I have an anxiety disorder.
Yes, yes I am.
This means that I am an exemplary worrier, fretter, and all around ball of nerves. It also means that I’m medicated and that I’ve done years of therapy to manage the crazy in my head, because while pills definitely help, I need to be in charge of the runaway train of fear or it will definitely be in charge of me.
Simply put, I’m the queen of inflating any situation into a hypothetical nightmare. For example, if Ben is late getting home from work, I immediately envision him dead, I start freaking out about being a single parent, a widow, and the fact that I have to plan a funeral, get a job, and deal with everything forever by myself.
Welcome to my world, Ron.
It also means that I have to be very careful, selective, and downright anal about what I consume mentally. Television shows, books, movies, even conversations, all have to be carefully monitored and I have to be ready to turn them off, shut my eyes, or leave the room if things get too dicey.
It’s a key to my self-care and my mental health, but in truth, it makes me a crappy citizen because the very tragedies that draw people closer, bring people together around water coolers and Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, are the poison that will derail my control over my nutty brain. For me, watching the news, reading online articles, following comment threads, delving into the gory details of an accident, a homicide, a plane crash, a suicide, a child molestation/abuse court case can make it too easy to go down the rabbit hole of the worst (and least realistic in my life) what-ifs out there.
This past week we had two tragedies in Canada involving our soldiers, where two servicemen, on our own soil, were killed with no war or battle or extremist circumstance near them. This is the stuff that makes our nation stand up, show solidarity, and inspires people to line the overpasses of highways to give a fallen soldier a hero’s return home.
So moving and fitting.
It’s also the stuff that makes me curtail my online prowling and consuming so that I only view or read on the periphery, the barest of details, and avoid the in-depth commentary, the poetic waxing on the soldier’s sad dogs or grief-stricken little boy, and the replay of the security footage leading up to and including the murders. It makes me hide when everyone else is seeking insight and discussing the situation at every opportunity.
It gets even harder when something happens involving someone famous. Celebrities these days are uber accessible and prominent, and that makes any horrific or prolific situation involving them feel like it’s happening to someone we know. When Robin Williams died from suicide, I had to shut down my social media consumption extensively – everyone was talking about it, retweeting it, Facebook posting it, sharing and becoming a community of mourners. I had to halt the thoughts of how awful it must have been for him, how awful it must be for his family and friends, because had I continued to think about all of the horribleness of the situation, I probably would have found myself immobilized by a grief that wasn’t mine in the first place, or worse, in a position of wondering where my life fit on his spectrum for what’s unbearable and what I can live through. It’s a dangerous, dangerous thing for me.
And I’m not alone. This ‘don’t invite scary thoughts in your head’ tactic is used by many, many people who suffer from mental illness. It’s the first thing on the list of things to avoid when you’re suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety by Katherine Stone of Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on mental illness related to pregnancy and child birth. The Calm Clinic, an online blog specializing in anxiety disorders, states clearly that you should minimize your exposure to anxiety stimuli. What is more anxiety-filled than the evening news?
People are often surprised that I don’t know about current events, like the Ebola virus, or what the status is on those poor girls who were kidnapped, or the current war being fought. I’m a smart person. And I thrive on researching things (I’m the queen of googling). But when it comes to scary things beyond my control, things that will just worry me and fill me with paralyzing fear, things that I don’t have to deal with right now, or probably ever, I simply don’t think about them. I don’t learn about them. I don’t read, comment, write, or discuss them. Because at the end of the day, even if I am a bad citizen, at least I’m a healthy Julia, and that I can control.