I could think of a hundred moments when you told me not to worry. When I had a math final. When I had a college interview. When I had to speak in public. Any time I feared failure. You would list all of my blessings and tell me that grades/success/money didn’t matter and that you loved me anyway. In light of that, what reason did I have to worry?
What reason did I have to lie in my bed shaking uncontrollably, or feel my chest tightening, or hear my breath getting shallower and shallower as the panic devoured me? When I told you about my anxiety symptoms, you would tell me not to worry. You would try to prevent me from sobbing so hard on your shoulder through a few Band-Aid phrases. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that hasn’t worked.
I know that in America we’re supposed to pursue happiness. Often, I suck at doing that. If I have to cry, don’t stop me. If I have to stress, let me stress. If I have to vent, just listen to me. If I have to feel, don’t tell me otherwise. Because I’m tired of holding it in for your sake.
I’m sick of feeling bad for not being ‘normal.’ Of anxiety about anxiety. Of trying not to make you worry. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I’m sure you don’t want me to, either. Fiction author John Green writes: “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” I should have known as soon as I first read that line that he struggles with mental health. His words described my condition with such cutting accuracy. My pain demands to be felt. My worry demands to be felt.
Do you still think I shouldn’t look at my anxiety that way?
Tell yourself to be happy. Tell yourself to be so rip-roaring ecstatic that you want to jump out of your chair and do cartwheels and a dance number from Grease. Tell yourself to be so giddy that you can't stop laughing. Stop reading this letter so you can try it. Can you do it? I might sound extreme, but commanding yourself to rise to such heights of happiness is as ridiculous as telling me to not feel anxious—especially when I am trapped inside a tornado of fear.
I know you don't want me to feel unhappy. I don’t want to feel unhappy, either. You may hope that the right words will eradicate my fears. Your comforting speeches do offer hope when my brain is blaring red alert 24/7. But words can't heal me. Even less so when they command my emotions to leave or change.
I admit these ideas aren’t mine. I have learned a lot in the past year about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which boils down to psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility allows me to accept whatever I am thinking or feeling (even if it is ‘bad’) while engaging in activities that matter to me. ACT has taught me that my thoughts, sensations, and mental images are less scary than I have interpreted them. Does that mean that I no longer deal with anxiety? No. It means that I fight my anxiety less often and less intensely. It’s okay for me to not be okay sometimes.
I'm not saying that I never want to hear reassuring words from you, because I do. I wish they could do even more for me. I want you to remind me how much you love me and how many good things I have and how important I am. In the end, however, part of me will never believe you. Never. The volume of that voice will vary. Some days it will speak in a small whisper that I can easily ignore. Some days the voice will ring louder, harsher. Some days, my mind will scream over and over again: NONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONONO! DANGER! DANGER! YOU CAN’T DO IT YOU’RE NOT WORTH IT YOU’RE A FAILURE!
When that happens (and it will), instead of telling me not to feel anxiety, tell me that, even as I feel it, you still care for me. That would make me feel far less ashamed and guilty about my mental health. Even on the days when I have my anxiety "under control," remember that it has not left forever. I have to live with it, and if you don’t accept that, my task becomes all the more difficult. I know you want to support me, because why else would you read this letter? I hope this has helped you to learn how to support me even better than you already have.