It would come on before public speaking, before first dates, before big events. That’s to be expected. But it also came on when I was sitting home, watching TV.
Reading a book on the subway.
Talking on the phone.
Walking nowhere special at all.
I’d feel faint. Or shaky. Faint and shaky. Like all my organs turned to liquid. And my head was floating off my body. Also I had no blood in my brain. Or maybe I had too much blood in my brain which is why my heart was going to burst straight out of my chest and by the way I’m sweating but also cold and dying of dehydration and will that happen before the heart thing or…
I have to lie down right now. I need Gatorade. I need a quiet space. I need lip balm. I need a cold compress. Do I need an ambulance? Maybe I need an airlift.
Eventually it becomes self-fulfilling— the fear of having a panic attack becomes the trigger that brings on a panic attack.
People who don’t experience this don’t understand— it’s not like “nerves” triggered by some big event. It can be. But sometimes it’s not triggered by anything at all. Or maybe it’s triggered by something so deep in my subconscious only my body can respond to it.
I had no name for it. Until one afternoon, years ago, I found myself climbing over a low bookshelf in my office at work, literally crouched behind it. I hiked up my skirt and pressed myself against a wall, making myself as tiny as I could be.
I was hiding from something amorphous and intangible and surely non life-threatening.
Honestly, it would have been better if there were zombies out my office door. It would have made for a much better story.
No such luck. No zombies, no poltergeists. Not even an intimidating senior executive. Just my brain screeching FLEE! FLEE! as loud as it could until I had no choice but to obey.
I called my doctor that night and asked for help.
It’s called Generalized Anxiety + Panic Disorder, and until that merciful diagnosis, I had chalked it up to basically anything else: IBS, food allergies, anemia, not eating enough, eating too much, dehydration, the faintness from my low blood pressure in high humidity— though this is also a thing for me and unrelated, which can be confusing.
The first time I said the words out loud to a close friend, they responded, “you?! Social anxiety? But…really? You?”
Me who can present to a ballroom of hundreds. Moderate a conference panel of CEOS and industry leaders. Smile through a live TV segment and hit all my marks. Teach a class. Give a toast.
Being social and having social anxiety aren’t mutually exclusive. You can light up a room one night, and the next night, you’re making a terrible excuse to cancel dinner with a friend you dearly want to see.
Anxiety doesn’t stick to a timetable or follow a pattern, and it certainly doesn’t ask permission.
It’s hard to write about— even now. So hard. It feels entirely at odds with the way a lot of people see me; the way I want to see myself. Strong. Fearless. Confident. Unstoppable.
Don’t we all in some way?
No one stands up in kindergarten and says, “when I grow up, I want to be anxious.”
And yet, that’s just how millions of us are. So I’ve been grateful to writers and friends who, for many years, have been out there talking about anxiety issues with candor and compassion. The more they write, the more we talk about this, the less people will react with surprise or amusement when they learn “someone like you” has something like this.
Jenny Lawson. Alice Bradley. Jill Krause. Morra Aarons-Mele: I am grateful to you all.
In fact, Morra wrote a beautiful book that we discussed on my podcast several years ago called Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay at Home). Since then, she’s blown up on LinkedIn as the expert dedicated to helping anxious leaders thrive. She recently launched a new book called The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower, and I feel like she wrote it just for me.
But of course, she didn’t. And that’s the best part.
Having anxiety or other mental health challenges doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective leader…it means you feel the fear and act anyway. It means you persevere in spite of wanting to quit or cancel or hide or stay silent— because you remember that what you have to offer is important and meaningful.
I think Morra’s book will give so many of us “achievers” the permission we shouldn’t even need to succeed while being the complex and imperfect humans we are, with brain chemistry that doesn’t always function in our preferred manner.
Remember my word of the year? I’m still working on that.
I’m still working on a lot of things, and anxiety will be one that maybe never goes away. It just gets more manageable.
If that sounds like you too, I’ll never say, you?! Really? You?
I’ll just say, I understand completely. Let’s talk about it.
Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.