“Huh. Must be a women thing.”
Said with a dismissive shrug and a grin, this was my supervisor’s response when I tried to explain how my brain works differently with its multiple anxiety disorders. The problem was apparently not with my brain chemistry, but with my ovaries. Give me a fainting couch and some smelling salts because here comes the female hysteria.
It wasn’t the first or last time someone dismissed my disorders, though it was the first time someone attributed it to a gender problem. I’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and panic disorder. They first appeared in my life around the age of 4, and they have been my constant companions ever since.
Unfortunately, because my illnesses are mental, I’ve had to deal with people who think they aren’t real. I’ve had more conversations than I want to defending the fact that disordered anxiety exists.
“But everybody gets anxious,” is the most common refrain. It’s like telling someone with depression that you’ve “been sad, too.” Cell growth happens, and when cell growth becomes disordered it’s cancer. Nobody argues against that because you can show it on an x-ray or MRI or point to a visible tumor. But there is a certain group of people who believe because they’ve never experienced mental illness and there are no medical tests for it that it couldn’t possibly be real. It’s made-up, a cry for attention, or just plain weakness.
I used to get into long discussions with these people, trying to put them in my shoes and make them see how my brain works. I’ve described vividly the sensations of a panic attack or the deep need to unplug all of my appliances before going to bed because if I don’t an electrical fire will start in the walls and my house with collapse around me while I sleep (obviously). I would endure a painful back-and-forth that invariably ended with them refusing to accept anything other than what they had experienced themselves.
What makes me respond so fiercely to these people is the fact that I used to question the validity of my own experiences. Not so much as to whether or not I had anxiety, but whether or not it “counted.” Because my illness was not physical, I felt as if I didn’t have a right to claim illness or seek treatment or take care of myself. After all, I managed. I survived. I eked out successes in school and life.
But I fought tooth and nail to do so. I fought the obsessions that made me afraid to do anything and the anxiety that left me deeply depressed on more than one occasion. Everything was a struggle in ways it wasn’t for other people. Eventually, I reached a point where I realized these illnesses were “real enough” for treatment. Their effects were intense and overwhelming, and I deserved to be taken care of. I deserved to name what wracked my mind with fear and even migrated to my body in the way anxiety can. I can’t see my illness on an x-ray, but it is real and powerful.
After one particularly frustrating conversation about the validity of my illness, I asked myself why I bothered. Why I spent so much time and energy to get these people to admit I have these disorders. I realized I was sick of convincing people and sick of their questions making me question myself (yes, I even get anxiety about my anxiety). I don’t owe anybody an explanation.
It was then that I decided my experience is enough; my diagnoses from professionals in the psychiatric field are enough. I won’t lower myself to try and convince strangers, or even friends, that what’s going on in my brain isn’t just a character failing on my part. I’m done debating whether I get to call myself ill or not and whether I need to be treated.
If someone comes at me with honest curiosity and a desire to learn, I’m open to talking. I’m not ashamed of my disorders, and I think being open about my struggles will help with the stigma of mental illness. But usually if someone questions my disorders, it’s an accusation. Prove it, they’re saying.
I won’t do that again. My word should be proof enough. Among the many things I’m doing to take care of myself, I refuse to argue about my disorders anymore. I have no doubt taking those arguments off the table will make me healthier. I finally learned not to question myself. I will no longer allow others to question me either.
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