Telling your nearest and dearest about your anxiety

I recently came out about my anxiety, specifically my bipolar and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I came out in a big way, I guess, with a book – First, We Make the Beast Beautiful– that has been published internationally and has seen me doing interviews and podcasts and TV appearances around the world with screaming headlines, “Wellness guru confesses! She’s a nervous wreck!”

In so many ways it’s been a relief for me. I’ve always had to hold up a mask publicly. And I’ve had to use all kinds of excuses for why I couldn’t turn up to events, why I had to quit various jobs (editor of Cosmopolitanand host of MasterChef Australia) and why I couldn’t stay talking in the supermarket aisle to a complete stranger about their sugar addiction (because I’d not slept for three days and was straddling a Richter 8 anxiety spiral; I’d just come to get frozen peas). Now folk know that I struggle to cope behind the mask. And I feel I can be truly myself, and have gentler, deeper conversations with the world as a result.

But a few weeks back Andrea reached out, having read my book, and asked me if I’d share about what it’s like to come “out” to your nearest and dearest – friends, family, work colleagues. “While it’s seemingly ok for people in the public eye to be open about their experiences, on a day-to-day basis it’s not that simple if your Dad thinks you’re mad or your boss thinks you’re a pain in the neck. “

I said I’d be happy to. I get it. 

In The Beast I refer to a bunch of cruel ironies that cloud the anxious experience and make it super difficult for loved ones to “get it”. For example, the more anxious we are, often the more high-functioning we are, which makes it’s even harder for loved ones to believe or comprehend we struggle. Anxious symptoms, like obsessively checking, or controlling food or going into a manic tailspin, in some ways, is our coping mechanism! Plus, it generally means our loved ones lean on us more…and so are even more resistant to accepting we might not be coping. 

Another cruel irony: “The anxious tend to seek solitude yet we simultaneously crave connection.” There are a good dozen or so such ironies that I explain in the book. The bottom line – those around of us often struggle to believe we’re anxious because the anxious experience is so complex. And the inconsistent behaviour that results can come across as, well, “a pain in the neck”. Or appear as if we’re trying to control people.

But what to do? As I refer to it in the book, thing easily turn into a “clusterfucky” mess. I’m sure that if you have anxiety you know what I mean by this.

One strategy I work to is to explain to those around me – especially friends and partner – “it might look like I’m trying to control you, but I’m trying to control the circumstancesthat trigger an anxiety spiral, so I don’t ruin our night on the couch/picnic etc”. You can hear the penny drop! We’re not attacking them, we’re trying to honour our time with them!

The other is to explain the science of what goes on with anxiety. We The Anxious are bad with decisions. But explain to those around us that this is because the decision-making part of the brain is intertwined with the part that controls anxiety, and that when we’re anxious, it shuts down the decision abilities, and that when we have to make too many decisions, it can see us freak out…again a penny drops. (The actual detailed science is in my book if you want to refer to more specifics!). Friends now know that if I stall or frazzle when making dinner plans they need to just make the call – we’ll meet at the Indian place on the corner at 7pm! Bam! The very act of giving those around you a reason for things, as well as an easy path through it, they’re grateful. And then they “get it” a bit more.

The workplace is trickier. I have to confess that in the writing of the book, I experienced some compromising reactions from staff who were working for me at the time. And from some family members who struggled to recast what they thought they knew of me. And I honestly don’t have a simple answer for how to traverse this, other than to share what I personally did. 

First, I decided that I had to take responsibility for my condition. In First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, I write that having an anxiety disorder is like being charged with carrying a shallow bowl of water around with you for the rest of my life. We have to put in place stabilizing strategies (meditation, good food, therapy etc) so that we don’t get wobbly and slosh the water all over every one. We must rise to this! It’s a responsibility! (And such a call to action that goes beyond ourselves tends to appeal to A-type anxious folk, right!?)

Over time, those around us start to respect us when we discuss our anxiety. They see we are working on it and doing our best. It also lessens the burden our loved ones or colleagues might sometimes feel around our “stuff”.

The other thing, which is kind of self-serving…I found my book helped. People around me eventually read it, or bits of it, and came to understand whyanxiety exists, and how it plays out in history, science, culture, art, our evolution. It all started to make a bit more sense. Some of the most resistant people in my life have, in the year since the book came out, reached out to me to say they’re now working on their own anxiety. I’m told that the fact I recast anxiety as a “beautiful thing” rather than just a burden has helped them come around.

As I say, there is no straightforward answer. But I will proffer this as a final salve…the lack of straightforwardness, the clusterfuck that we all have to traverse when trying to get those around us to “get it” is also a beautiful and very necessary part of our journey!

by Sarah Wilson

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