My Anxiety Makes Forming & Maintaining Friendships a Challenge
In my final month of high school — when every course transformed into a study hall — I audaciously decided to check my college email in the middle of AP government. There it was — the message from the residence association welcoming me to campus and providing a list of suggested items to bring. I browsed the list starting with the usual stationary supplies, and then, I saw it: egg crate mattress pad. I gasped.
“What is it?” my friend asked, glancing at my screen.
“Egg crate mattress pad,” I muttered, suddenly aware of my discernible shortened breaths.
“What’s her problem?” another friend inquired.
“I don't’ know. She’s freaking out over egg crates.“
“Always so dramatic,” he declared, as I hurried to the nearest restroom for what I now understand to be a full-fledged panic attack. It wasn’t the egg crate mattress pad that evoked the panic, but it was what it represented — the reality of my biggest fear: change.
And so “dramatic” was how I was perceived. It was nothing new. For many years, my family had been calling me melodramatic and theatrical — always desperate for attention. But the truth is that for most of my life, I had been suffering from undiagnosed depression and anxiety, and unfortunately, my mental illness made it difficult to form and maintain relationships.
Having anxiety is exhausting. It’s like you’re stuck in the deep end of a swimming pool forced to tread water, and all that treading rapidly drains your energy. With my incessant obsessive thoughts, I’m easily fatigued — sometimes sleeping for 14 or more hours at once. Throughout my final decade of living at home, my parents berated me for oversleeping, claiming “there was nothing medically wrong” and that it was all in my head — as if I could easily shake it out. Unfortunately, I can’t turn off my mind.
Due to the constant fatigue, I frequently sleep through social gatherings or have to cancel plans at the last minute, and that has led friends to believe that I’m flaky or inconsiderate. The problem is that mental illness is often deemed inexcusable. It’s acceptable to say, “I had a diabetic weak spell” or “my Crohn's and colitis were flaring up,” but it’s never permissible to say, “My anxiety and depression acted up.”
For me, social outings indubitably induce anxiety. I can never be spontaneous — I have to mentally prepare for every excursion. I’m always worrying about others’ opinions of me, and consequently, I overthink everything. If a text message goes unanswered, I jump to conclusions and invariably assume the worst. I immediately replay all interactions in my head, trying to discover the reason for the neglected text. I overanalyze and act impulsively, allowing my emotions to interfere with my rationality, and thus, destroy my friendships. No one can ever fathom the torturous thoughts and struggles that I inexorably endure.
Being medicated with mood stabilizers has also negatively impacted a few friendships. If I forget to take my medication one day, I’m knocked out as if I have the flu, but it’s difficult to claim feeling severely ill when I’m able to bounce back the next day.
A common cold can also be problematic. My body is perpetually in distress, so adding another slight stressor can sometimes throw my body out of whack and induce irritability. Changing psychiatric medications is even worse, and sometimes evokes a deluge of involuntary emotions that others perceive to be irrational.
I’ve apologized profusely for overreacting and randomly lashing out at friends, but they never understand. No matter how much I explain, I’m inevitably accused of trying to make excuses. A former friend even argued that there’s an obvious pattern with my relationships, so clearly, I’m the problem. But as my therapist quickly noted, the pattern is that I seek abusive and toxic relationships because I’m used to the abuse — there’s comfort in familiarity.
And so, the few friends to whom I’ve disclosed my genuine struggles with mental illness eventually disappoint and betray. Some react as if I have an infectious disease, except they never offer any sympathy. And sympathy is not what I need — what I need is patience and understanding.
People think that depression is one of those invisible illnesses, but the truth is that we’re all just forced to hide it. Growing up, I was accustomed to feigning happiness. “Can’t you at least pretend to be happy?” my mother would implore. So that’s what we learn to do — we learn to pretend. But when depressive episodes become impossible to resist, we’re forced to discard our masks and hope our loved ones and friends can find the power to embrace and comfort us instead of shutting us out.
After all the betrayals and former friends’ confessions about never being able to fathom my occasional and seemingly unsolicited outbursts, I’ve become reluctant to trust others and form new friendships. I stress over everything I say and do and exhaust myself with trying to please everyone and earn approval. I’m hesitant to get too close for fear of rejection and disappointment. People think that I don’t care, but the problem is that I care too much. And when you’re so caught up with bringing happiness to others, you sometimes forget to save some for yourself.
But with all the negative experiences comes a revelation: Before I can love someone else, I have to learn to love myself.