Anxiety Is What Anxiety Does


Banana says she’s not ready to order yet. She says she’s sorry again and again, but she’s having trouble deciding. I’m very hungry and beginning to get exasperated. She reads through the menu front to back, back to front, middle out both ways, then starts the process over again. We do not speak about anything else. The server has checked in with us several times. It’s becoming ridiculous.

Drinks would help, but that’s a separate matter. I’ve closed my menu and folded my hands over it. Now I’m just staring at Banana, making her feel my heavy gaze upon her. When the server returns again, I ask pointedly if she’s ready to order yet and Banana mumbles something about how she doesn’t know, but I should go ahead.

I make my selection known quickly and then our attention returns to Banana. As if she’s suddenly rushed, she apologizes and then chooses something hastily. When it arrives, she pokes at it but will not eat. Tears run down her cheeks.

I’ve since learned that indecisiveness and inappropriate profuse apologizing — though rarely apologizing when it is appropriate — are signs of abuse. Signs of trauma, anyway. Banana has yet to address her PTSD for what it is or what it may be. And neither she nor I could then connect the dots on her challenges with basic social expectations.

People often say, “That gives me anxiety,” or “This makes me anxious,” and I believe speaking this way undermines the nature of anxiety disorders. I will say something like, “That makes me nervous,” because I believe that’s what most people basically mean to say. Nothing gives me anxiety, because I always have anxiety. That’s the disorder.

Fear and excitement look the same in terms of brain chemistry (or so I’ve been led to understand). Anxiety is an interpretation of the bodily responses associated with these sensations played against an intellectual understanding of the circumstances that may have caused them, and complicated by an individual’s emotional capacity to read the framework objectively at the moment.

People without anxiety disorders have difficulties with this, because the culture allows them to identify uncomfortable situations and sensations as ANXIETY. They often attempt to avoid these situations and when they’re not able to do this, they then believe they are “getting anxiety” about it. But they’re not elevated to fight, flee, or freeze.

The best I can do is look for healthy and productive ways to misdirect my attention from anxiety, to occupy my thoughts and actions in a manner that leaves me unable to focus on anxiety, disabling it to build up. Sometimes situations make that hard to do. But also the best I can do is to experience anxiety for what it is, to read and recognize the sensations, understand they are limited in time and severity, and know that they are not triggered by outside influences. And often I can change the situation in my favor.

I wish I could go back and manage that date with Banana differently. I could have just ordered an appetizer for us to share and mellow me out, and made conversation about something unrelated to the moment. Or I could have been more supportive somehow. I could have taken the pressure off her to do something so simple instead of judging her difficulty with the task, as if I was an asshole screaming at a stuttering person to just spit the words out.

But, of course, her inability to order an entree was a symptom of something much deeper, something that was expressing itself in other ways between us. I did not see her as a person having a hard time deciding what to eat for dinner. I saw her as someone lacking confidence, addicted to grief, never capable of making her wants known or sharing her opinions constructively. I did not see her suffering, because I was too consumed with my own suffering, misdirecting its cause upon her, which did not help.

I lacked empathy, which only exists as a gift.

Afterthought: As I read over this piece, I realize I have a choice about how to interpret my actions here. There is an avenue of shame and guilt for having done the wrong thing. That I only gained awareness about it later is immaterial, because now that I know better, I can punish myself for having been monstrous. Or I can forgive my ignorance and see this as an opportunity for growth. I can allow my mistakes to exist without weighing me down.

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