When you have anxiety, you can’t do anything with just anyone.
There’s a certain level of safety you have to feel with someone before you can do something with them, especially if that something is out of your comfort zone (which is basically everything when you have three anxiety disorders). Feeling safe with someone means I know that person will continue to love me even as they watch the demon inside me unexpectedly externalize; they will continue to accept me as I transform into a sobbing mess desperately seeking refuge from human contact. For years I have regularly declined invitations from acquaintances and friends who haven’t already seen me in this mindstate because I don’t feel safe enough with them to put myself in that vulnerable position. Even though I genuinely wanted to go, this is why I never followed through with coming to that party you invited me to or meeting you for dinner. I may have said I was sick or that I had some sort of family obligation.
The truth is anxiety shows up unexpectedly and I don’t want you to abandon me once you see it.
This weekend, I went skiing for the first time with a close friend of mine. She is one of the only people I would have gone with because I feel safe with her: she used to be my roommate, has seen me “freak out” before, and is extremely supportive. I was also having a great week anxiety-wise. I went to work and class every day for the first time in two years, gave a speech at an awards ceremony, went on a date Friday night, and explored Gettysburg with her all day Saturday. I truly thought I was going to continue to be in a positive mindstate and that skiing would be a blast.
Unfortunately, anxiety always shows up unannounced and this time it arrived during a beginner’s skiing class we took together.
Aside from my anxiety simply being triggered biologically, many environmental factors exacerbated my anxiety:
- The instructor was an older male who was very cold in his delivery of criticism. Because of my history of emotional abuse, I am extremely sensitive to criticism and authority from men. Of course, him correcting me was to be expected, but it was triggering for me and I repeatedly felt victimized to no fault of his own.
- There were swarms of people around us who were constantly moving. It was difficult to get enough of a bearing of my surroundings to feel grounded.
- I repeatedly fell and hit my head hard as we were practicing skiing down minuscule hills. I was the only one in the beginner’s class who kept falling. When I repeatedly fail at anything athletic, my social anxiety automatically kicks in and persuades me that everyone is making fun of me for being fat.
- When I did fall, nobody instructed me on how to get up while my skis were on and nobody offered a hand to help me up. I felt helpless and completely trapped.
After being in the class for just a few minutes, I began to cry and walked away to sit by a nearby fence. When later asked if I was going to return to the group, I shook my head. Not only was I embarrassed by all of the things listed above, but I was utterly ashamed by the fact that I mistakenly looked like a toddler having a tantrum because I kept falling down. Because anxiety is an invisible illness, nobody could understand the depth behind the panic attack.
Honestly, I was not fun to be around and hindered my friend from having fun. All evening, I felt guilty for ruining her day. I still worry that she won’t like me as much because of how my anxiety surfaced.
Considering the distress I was feeling from experiencing anxiety around one of my closest friends, imagine the emotional turmoil I would have felt if this anxiety had occurred with someone I know less intimately, like a classmate or a coworker. They wouldn’t have understood the depths of the anxiety and possibly would have attributed my behavior to a flaw of character. They would not have spent enough time with me previously to understand that I offer a lot of good in a friendship that sometimes makes up for the baggage I have. I have learned from experience that they most likely would not have wanted to be my friend any longer.