When I was around eight years old, my carpool locked me in the car. It was accidental. I think. They just...well, they just forgot me. I wish I were joking, but alas:
I remember being squished in the backseat middle, and when we got to school (my favorite place in the whole world!) all three kids and Mrs. Morris (their mom, who had been driving) piled out of the car. As I was scooting across the sticky seat to the door—which Graham, the kid next to me, had oh-so-helpfully closed behind him—I heard the click of automatic locks. It didn’t register at first. Not until I pulled the door handle, and...nothing. So I—seemingly very calmly—pulled again. Nothing. Now, you should know that I live in a perpetual state of low-grade anxiety—you know, a general feeling of impending doom!—but that second attempt at the door is when I started to really freak out. It must have been childproof locks or something, I don’t know. As a matter of fact, to this day, I still have no idea what happened, because what did I do after I couldn’t get that door open on the first two tries? I stopped trying—And this from a kid who loved school and was deathly afraid of being tardy!
But in that moment, I was more deathly afraid of being visibly “stuck” or “wrong” or not being able to figure it out,” so I simply stopped trying. I didn’t pull any other door handles. I didn’t honk or scream or bang on a window. I just sat there—watching my carpool (who —it was clear—had forgotten me) blissfully skip off to school (OK, they weren’t exactly skipping, but still). Anyone who walked by the car in those moments would’ve seen a little girl casually sitting in the backseat, totally fine, totally normal, nothing to see here, folks. But the reality that no one saw, of course, is that inside the car, I was trapped and internally, freaking out, sliding all around the seat which was no longer sticky, because at that point, I was sweating in places...well, all over.
And that exact picture—that kid in the car, left behind, panicking, sweating all over but trying to look calm, cool, and collected—perfectly sums up my experience with anxiety. It’s my reality. It’s the reality I made for myself long before I was locked in that car—and long after I made my daring escape. In fact, I’m still living in that reality so much of the time—afraid to rock the boat or honk the horn, afraid to speak up, not surprised or indignant when I’m left behind or forgotten, just trying desperately to look cool and quietly figure out what I’m doing wrong in this situation. I’m still so mortified by my very existence.
I’ve lived with anxiety my whole life, it seems. I feel like it’s this huge thing that follows me around—like it’s stuck to me almost—and so I’m forever trying to find creative ways to hide it. Like a big zit smackdab in the center of your forehead that absolutely refuses to be covered by any amount of makeup. So then you start contemplating giving yourself bangs just to cover it up (anyone else? Or is that just me?). Kids at school used to make fun of my sweaty palms, which would leave slimy handprints on the papers at my desk. Sometimes by the end of a class period, the papers would even stick to my palms—you know, like Spiderman! But with an anxiety disorder. My thoughts are always racing like bullets. But if they’re bullets, the gun is pointed always at me: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m stupid, I’m stuck, I’m old, I’m unlovable, I’m doing it wrong, I’m going to get in trouble, I’m wasting my life, I’m poor, I’m sick, I’m lonely, I’m unlikeable, I’m worthless, I’m going nowhere, I’m afraid, I’m a fool, I’m anxious (yes, I even beat myself up for being anxious).
Some well-meaning people like to point out that anxiety (and the low self-esteem that often accompanies it) is actually very self-centered, because you’re always thinking about you—even if it’s just about how inadequate you are. But that’s not really the whole story. Sure, I struggle with thoughts of self-hatred, and yes, they take up a lot of mental and emotional energy. But truly, my anxiety comes not from being intensely aware of myself, but rather being intensely aware of myself in the world. How I relate to it, how I interact with it, how I can make it better, how I might be making it worse. I’m hyper-aware. Like, to a fault. Or a superpower. Depends on how you look at it, I guess.
And if you’re looking at me now, you wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t know any of it. I’ve learned to hide my sweaty palms and my racing thoughts. I’ve learned to hide period. I’m no longer eight years old, locked in a car. That kid’s still inside me, sure, but she’s inside a woman with way more life experience (and who can take on any childproof lock, thanks very much). And what I’ve garnered during those thirty-some years of life experience is that anxiety isn’t all bad. Don’t worry!—I promise I’m not going to sugarcoat this; no fairytale endings here. But hear me out: apart from being biologically, ancestrally-designed to keep me safe, my anxiety makes me a kickass friend, a giving lover, and a talented writer/storyteller. Sure, I overthink everything. But that means I’m thinking about you a lot of the time. I remember birthdays and anniversaries, I can tell almost immediately when you’re having a bad day, I want to help you feel good, I worry about you. I won’t just walk a mile in your shoes. I’ll also polish them and bring them back to you. With a hug and a cup of tea. Because I understand—perhaps better than most—what you’re going through. My anxiety makes me incredibly empathetic. Which is arguably precisely what we need more of in the world today. So I own all of it. The good, the bad, the ugly, the zit. I wipe off my palms. I try again. I speak about it. I share it. I tell my story. I honk the horn.
And in case you’re wondering: Mrs. Morris did eventually remember and retrieve me for that car. I didn’t get a tardy. She apologized profusely to my mom, and we all laughed about it for years. Because it is kind of funny. And after all, it didn’t turn out all that bad.