The Cage Called Anxiety

by Erin Honor

Let’s talk about the prison that is anxiety.

I have spent the bulk of my life in a cage of my own creation – a safe and small space – a barrier between myself and a world that is too vast and terrifying. A world where I am not in control. The cage grew smaller and smaller with each passing year – less light shining through, less room to move. Everything was so unsafe. I couldn’t cope – so I isolated myself more and more.

We all have areas in which we feel most comfortable – some larger than others. No two comfort zones are the same – but there is one element to them that is universal.

The inability to step outside of your comfort zone reduces (and sometimes even completely eliminates) your ability to grow. Life is growth – each day you are a different person than you were the day before. If you are not growing, you’re dying.

My cage of comfort is monotonous, isolated, and unfulfilling – but it is safe.

Still, can you call that living?

When I was eighteen, I decided I was going to not only poke an arm or a leg through the bars of my cage – inching out into the real and scary world.

I was going to going to light it up with dynamite.

I decided that I was going to be a new person – a person that was everything but myself. I moved over 1,000 miles away, I lived in a dorm room with two other girls, I joined a sorority, I majored in science.

And then I promptly fell apart.

It was unsafe.

**I can only write from my own personal experience – and that is one where the world has always terrified and overwhelmed me to the point that I can’t breathe. My fight or flight response is always in high-gear, and I bet you can guess which of the two is my go-to.

Since my panic and anxiety disorders date back to my very early childhood, I can’t speak for anyone who is neural-typical, one who doesn’t struggle with anxiety. One of my biggest fears around writing about the topic of mental illness/mental health is that of sounding like the dreaded “special-snowflake.” I don’t know how anyone’s brain works but my own – however, I do know that, no-matter what, every single one of us struggles in some way.**

Okay, back to comfort-zones, anxiety, and other fun topics.

When you are dealing with severe anxiety – regardless of the type – the wall that you put up to protect yourself from anything and everything that makes you feel even slightly uncomfortable tends to be thicker than that of others. It’s not just a matter of “Oh, X makes me nervous,” but instead it is that of complete, paralyzing, and all-consuming terror – terror that is, more-often-than-not, disproportional to the situation.

Some fun and not at all embarrassing examples from my own life include:

  1. While in CVS, I accidentally bump into a woman as she is turning around. She snaps at me, “Are you an idiot?” (to this day, not sure how bumping into someone is related to intelligence.. but hey). I apologize, with a very embarrassing amount of tears already filling my eyes, and then promptly begin shaking so violently that I need to sit down… in the office supplies aisle of a CVS on Lexington Avenue. I cry, curled up in a ball, on the floor, while my brain yells as me. You’re an idiot. That woman thinks you’re a rude, bratty kid now. That woman hates you and you will never be able to maker her not hate you. You should die. …That escalated quickly.

I then, still shaking, pick myself up and, buy a mini-stapler. That CVS is now unsafe. I will never enter it again.

2. I dropped my phone – the screen cracked. Now everyone will think that you’re irresponsible! Why are you crying right now? It’s a stupid phone. You are a disgusting child. You should probably die. 

3. *While conversing with anyone ever* “Hello,” says the person. How do I respond? What do I say? No, that’s wrong. No no no no no. They probably hate you anyway. Crap, they just introduced themselves and you already forgot their name? You’ve just been staring at them for at least ten seconds now. Why are you so awkward? No, you can’t answer yet, you’ll say the wrong thing. You should probably die.  

4. You left your phone off of airplane mode while you were sleeping last night – you’re going to get brain cancer now. There’s nothing you can do about it. You have destroyed your entire life. Your head hurts. No, now your chest hurts. Heart-attack? Probably. You’re going to randomly drop dead at any moment. You need to prepare yourself. How do you prepare? Oh my God, I’m going to die. Wow, I’m being crazy. Everything is so scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Stay home, it’s safe here. Wait, how does staying in your house prevent a heart attack. Ssssshhhh. Just go with it. Oh, you probably shouldn’t try to talk to anyone either because you’re awkward and they hate you. Wait, how did I get from leaving my phone on to here? 

5. This is my personal favorite -*Cannot find specific spoon* There are many spoons that look just like this spoon, but this spoon has a tiny scrape on it and if I use any other spoon, I’m going to die.

Obviously, I can find a lot of humor in my anxiety – I know that I’m being ridiculous, I’m aware – but that doesn’t make it any better.

The thing about any form of mental illness, or any other form of disorder, is that they’re well…  disorder. Your brain doesn’t function the way that it’s supposed to. You can’t cope the way that you are supposed to. You are in sensory overload all the time. And you (or maybe I should say I… Don’t want to speak for ya) want so badly to be understood, to be comforted.. But how can a healthy brain even begin to understand thoughts that are not inherently natural to have? It’s no one’s fault that they can’t understand, and it is unfair to treat anyone as such.. Still, I do believe that is our duty as humans to at least attempt to understand others – no matter how “crazy” you feel they are.

Here’s the thing… there are many times where I feel like if I go to class, or a certain store, or talk to someone, I will die. This may sound ridiculous to you, and you would be right. But that doesn’t change the very real emotions that I am experiencing.

Any and every true feeling that a person experiences is valid – it is not up to anyone else to deem whether or not the feeling is warranted.

Even if the thoughts aren’t true – the all-consuming terror that they create it. Remember that.

You know when you’re watching a scary movie and you know that something bad is about to happen? You feel your heart skip a little, maybe you clench your fist or your jaws, your senses are heightened.

Imagine feeling that all the time.

When it comes to mental illness, both the sufferers and the allies have responsibilities, this is important to remember. Those who do not struggle but wish to be allies are responsible for attempting to understand, to not pass judgement, to comfort.

What they are not responsible for, however, is pandering.

This is where the responsibilities of those struggling come in. The world is unsafe, trust me, I get how terrifying it is – I pretty much live in isolation because it’s all too much.. But I’m working on it.

The world is not responsible for bending itself to fit what makes us comfortable. The real world is filled with triggers, and it is our responsibility to learn to navigate these triggers. Now, this isn’t to say that you just need to “suck it up”.. not at all. The goal is to learn to handle things… slowly. The fight and to try, but also to be kind to ourselves and to know our limits. It’s easy to just completely turn in on yourself and lock yourself up in a glass castle all by yourself where you can be in total control, you can be “safe.”

But that’s not living.

It’s also easy to guilt yourself. To listen to the voice in your head that is tell you that you’re just making excuses for yourself, that you don’t actually have an issue and are just making this up because you’re a lazy loser and poor excuse for a person, that you are making this up to get attention (you say to yourself as you are alone, curled up in a ball, hysterical, on the floor of your dorm room because going to class is too scary). This can lead to some bad situations, damaging ones where you push yourself to the point where you are more than uncomfortable. You are unsafe – not physically, but mentally.

Me moving to Florida in a desperate attempt to “cure” myself (aka, escape being me) was more than uncomfortable. It was unsafe. It’s like jumping into a burning hot bath without first inching yourself in bit by bit so that you can get used to it and not scald yourself… It doesn’t end well. I wound up having severe panic attacks every single night. I relapsed into my eating disorder.

As with most of the things that I write here, I’m not really sure what the point is that I’m trying to get across. I just think that it’s important for those who don’t deal with these things to hear about them, even if that means sharing the very shameful contents of my mind when I’m having an episode. These things are real and we need to try and understand each other. People aren’t meant to be alone, we are social creatures – and dealing with a mental illness, especially ones where you isolate yourself (which often leads to pushing away your loved ones or often flaking on plans with friends until they no longer talk to you) can make a person feel more alone than they ever thought possible.. and os they continue to spiral downward. It is also important for us, the people who deal with mental illness, to meet our loved ones half-way, to push ourselves, to want to recover. To communicate how we feel, what’s going on, what your limits currently are.

Maybe if we all help each other, everything will be a little less scary.