Black and anxious: Why we can't all just 'keep it cool'

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| December 04 2016,

08:14 am

Photo: CreateHerStock

Hi. I'm black, and I'm  awkward  anxious. (I'm also awkward, but that's another story entirely.) I've suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember, yet I didn't know it had a name until I left home. Why's that? Because anxiety in my black household was some mythical, made-up concept — like a post-racial America. It simply doesn't exist. I distinctly remember trying to clumsily put these feelings of panic, dread or uneasiness into words and being met with a smooth "Sit down, child, you're working my nerves" or "Don't you have something else to fixate on?" In summation, for years I felt as though these emotions I was dealing with, almost on a daily basis, weren't real. Or at the very least, weren't important enough to warrant concern. 

I have the type of anxiety that people praise. It's the type that makes me a perfectionist, the one person that everyone relies on during a group project, a prima ballerina and a straight-up over-achiever. I'm never late. Organization game is 100. I've got an incredible memory (read: my brain plays situations on loop just long enough for it to make a long-lasting impression). And in the words of my family, 'I'm put-together.' Receiving constant praise and admiration for the effects of what I now know is called General Anxiety Disorder made coping with the not-so-positive side much easier. General nervousness, bruxism, fatigue, spikes of (unwarranted) panic, getting trapped in an unending loop of hypotheticals, mental exhaustion, irritability, muscle tension or aches, migraines, you name it! (It's always a good time to quote Shirley Caesar) There came a point when I realized I wasn't just fixated and that this load was way too much to carry alone. It was preceded by many head-scratching moments of: "Wait, you don't still have every exam you've taken in college in an organized folder? That's weird." Or, "No, I have to buy four bottles of paprika, because what if they stop making the brand I like? Duh. How will I season my food?!" This feeling of 'but, what if' leads me to make choices that others deem irrational. Fair enough, not everyone buys a back-up to their back-up, or can describe with uncanny precision the exact location of their high school prom dress (even though it's in a closet, on another continent, in a house they haven't lived in for 10 years). 

To my fellow black men and women wading through the heavy and obnoxious sea of anxiety, there's something I want you to know: 

Suffering is not an inherent part of the black experience. 

We're not born to suffer, work, suffer some more, then die.

Don't compare your struggle when deciding if you need help. 

"My great-grandfather escaped from slavery, walked 1,500 miles on one leg with no shoes, and then started a successful business in Rhode Island, one of the whitest states ever. What do I have to complain about?" (this isn't true for me, but you get the idea.)

You don't have to be on a plantation, incarcerated or on the run from the IRS to feel anxious or burdened by life's twists and turns. If you compare your struggles with those of your mother or grandmother, you trivialize the issues that are very real to you. 

Anxiety is, by definition, irrational. 

People will tell you that your fears are ridiculous or unreasonable. If they don't suffer from GAD (general anxiety disorder) themselves, there's no way for them to understand what it feels like. Their word is not the end-all, be-all. Talk with a professional. Seeking help means you're strong. Avoiding, denying and ignoring the issue is the easy way out. 

Telling someone with anxiety to "calm down" or "be easy" is insensitive, redundant and foolish. 

If you've ever told me to "calm down," you've probably felt ire in its purest form. OF COURSE people with anxiety want to calm down! Do you think we voluntarily choose to suffer? *eye roll* Dismissing our feelings does much more harm than good. 

Don't blow this off. 

My anxiety has caused very real and tangible effects physically and with my personal relationships. There are loads of resources and support groups for other mental and social disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. Just because you're rattled — almost paralyzed — and stressing out over which cheese to buy, doesn't mean your anxiety is any less real or relevant. (I get it, the options are overwhelming. I'd say, take as long as you need, damn it!)

Anxiety is a real disease...

... and anyone who tells you to "just go pray about it" or "sit down" has no idea what they're talking about.  

You deserve peace of mind. You deserve to feel calm. It's okay to be black, anxious, awkward and whatever else you might feel. Just know that you're not the only one, and there's help if you need it. 

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