By Gretchen Gales
I have lived with chronic motor tic disorder and an anxiety disorder since I was eight years old. Growing up, I hid or denied having my disorders out of fear I would be seen as a freak. When friends asked what I was taking pills for, I simply responded with, “Oh, just allergies.”
In recent years, I’ve been more open about my experiences. I’ve been attending therapy to help manage my anxious mind. I’ve met a lot of people who also struggle with similar disorders, but still live fulfilling lives. I feel as though there’s been a lot of improvement in destigmatizing mental illness, but that doesn’t mean stigma is completely dead yet—and a recent experience I had exemplifies that fact.
I was at a dinner with my boyfriend, his coworker and her fiancé and my anxiety levels were high. It was my first time meeting them, and meeting new people makes me anxious—especially when the people are an important part of my boyfriend’s life. So I went to the bathroom to calm myself down. I felt better after that, but I still held my boyfriend’s hand under the table for support.
The next day, when my boyfriend went to work, he chatted with his coworker. She had an ugly opinion of our relationship: “I don’t think you two will be together in a couple of years.” My boyfriend was shocked. He asked what would make her say something like that. She cited that I seemed “clingy” and was not as outgoing as he is.
When he told me what happened, I felt both hurt and infuriated. Her statement stung. Just because I held my boyfriend’s hand under the table as a coping method meant our relationship was doomed? We eventually concluded that her comment was inappropriate, bizarre and unfounded. We figured she’d never bring it up again.
But somehow it was brought up again. And somehow this conversation ended in this woman telling my boyfriend that our relationship would never work out because of my anxiety.
I don’t doubt that my boyfriend loves me, and that I shouldn’t let people’s opinions get in the way of seeing that. But her comments reminded me of all the reasons I hid my illnesses for over a decade. Her comments are the reason why I’d stay awake at night wondering if anyone would ever fall in love with me. I’ve accomplished a lot in my life, but I sometimes still feel haunted by the memories from the times when I wondered if I would ever be… “normal.”
To get a better idea of how often people who have invisible illnesses hear the same type of harmful comments, I reached out to a handful of fellow anxious minds to answer a simple question: “What is the worst thing anyone has ever told you about your anxiety?” Unfortunately, I wish I was more surprised by what I heard:
“You’re just being lazy.”
“Just stop being anxious.”
These were the most common responses I received. Writer and fellow anxious person, Alana Saltz, said a physician once told her, “Get your anxiety under control before you have real responsibilities, like getting married and having babies.”
To clarify, it’s not like we don’t want to “just relax” or shut down our anxious thoughts. We want to be able to live our lives without the constant “what ifs,” questioning our sanity and our ability to be loved. If you listen to us instead of being judgmental, we might have time to tell you that. But the more we are shut down, the more we will shut down.
The truth is: My anxiety will never quite disappear. And however society views anxiety is what I will have to live with for the rest of my life. And because of stigma, I couldn’t properly explain what I was experiencing to people for years. I was too embarrassed to even try. But now I am. I’m in treatment, I’m open with my friends and my boyfriend and family. I’m trying. And I may not have all the answers, but I now know one thing: I can love and be loved as a person with invisible illnesses. And no one can tell me otherwise.
Gretchen once wanted to be a veterinarian, Shania Twain, and a famous writer. She has now settled with writing a variety of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Bustle, The Establishment, The Huffington Post, and more. See more of her work at writinggales.wordpress.com.
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