Allow me to explain.
Really it’s longer than that. Over the last few years (if I’m being honest, since I started teaching) I’ve come to believe that I am a neurotic person, and that’s just who I’ve always been. Anxiety disorder and Ashley are synonymous in my mind. I said this to my best friend who’s known me since freshman year of college and she corrected me. I was not always like this.
So why is it that I cannot have an idea without doubting it? Why can I not have a polite exchange with a colleague without wondering what she thinks of me afterwards? Why do I feel good about myself one minute, and then completely worthless the next? The answer is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have become my anxiety.
The good thing is that I am self-aware. In fact, maybe a little too self-aware. I’ve recognized this issue for a while, and since summer began, it’s gotten progressively worse even though I’ve done all the right things. I’ve walked, traveled, spent time with friends and family, found creative outlets, and eaten (mostly) healthy foods. But I just can’t kick it. So I found myself a few days ago in a therapist’s office vomiting the nonsense that has been swirling in my brain. She cut me off mid sentence at one point and said, “Listen, Ashley, you’re thirty-one now. You’ve got to stop relying on other people to provide your confidence. You will never get over this anxiety until you do.”
Easy for her to say.
The truth is I don’t know where the border between me and other people begins, and I’ve spent years (maybe a lifetime) expecting that praise and approval will eventually make me whole. Last night I was relaying all of this to another of my best friends and she said, “Ashley, you might have an anxiety disorder, but you are not an anxious person.” For the first time, I’m realizing that there is a difference between the two.
There’s been much talk lately about mental illness with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and I know many are asking the same question I am: If I’m not blank [an addict, anxious, depressed], then who am I?
I grew up with a mother who hated having her picture taken. I have few pictures of her, and I’m pretty sure past a certain age, I could probably count how many there are. Somewhere along the way, I developed the same phobia. To my credit though, I can take some pretty awful pictures. My husband, who loves to take photos, calls what happens to me when a camera comes around as “turning into a gremlin.” Exhibit A is the photo above. My friend and I were on a girl’s trip to Jamaica and on our last day, she said, “Make a sad face for the camera.” What you see is apparently what happens to my face when I’m sad. For others, it’s a frown or a slight grimace, but I literally turn into a golem. Such mutation has become the reason why I avoid having my picture taken, and if I must do it, from ever looking at the picture to avoid the self-criticism that will come with it. But I wasn’t always this way. There are countless pictures of me as a teenager and young adult being silly and clearly loving the camera. Somewhere along the way worrying about how I look in a photo changed the way I think about myself. Now I just accept it as fact that I take bad pictures most of the time, when that is not really the case.
But I don’t want my daughters to worry about how they look in pictures or to run when someone pulls out a camera. There’s more at stake for me now that I’m a mom. Thinking of myself as an anxious person, constantly thinking and expressing negativity, and ruminating on nonsense that doesn’t really matter will not only impact me (and my relationships with others), but how my daughters see me and themselves. It’s just not a risk worth taking.
The shit storm will still be a-brewing, but I would rather acknowledge that I happen to have a disorder that I can control instead of believe that the disease is who I am and I just have to live with it. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it. And maybe I’ll learn how to take a better picture along the way.