teaching me to say no to things, and feel okay about it. And I’m learning that I don’t have to say I’m sorry all the time, after all. Because I’m not a flake – I just have anxiety.