This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
Last weekend, a friend invited me to come and spend the holiday weekend at her parents’ beach house. She asked me because she knew I was going through a particularly rough patch of anxiety and depression; basically, I wanted to curl up under my covers and cry for the foreseeable future. I went because the beach is restful and healing, and I was grateful to her for being such a good friend.
While I was there, I sat on the beach and wrote in my journal, forced myself to go running, watched dolphins playing in the surf, and tried to make myself eat, breathe, smile, and make small talk. Mostly, I felt numb and terrible, but I did my best imitation of a normal human doing normal activities.
The last day was windy and cold. The sky was dark and the beach was deserted; I’d woken up early to watch the sun rise over the ocean, but the clouds were too thick to allow even a glimmer of light through. I went for a walk on the beach with my daughter and tried to get her to take a selfie with me; as she ran away and the wind whipped my hair into my face, I laughed. Then I posted the pictures to Instagram, because I thought I looked sort of pretty, and I figured I could use the ego boost of a few ‘likes’ on social media.
Along with a handful of ‘likes,’ someone left this comment: ‘You look beautiful and so happy.’ That sweet comment actually managed to make me laugh, even in my miserable state.
Because I was anything but happy. I was riddled with anxiety, heartbroken, and as down as I’d ever been in my life.
You Might Also Like: This Is What It's Like To Have A Panic Attack Every Day
That’s the thing, isn’t it? People don’t know. We anxiety sufferers are good at covering up how we’re really feeling. We smile and don’t mention that we feel like we’re dying; we know it’s not appropriate. And anyway, what can anyone say? We’re wives, mothers, friends, employees – we’ve got things to do, and we’ve got to keep it together
When I have an anxiety attack, I can’t breathe. I double over, gasping, and I often cry with panic and frustration. Not being able to catch your breath is one of the worst feelings there is.
But worse is the feeling of losing it in public, when people will see me struggling. So I do everything I can to behave as if I’m fine.
When I really can’t muster the strength to follow through with plans, I make a lame excuse. My friends have given up on ever getting me out to karaoke again, and that used to be one of the things I loved best in the world. I think a few of them aren’t even speaking to me anymore because I fell off the radar one too many times.
It feels shitty. Even though anxiety is the most common mental illness in the world, it feels like you’re all alone. You don’t know what to say, and you feel guilty. Why can’t you get your act together? I try not to say that to myself, but sometimes it’s hard not to engage in negative self-talk.
Sometimes the best thing is to talk to someone else with anxiety — someone who understands. Because unless you’ve been there, you can’t know how bad it feels to be sabotaged by your own brain. To struggle to breathe, to have your palms get clammy and your mouth go dry, to feel like you’re dying. And not to have any control over it. So we put on the mask and pretend everything is fine, even when it’s so far from fine, we can’t even remember a time when we felt okay.
To all of you out there who’ve been there — those of you smiling through your anxiety and collecting ‘likes’ on social media, never saying a word because you’re afraid to, or because you don’t know what to say — you’re not alone.
There are lots of us out here. And next time you see me smiling on Instagram, remember: things are not always what they appear to be.