ByKatie Palumbo of Thoughts from Abroad
Years before I was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I already had an inkling it was affecting my life. I have distinct memories of scrolling the internet in the middle of the night during those early days.
Perhaps my then-newborn had woken me up to nurse at 2 a.m., but there I sat hours later, a fed and sleeping baby in my arms, reading article after article of things like “how to identify black widow spiders.” I was convinced at the time these deadly spiders were hiding in every corner of my house. They were threatening to sneak into my baby’s crib and take her away from me. I had no evidence to support this, but in my heart, I knew it.
Or perhaps my husband offered to take over for a few hours while I got the rest I so desperately needed. I’d agree, but never actually succumb to sweet sleep. My ears constantly perked up at the slightest gurgle or whimper coming from the other room, and my body remained alert and ready to spring to action.
Looking back, and after some therapy revealed this to me years later, the start of my anxiety disorder was right around the time my father passed away. When my daughter was born two years after his death, postpartum hormones made my anxiety that much more intense.
Of course, my first course of action wasn’t therapy. Like many, I utilized tools on the internet, and leaned heavily on strangers’ personal narratives to understand how to overcome the oppressive feeling of constant doom I was experiencing.
As I read through countless articles, a recommendation which emerged over and over was to view your anxiety as your “friend.” S/he was to be acknowledged, perhaps even provided a cute name — one you might give to a pet, or stuffed animal. This would theoretically shift the relationship you have with your anxiety, and simultaneously give you compassion for and distance from it.
Fast forward to this year.
I was hospitalized in February after major surgery and my body was buzzing with constant anxiety. I live in Italy and it was right before COVID forced the country into lockdown. Tensions were high hospital-wide. Nurses and doctors were frazzled, and this translated into harried routine care like drawing blood, or implanting an IV drip line.
Every minor procedure hurt. My body couldn’t relax, and my anxiety caused every muscle in me to tense up, which in turn caused pain and excessive bleeding, leaving nurses baffled and, honestly, annoyed by my tears during simple procedures.
In talking to a nurse about my anxiety, one to whom I had grown close during those days, he kindly brought up the theory and suggestion of befriending my anxiety instead of resisting her. It was something I had read on the internet for years now, but it was the first time a medical professional had ever suggested this technique to me.
“I’ve tried. I really have,” I responded while fighting back tears. “But my anxiety is kind of a bitch. I would never want her as a friend in a million years.”
Here’s the thing about my anxiety: she’s no friend of mine. In fact, she’s the ultimate mean girl.
She has the ability to drop in, unexpected, and be that uninvited guest who dramatically demands all of my attention while long overstaying her welcome.
She’s the one who, right before heading out to a social event, in the precise moment I dare to admire myself in my reflection, whispers in my ear, “You’re still not good enough. Why are you even going? No one wants you there, anyway. They just invited you out of pity.”
Sometimes she leaves me alone for months at a time, allowing me to believe I’ve freed myself from her completely. I’m convinced she does this on purpose, just so she can reappear as the first thought which pops into my brain one morning, saying, “You’re so stupid. Why do you even try?”
Even when she leaves me alone during conscious hours, she still plays pranks on me at night. One of her favorites is to wire my jaw shut while I’m sleeping, and I can feel evidence of this cruel joke as I constantly feel the need to gingerly stretch it out, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water, gasping for air, throughout the day.
No, my anxiety is not my friend. And perhaps that’s okay.
Even if I acknowledge her for the beast that she is, instead of someone to invite over for tea, I can understand how personifying her helps me move past the dread and tension, and onto a more stable and level-headed perspective on life.
She’s not someone I will easily rid my life of anytime soon. But at least each time the feeling of dread takes over every time my husband is late coming home, each time I imagine that terrible things have happened to him, I know it is this mean girl who is putting these thoughts into my head, not reality.
If, just like me, you’ve received advice to befriend your anxiety and you aren’t getting anywhere, I suggest you instead see her as the mean girl she actually is. Anxiety is a bitch. Let’s stop trying to befriend her, and instead start getting on with our lives despite the cruel jokes she plays on us.
About the Author
Originally from Southern California, Katie Palumbo is an international educator living in Florence, Italy with her husband and daughter. She has been blogging her way through the pandemic at Thoughts From Abroad (thoughtsfromabroad.com). Follow her on Instagram (@thoughtsfromabroad_) and Twitter (@KatiePalumbo2).