High-Functioning Anxiety: The Upwardly Mobile Stress Case?

The difference between someone with apparent anxiety and someone who keeps it on the “down-low” is well-practiced presentation. Some people are better at hiding it and adapting to it.

A woman I met in Texas (and really like) Haley, posted a great article this morning on Facebook.  The article was “What It’s Like to Have High-Functioning Anxiety” and it was written by Sarah Schuster for “The Mighty”.  The few times I have been in the same room with Haley, I felt instant platonic attraction.  Smart, lovely and intuitive, a good mother, a great wife and a professional business woman (accounting) she is about simple things, Zen in life, family and strategies to get ahead.

She moved to Maryland.  Damn it!  But we’ll still get to see her sometimes since she has family in the area.   And now I know why I felt comfortable and understood when talking to Haley. Beyond comfortable, I felt… safe.  It turns out, we share more in common than I thought we did.

I have two types of clinical anxiety that were tested and re-tested in my twenties (I had a problem believing I had anxiety) and again in my mid-thirties (when I was more open to understanding myself better and learning tools).  I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).     Both of these clinical psychological traits (I hate calling them conditions because it implies a flaw, and I think it’s really just a different way I’m wired) are talked about predominantly by child mental health experts.  It is a focal point in development and education but it seems when you become an adult, people stop talking about it.

I have met people who were not lucky enough to be able to afford or access through health benefits (thank you Canada) the psychotherapy that I received.  I often wonder what my life would have been like if I didn’t have the help of the amazing Dr. Deborah Duggan in Toronto, an intuitive psychologist who changed my life and my thinking (and also introduced me to Yoga, organic fruit and green tea).  I didn’t understand the wiring before I met her.  I felt incredibly flawed, ineffective and unintelligent before I entered therapy.  I felt that something was deeply wrong with me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.   She changed my dialogue and educated me about anxiety, and she was the first person to position it as a superpower, rather than a critical flaw in my make up.

Life With Anxiety 

I can fixate on things such as the behavior of others, the world, the environment, animal rights, business, financial strategy et al to the point of making myself sick.  Many of the things I fixate on I can’t control or facilitate the immediate change I feel a deep need to see, and it upsets me.  And I talk about it non-stop, much to the dismay of my family or close friends who definitely get sick of the passionate dialogue about things I can’t control.

I forget things.  Birthdays are terrible.  Ask Diane how many times I lose her phone number and she is one of the most important people in my world.  She patiently gives it back to me from time to time, but I have it saved in FIVE places now under my nose.  I impressed her by calling her cellphone last week and not having to ask for the number.    She laughed lovingly when I commented “Hey, are you impressed you didn’t have to give me your phone number?”  I was simultaneously adding it to the fifth place (just to make sure).

Names sometimes too (if someone fails to make an impression that sticks in my head).  That is not a slight against anyone, but it is easier to remember names if someone really blows my mind with something they said.  People I dislike?  I remember their names unfortunately because they made a lasting impression.  I am hyper-observant and absorb EVERYTHING and try my best to file it in an intelligent, retrievable way.  Typically, older information is bumped by newer, present moment input.   That aggravates people, especially after having deep meaningful conversations and I can’t recall their name.  This is misinterpreted FREQUENTLY as being inattentive, or perhaps self-absorbed when it is the opposite.   I’m over absorbed in everything, and there is limited storage in my short-term memory.

I circle talk.  Kevin calls it “looping”.  I repeat myself if I am excited or angry.  So if we were in an argument, you are going to hear my grievance about fifty times.  I circle back, and back, and back… trying to get over the fact that it has upset me so much that I cannot process or file it.  When I am excited, it’s the same thing.  I may tell you four times in a five minute period that my sister is planning to come for a visit in August.   The repetition is a way of remembering things that are also important, and is part of having ADHD.  It’s also how I communicate the severity or importance of the emotion attached to that information.

I don’t sleep well.  The processing of things, goals, ideas, what I saw, what I said, what I need to say and what I need to do carries on into the late hours of the night and early morning.  Kevin is the type of guy who really wants to go to bed early; he can’t function well on little sleep. I seem to function better in some ways because when I am tired, I am able to focus better.  There is less energy “underneath the hood” if that makes sense, so I find myself depriving myself of sleep when the engine is running on overdrive … the next day, on 1-3 hours sleep, I’ll be calm and focused.   To adapt, I also do this before important meetings, conferences or webinars when I know I need to be my most coherent and productive.

I am impulsive.  I say “yes” quickly and then regret it, not taking enough time to fully consider the request.  My project this summer in business and in life, is to say “Let me think about it and get back to you with an answer”, or “let me check my schedule and I will confirm with you”.  This pause will allow me to be able to avoid saying “yes” and then coming back and saying “no I’m sorry I don’t want to/don’t have the time” later on.  I hate reneging and I like keeping my word, which means that 70% of the time I am doing things I neither have the time nor the desire to do, simply because I want to make people happy.

I hold a grudge for a long, long long long looooooooooooooooong time.  It’s easy to hurt my feelings, and my adaptive methodology is to “freeze you out” rather than fight.  I don’t talk about you (okay, maybe to Diane or Kevin or Kim), and I won’t talk to you.  I just use a mental eraser and remove you from my world.  To me, that is more peaceful than continuing a pointless, negative and nasty fight and it allows me to refocus on relationships and tasks that matter more.  Cold?  Yep.  But it beats the hell out of reenacting an episode of “Jerry Springer” right?


Anxiety As a Weakness

There are many people in the world who would coddle someone with anxiety as though it was a disability.  I have understanding for anyone with anxiety, and I feel fortunate to have had the mentors and clinical help I needed to position it in a better way that still allows me to reach my goals.  I am a high-functioning person with anxiety, but I will admit that I find empathy challenging sometimes.  Because I learned to still succeed in spite of two types of clinical anxiety, deep in my core, I believe than anyone SHOULD be able to tame the beast that is the disrupting force of anxiety in daily life.  I don’t think I am special, and so if I managed… I guess I figure others can too. I struggle to reprogram that because I know it’s not right.

I have met people completely disabled by their anxiety.  I want to understand them but I don’t.  That Type A comes out in full-force I know, and it is not a compassionate approach for someone who has so much compassion for things around her.  I’m being honest when I say that I always expect people with mental illness or anxiety disorders to be more than capable of pulling up their bootstraps and improving their lives and direction.   But that is something that is broken in me, and I know it; I think I am less than most people, therefore I think that everyone should be more than capable of doing what I do.    Shamefully in some friendships, I have taken the “buck up and pull your pants up” approach with people I knew that had serious clinical depression.  I thought I was doing them a favor.  I know now that I did more damage to them, and hate myself for it.

My upbringing had no empathy for weakness under any circumstance, even though it was surrounded by authentic examples of unscrupulous acts and relationships.

One article shared by Haley inspired an acknowledgement in me to be mindful of my empathy.  Just as others never suspect that I struggle with anxiety, those that are a little less skilled at hiding it deserve even more support, love and understanding.   I am not better than the ones that wear it on their sleeve daily, I’m just a better criminal for being able to hide it (most of the time).