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The Anxiety Secret Too Many People Are Carrying Around

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
One night around 3 a.m., I awoke suddenly, with a tightness in my chest. I could feel my heart pounding, fast, and my mind racing with desperate thoughts. As I lay there, looking up toward the ceiling in the darkness, a question emerged: What am I doing?

At the time, I had a lot going on. I was teaching interaction design at California College of the Arts, running a design studio in San Francisco, and starting a co-working space abroad, in my home town of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with a few local friends. My days were spent running around from one thing to another without an instant for myself. I was busy, busy, busy — crazy-making busy.

I was also tired. Exhausted.

Who was I doing all this for? My parents never put pressure on me or tried to dictate what I should or shouldn’t do with my professional life. My husband has always been supportive of all my endeavours. No one was forcing me to do any of the things I was doing. I chose to run myself ragged. And suddenly it came to me: I felt worthless.

I was trying to prove to myself — to the world — that I was worth something. I wanted people to see me. To validate me. I was trying desperately to avoid any moment of silence. Of quiet. Quiet was suffocating to me. It filled me with a huge emptiness I didn’t know what to do with. I had already spent so many years of my life suffering.

The feeling of overwhelming worthlessness is one of the hardest feelings to pinpoint, because it can feel like so many other things: depression, anxiety, sadness, workaholism. It masks itself too well.

I wasn’t able to fall asleep again that night. In a miserable attempt at self-care, over the course of the following months, I downsized my commitments: I closed out the studio, concluded my last semester of teaching, and sold all the assets of my coworking business in the Dominican Republic.

But it took me two more years of burnout, two more years of relationship struggles, and two more years of feeling invisible to understand how much my traumatic childhood experiences had influenced my day-to-day interactions.

I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse. An abuse that started at the heartbreaking age of 7 (though, of course, there’s no age when abuse isn’t heartbreaking) and spanned years. The context of the sexual abuse was a toxic environment of emotional neglect in which I lived until my late teenage years, when I had the independence to move away.

Sometimes, I don’t know what was more tragic: the neglect or the sexual abuse.

I’ve spent the past year and a half getting the help and support I needed. I’ve been diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which has brought a lot of clarity for me. With the help of therapy, I was able to identify the toxic behaviours I learned and the negative messages I received. I was able to connect my caretakers’ actions with symptoms of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder. And slowly, I’ve come to see how much of a parentified child I was and in some ways continue to be.

I’m now aware of my hyper-vigilance, my people-pleasing tendencies, my potential triggers. I’m more educated on the impact of transgenerational trauma in my family, and I’ve come to see its roots in domestic and social violence. It’s a lot to grieve.

We’ve been taught to think that stories like mine are the exception.

Most people who know me don’t know anything about these aspects of my life. I’m a high-functioning, get-shit-done creative professional, which I now know is a very adaptive response to my trauma. Workaholism is my coping mechanism. It goes unnoticed as a problem, because intense productivity is so highly rewarded in our society, regardless of whether it’s at the expense of the mental illness it may be obscuring.

We’ve been taught to think that stories like mine are the exception. That trauma is unusual, and that those to whom it happens are in unusually unfortunate life circumstances. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Every day, millions of seemingly normal people suffer in silence, riddled with so much pain and shame that, like me, they work hard to make sure no one ever notices. We are afraid of being labeled broken. We are afraid of being called frauds. We are afraid of being made to feel lesser. We would much rather bury our weaknesses, our fears, our struggles, and let them corrode us (through our depression, our alcoholism, our drug abuse, our self-abandonment) than break the silence and expose our true, vulnerable selves.

As a culture focused on solutions and perfection, we fail to acknowledge the impact trauma has on our lives at both the individual and collective levels. We won’t let ourselves grieve, openly and honestly, unless we have permission. We’ve grown accustomed to pretending everything is perfect; we’re all working so hard to make each other believe we have our shit together. But the reality is that we don’t. We’re just carrying appearances rather than openly discussing what’s really going on inside.

We need to break the silence.

All of this is why, together with a talented group of individuals who care about mental health, I’m building a new creative endeavour: a magazine called Anxy. It’s an artful, vulnerable, open, intimate, but most importantly, deeply personal publication. We intend to cut through the clutter and open up conversations about those transformative moments in powerful personal narratives. Anxy exists to demonstrate that sometimes, the darkest and most paralysing experiences can have empowering ripple effects in our lives.

In order to make all of our stories — our magazine — come to life on the page, we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. If you believe this project is necessary, please consider supporting it in a way that works for you: Make a contribution, an endorsement, or simply share Anxy with your networks. Help us end the stigmas around mental health.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

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