(I am not up for attaching links to articles about anxiety, its symptoms and effects, and studies about it. You can search for those articles on your own, if you want more evidence that suggests its validity. But this is a firsthand account of what it’s like to have it. I hope it is enough for you to realize that this is a real thing, not some “attention-seeking strategy” or a “fake way to get empathy”, as it has been wrongfully called.)
I don’t remember when it started, but I became aware of it in my late teens. There were times when I was feeling overwhelmed at social events, like the volume of people’s voices were too high or everyone was moving around too much. I would suddenly feel like a fly on the wall, watching but not understanding what was going on. But I knew I had to separate myself from the group, so I would step out of the room and try to have a few moments with myself. I needed to “regain consciousness” from the sudden confusion I felt, even though I was well aware of the occasion or theme of the social event.
I thought it was a normal thing to just want to step away for a bit. Doesn’t everyone need a moment to themselves? But sometimes when it happens, I would be coaxed into returning to the room because “it’s too weird for me to be alone,” even though I felt uncomfortable being in the room for much longer than I wanted. If I was alone for too long, I would “draw attention” or “make everyone worry that I’m not enjoying myself” because “it would insult the host”. And so I tried my best to put up a forced presence, for the sake of everyone else.
This was before smartphones or unlimited texting, so I had very limited ways of dealing with the discomfort and overwhelmed feeling. Most of the time, I would stay in one corner or sit in the chair, carefully calculating the next time I can go to the bathroom without looking suspicious of having gone multiple times. I had hoped that no one would look my way and ask if I wanted to dance or to talk to someone I will probably never speak to again. In those instances, the follow-up question would be “What’s wrong with you?” I wouldn’t know how to answer or how to articulate the feeling, but I knew that something inside me wouldn’t allow me to be like everyone else…
I was always aware of this thing before I knew it had a name. I learned about it when I was in college. That was when it showed itself: anxiety. It showed up whenever I walked into a classroom full of people, remaining silent and distant yet observant of anyone that walked through the door. It followed me as I walked on the sidewalk to or from campus and into the subway, minding passersby and making myself small to accommodate for other people too consumed in their own bubbles. It hovered over me whenever I sat down to eat, making me feel too conscious of how I presented myself, if I was eating too slow or looking aloof or eavesdropping on nearby diners because our spaces were too close to avoid.
Throughout college, I was afraid of having an anxiety attack at the wrong place, at the wrong time–which happened often. I would start to feel it in my stomach, that squeamish feeling when you ate something bad; in this case, I barely ate anything that would make me feel this way. The squeamish feeling persists, eventually preventing me from eating anything throughout the day, for fear that I might vomit at an inconvenient time and place. If there was no squeamish feeling, there would be “sudden panic”, as if I just realized that I am in danger–even if there were no indications of such. It would feel like some negative force creeped up on me, and I would start to tremble and hyperventilate. But in order to not draw attention to myself, in a public area, I would cross my arms over my abdomen or put pressure on my chest to try to calm myself down. My goal would be to remain and look calm; I could not have my cover blown just because anxiety decided to come up…
After I graduated from college, I had fewer episodes. I can only recall having one episode, four months after graduating, but I was able to take care of myself afterwards. I had reasoned that the decrease in episodes was due to the fact that I was no longer going to the city every day for school and work. Maybe the city life was overwhelming for me, and it was much safer for me to stay in the suburbs, where everything is at a steady pace and mainly quiet.
In the following months, anxiety returned. Episodes became frequent and more severe.
When you lose a loved one, everything in your life changes. Your circumstances change; you go through the motions of adapting and accepting these changes that are a direct result of loss, grief, and mourning. There is no doubt that these changes can also trigger anxiety from time to time.
In a way, my anxiety transformed. It went from general social anxiety to anxiety with deep roots because it is attached to my old life before the loss. Almost everything became a trigger: going to the movies, eating at new restaurants, traveling to new places, visiting old favorite places, etc. Those things remind me of that person, whom I was very close to and would usually share these moments with. But now that my circumstances have changed, I am forced to reach out to other people if I were to adjust to this new life. But it is difficult because I am reluctant to move on, even if I am supposed to find healing.
Recently, I traveled to the city for a friend’s birthday celebration. At this point, I felt able enough to endure a day trip to the city because there were a couple of places I wanted to visit before going out to dinner with friends. (I have a newfound hobby in stone collecting, and there are a few shops in the city that sold stones, crystals, and other things!) I had to push myself to enjoy the day because I was engaging in my interests in stones and spending time with friends who make me feel comfortable with myself.
My friends and I meet up at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. It was your typical no-frills restaurant with decent seating and atmosphere. We were seated in the back, where there was a large table that accommodated our party. We were all enthusiastic about the menu and catching up with each other. I had high hopes that this was going to be an enjoyable experience.
But then it came. I felt its coming when I took a bite of my food. I thought it was a mistake to take that bite, even though my order was delicious. There was nothing wrong with the food, but more like my motion of lifting the fork, putting the food in my mouth, and chewing the food. I felt its disappointment, that I should not have done that, that I should have stopped eating and paid attention to its arrival. I grew silent as the anxiety pulled up a chair next to me and began its routine…
A partition appeared, a thin veil that created a barrier between me and the normal world. On the other side, I saw people casually minding their own business, conversing over delicious food and iced beverages. The lighting was nice and the table settings were decent and clean. But on my side, it was barren. It had clammy air, confined space, loud noise, and rapid movement. I could not move any part of my body unless I wanted to risk crushing my innards that suddenly felt like they were made of thin glass. The slightest motion, and everything inside me would break, and I would collapse onto the floor, with nobody rushing to my help.
But I had to force myself to speak up, to excuse myself from the table and rush to the restroom. I closed the door and took several deep breaths. I checked myself; how do I feel? The squeamish feeling was faint, I had no urge to vomit. There was no trembling, but the panic was beginning to arise. I hovered over the toilet, in case the food decided to come back up. (I swear to you, the food at that restaurant was superb. Unfortunately, anxiety would not let me enjoy such cuisine…) But nothing came up. I thought it was a false alarm. So I washed my wands, splashed water on my face, and returned to the table. But I had an escape plan ready: politely ask for my order to-go, inform everyone that I needed to leave early, get out of there, and head to the subway. I needed to do all of this casually, without bringing any suspicion upon myself.
The plan almost went accordingly. One of my friends asked why I was suddenly leaving. I said that I had to go, and then mumbled that I was feeling overwhelmed. I had hoped that she would not catch that last bit, but her partner heard and repeated what I said to her. And then the anxiety used that to its advantage. Ohhhh, now you can’t get out of this easily! it said. The sudden panic arose, finally surfacing itself before everyone. I felt exposed, called out on my deception of trying to play off my anxiety. I felt everyone’s eyes on me, the room becoming small yet noisy. I rushed back into the restroom and locked myself inside for about fifteen minutes or so.
I eventually vomited into the toilet. I felt the burning sensation of shame in my esophagus. I crouched down onto the floor and began to cry. I felt embarrassed, scared, and trapped. And then the inner voices began to badger me about how I was making a scene, that this was all my fault. I should have picked the other chair at the table. I should have ordered water instead of something fancy, even if it is my favorite drink. I should not have taken that specific bite because now my stomach feels sick. I should have looked more enthusiastic during the conversation. Now everyone is concerned about why I am in this restroom for so long. They’ll think I’m weird. I’m ruining this dinner. How long am I going to be stuck here? Other people need the bathroom. I’m taking up too much space. The inner voices were not concerned about the “imminent danger” I felt running through my veins, my muscles, my bones. They only wanted me to feel guilty for having this anxiety–I asked for it.
I stayed crouched as the other part of me pushed for control, the part of me that gathered all the strength and willpower I had that wasn’t tainted by anxiety. Move, dammit! it said. You can at least move your body! Move! It was a battle between saving face, succumbing to the anxiety, and telling it to piss off because I needed to go home. Finally, I got up slowly, as if shoving the fallen concrete ceiling upward so that I could get out from underneath it. I took deep breaths, imaging gray smoke being exhaled from my lungs–the stuff that made up Dragg.
Once I felt that I could move freely, I put all my trust in my muscle memory. How to wash my hands and face, how to turn the doorknob, how to walk, how to pick up my belongings, how to push and pull and stop. Simple things that did not require much conscious thought. But if I mentally thought about all the things I had to do, to pass as “normal”, that gave Dragg its power. If I had to come up with another escape plan, it would give Dragg more opportunities to make me mess up. But I didn’t allow that to happen; I relied on my body to do its thing.
And my body betrayed me. Instead of trying to play it off when I returned to the table, I approached another friend that sat next to me and asked her to take me outside the restaurant. By the time we came out onto the sidewalk, I broke down. I fell down to my knees and cried; my friend followed me down and held me as I told her everything. That was when I gave Dragg its name and identity. I acknowledged its existence, for all those years of standing close to me when I wanted to be left alone. It became real because I was terrified and sick of it. I thought it would be gone, by the time I left college, but it came back at a time when I was most vulnerable.
There is a Filipino word, maarte, that has no literal translation in English. Its meaning varies in context, but it can be used as a derogatory term if someone is “overreacting” or “being melodramatic”. In this context, it is a horrible thing to call someone who has anxiety. It makes their situation invalid and degrading, more burdensome to the bystander than the afflicted individual.
I had kept my anxiety a secret from everyone, for fear of being called maarte, fake, attention-seeker, drama queen, troublesome. I would sometimes think that I somehow made up the anxiety, as a way to get out of certain situations. Maybe I read too many stories about other people who have anxiety and was influenced to have it. But why would I make up something that I was always afraid of? How was I able to relate to other people’s accounts and feel their pain? Why did I feel the need to reach out to strangers who had it, instead of the people I was close to that didn’t know I had it?
Because I never told anyone about my anxiety, there was no way for me to explain why I felt uneasy or uncomfortable and that I wanted to leave. I couldn’t understand why it happens or if there was a way to manage it, but it was a topic that I was reluctant to discuss with anyone. However, I knew it was going to become more difficult later on, the more I withheld information. I have always feared being maarte because I did not want to inconvenience anyone with my discomfort. It would hurt me to have my concerns and feeling scoffed at. It would make me feel guilty about having something that I did not know how to control. It would make me feel weak because I could not “just get over it”. So most of the time, I would avoid situations that involved socializing.
At that dinner, I was afraid of my friends viewing me as maarte (although not all of them were Filipino). I tried my best to “save face” so that we could all enjoy our outing together in the city. Twice, I failed. But something miraculous happened, as I broke down in front of the restaurant, as passersby minded their business on the sidewalk. My friend talked me through it, asking me if I was able to breathe, to stand up, to walk back inside or to go home early. She even offered to bring out my belongings and take me to her apartment nearby, if I felt too weak to make the trek home. I told her that I just wanted to go uptown and meet my mother at her work so that we could drive home together.
My friend returned inside the restaurant, to pay the bill and get my stuff. I stood outside by myself, crossing my arms and focusing on breathing normally. People walked by, naturally maintaining tunnel vision; there was a silent mutual agreement to not look at anyone else, whether they looked upset or complacent. I observed my environment, the heavy traffic on the street, the rustling sounds of other restaurants on the block, the summer humidity. I looked down at my feet and noticed a key on the ground. Somehow I was drawn to it, not because someone had lost it, but it seemed like a sign to distract me from going further into my anxious psychosis.
I remained standing outside the restaurant as one-by-one, my friends came out to check up on me. One offered to drive me home because their car was parked a few blocks up (I declined). Another decided to tell me funny stories about her experiences in her masters program (I laughed). Others asked if I was okay and to get home safe. Gradually I felt calm and content with the genuine concern from my friends. They were worried because they never saw me like this. They wanted to make sure that I was okay. Part of me felt relieved, but another part of me wished that they would let me go quietly so I could sneak away to the subway station. But they decided to walk me to the station, in case I collapsed or something. I had to swallow my pride (or whatever was left of it) and allow them to escort me to the train.
Since that day, I became more wary of Dragg. I gave it a name, to make it more personal and manageable to work with. Now that I acknowledge its realness and its presence in my life, I am finding ways to control it. It is an ongoing process, even as I work through my grief in loss, but I hope that it will not become overpowering as time goes. Not only do I need to manage Dragg, but I am also undoing my perception of it.
Dragg does not make me weak, although it will make me feel that way at times. It pushes me to the ground, but I manage to stand back up.
Dragg does not make me maarte, but it makes me conscious if I am perceived that way. If I keep thinking that I am being maarte, I will not heal quicker. I did not ask for this, but I accept its presence and hope that it can be tamed.
Dragg does not make me helpless, but it has taught me to ask for and accept help, when needed. As of now, very few people know about Dragg and have even offered to help me out of the situation. I know that there will be other people who will come into my life and wonder why I feel uncomfortable sometimes. Sometimes I feel compelled to let them know about my situation, but there is always the wariness that they may not accept it. I have to keep in mind that not everyone will understand and that they will probably think that I am being maarte. This is more for myself, as a way to heal; the only people who matter are the ones who care about my well-being and will work with me to maintain it.
Adjusting to my new circumstances means confronting certain things that might prevent me from moving forward. Dragg is one of those things. There are days when I must stay home to recover, whenever it comes up. On those days, I don’t feel like talking to anyone in the outside world. But I take those days as a timeout for self-care. I do not always need company; my own company will suffice in those times. By focusing on my own needs (eating, sleeping, cleansing, praying, toning down), Dragg becomes manageable, as I refuse to think of it as an inconvenience or a setback.
Dragg has always been a part of my life, and it took me a long time to accept it. Now I am learning to be gentle with myself yet remaining grounded. That is the key to healing.