Along with being on the autism spectrum, I deal with both depression and anxiety.
I have found that depression mostly feels like a void. Depression comes in different flavors (sads and nothings being the two I hear of most often), but regardless of which flavor I am feeling at the time, it always feels like a void. Like some part of myself has just quietly ceased to exist and now there’s just a sucking void where it used to be, trying to pull the rest of me in.
Anxiety, on the other hand, feels more like an attack. I feel it almost like a presence, lodged somewhere in my chest and causing trouble. When it gets bad I sort of liken it to a giant bird claw, wrapped around or embedded in my chest, squeezing and stabbing and making it so I can’t breathe.
I can’t really objectively rate how bad my anxiety is. I was going to say it’s not that bad, but then I realized that there’s a good chance that anxiety has been a huge barrier in keeping me not-so-terribly functional, in certain socially expected ways. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better if I got on proper meds to deal with it. Or, well, I’m sure it would be better. Maybe it’s more that I wonder how much better it could get, and what that would look like. Hard to say, really.
Anyway. One thing about anxiety that I want to talk about is that it does not always look the way people seem to think it should look. I have found that if I talk about panic attacks, people will immediately assume that means screaming and flailing and running mindlessly down the street or something. Of course, I don’t know much about what panic attacks look like in other people so maybe that assumption is often true and I just don’t know it. However, it is really not true for me. I have, on more than one occasion, had a panic attack whilst astride a horse, during a horseback riding lesson.
Now, panicking while on a horse is really not the best thing to be doing. Horses are very sensitive to their riders, and pick up on even a little bit of tension. This isn’t a huge thing on a therapy horse, or even a horse for beginners. Therapy horses are chosen for being very very calm, and really not caring a whole lot if their rider is tense or moving in odd ways.
However, I hardly ever ride therapy horses anymore. I ride horses that are supposed to be very sensitive to what you’re doing, so that they will respond to subtle commands. A panic attack on one of these horses can be maybe not such a good thing. However, I panic quietly. Sufficiently quietly that my riding instructor, who is a special ed teacher, will not know that I’m having a panic attack unless I tell her. The horses I have been on, while certainly knowing that something was up, were always willing to let me take a break without causing trouble.
Because my panic attacks don’t look the way people seem to think panic attacks should.
I have found that people interpret my anxiety in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s fairly well known that shyness can look like snobbiness to people who don’t know what’s going on. What seems to be less known is that anxiety can also look like anger. When I was young, there were occasional incidents where I was very very scared. Not of anything in particular, just of lights or noise or having trouble processing what was happening around me – that sort of thing. Sometimes afterwards, people would tell me that I was angry. I, apparently, looked angry, sounded angry, and acted angry. This was very frustrating for me, because if I tried to explain that no, I’m not angry, I’m scared, the people around me would simply dismiss what I was saying and insist that no, it was anger. Sometimes people assumed that I was lying for some reason, and sometimes people assumed that I must not be self-aware enough to know what I was feeling.
The general assumption was clearly that whatever it looks like I’m feeling must reflect what I am actually feeling. Except that what you see is not always what you get, and what you see on my face does not necessarily reflect what’s going on inside. And anxiety does not necessarily look the way people expect it to.
Do you get anxiety? Does it look like what you’d expect to see on TV?