Damn You, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Torment of Living With Anxiety Disorder

There are volumes upon volumes of books and reams upon reams of reports about the symptoms and causes of Anxiety Disorder. I’m not a physician, psychiatrist, or medical researcher, so there’s nothing I can add to them. I’ve written before about my own symptoms and about what happens when the debilitating panic sets in, and there’s nothing new for me to add to those. Today I’m writing about the part of anxiety that is, at least for me, the worst part. . .

. . .the torment

One of the most cruel truths about suffering from Anxiety Disorder is that the sufferer is robbed of the life that he or she truly wants and knows they deserve. But, our fears are so overwhelming; they are so all-consuming, that we cannot live that life. The torment of living with anxiety disorder is that, as we are sidelined in fear, we are forced to look on as others experience what we don’t believe we ever can.

Last night, during my nearly nightly rabbit-holing of YouTube, I ran across a BBC documentary from 2013 about a group of young people from the United Kingdom who suffer from severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Their conditions are so severe that traditional means of treatment have been largely ineffective. The group, all between 17 and 25 years old, volunteer for an intensive treatment regimen which exposes them to their fears and triggers in order to train them to cope with them in hopes of leading more normal lives.

The group flew from London to Seattle, and were then taken into the Washington wilderness. For 10 days, they lived together, half a world away from home, purposely exposing themselves to their greatest fears. The documentary is so raw and real that it almost triggered a panic attack for me as I watched. You see, as things are now, I cannot fathom the thought of being that far away from home–of my “safe place”–with no quick way to get back. But, these kids faced their fears even with no real guarantee that the treatment would work.

In the end, each of them did find success. No, they were not cured of OCD–as yet, there is no cure. But, they did learn coping skills which allowed each of them to go places, do things, and cultivate relationships, all of which had been unthinkable. As they prepared to head back home, each was presented by the therapists who were with them with a dragon charm hanging from a necklace. One of the therapists told the group that the charms were a reminder to each of them of the importance of facing their fears no matter how big they might seem. He quoted Eleanor Roosevelt:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

I sat on the couch and wept. I wept partially from the happiness I felt for those people and partially from the sadness I feel for my own life and partially from the sadness I feel for other people like me who are always looking on.

Damn you, Eleanor Roosevelt!

The real rub with Anxiety Disorder is that those of us who suffer from it understand that our fears are irrational. Research tells us that many people who suffer from Anxiety Disorder are highly intelligent and creative people. We are more than capable of the thought processes necessary to overcome those fears. Not only are we capable of them, but we frequently engage in them. So, if we are so darn smart, why can’t we just take Mrs. Roosevelt’s advice and face them? I can answer that question in two words: cognitive dissonance. 

You see, while our fears might be irrational, they are not always unreasonable. For example, I have an extreme fear of heights. My fear of heights is so bad that even standing on an ordinary ladder which one might find in someone’s home is something that I cannot do without triggering very real, physical responses–vertigo, shakiness, etc. Barring some freak set of circumstances, the most that might happen to me if I were to fall from that height would be a torn ligament or a broken bone. However, a fall from heights not all that much higher than the ladder could result in more serious injuries or worse, but the chances it will happen are very low. There you have it–cognitive dissonance. My extreme fear of heights is, simultaneously, irrational but not unreasonable.

It’s easy for people who don’t know the torment of Anxiety Disorder to quote Eleanor Roosevelt and others who have said similar things. Honestly, it should be easy for me and other sufferers to do, but the truth of the matter is that it is not. My fears–yes, I have a long list of them–are far more than things that just scare me. They are life-altering. As much as I want to travel; as much as I miss singing; as much as I want to do something as simple as spend the weekend with friends, I cannot do any of those things–at least not now.

The torment of living with this disorder is that other people get to do all of those things that I want to do while I sit and watch.  And, that is worse than anything.