Through the Looking Glass: Trying to Understand

by Emily Eisner | 1/11/15 2:29pm

Maybe this will help you understand.

Think of a time that you’ve been truly scared for your life, even if the fear lasted only a brief moment, maybe less than a second. I’m sure many people, for example, have feared for their lives on airplanes at some point when a sudden jolt of turbulence rocked the cabin or a weird noise came from the outside of the plane. Perhaps you’ve looked over a steep ledge, feeling fear at the thought of plummeting down into a pile of rocks, or maybe you’ve seen a shadow down the road that looks like a person hiding and waiting to jump out at you. It doesn’t need to be a rational fear — there must be some moment when you’ve been truly scared that you are about to die.

With those images in mind, try to recall that feeling — try to experience it right now, or come as close as you can. Put that momentary, overwhelming, horrifying, insecure or lonely feeling on repeat through your body. Feel it over and over again, like you can’t turn it off — like it’s a broken record repeating an ear-wrenching pitch, drowning out the world around you so that the only thing you can focus on is the paralyzing and overpowering sound reverberating through your head. The world is going on around you, and your mind cannot stop looping over and over the same anxious thoughts.

A touch of uncertainty makes it worse. Now you’re not certain if you will die — if you act now, maybe you can prevent it all. Everyone else on the airplane seems — at least is acting — calm, like nothing’s wrong. You look around to identify concern in other people’s faces. You try to appear calm when realistically you’re filled with panic. “Don’t they realize the plane’s going down?!” You’re prepared to jump out of your seat, grab the closest parachute — you’ve already started working on locating it — and leap out the nearest exit. Maybe you should say something to the flight attendant? Maybe if you don’t say something right now the worst will happen, but if you do there’s a chance everything will be okay? Knowing that there may be something you can do to keep everyone safe and alive, you can’t stop preparing, waiting for the moment when it will become absolutely necessary for you to act.

If up to this point you’ve just been reading and haven’t actually internalized this feeling, I challenge you to take a break right now, close your eyes and try to remember what it feels like to be truly scared. I’ll admit I feel a little badly if you’re succeeding in conjuring up these feelings — it isn’t fun to be stuck in an anxious thought pattern. Unfortunately, this is how I lived most of last spring — constantly planning for the moment of my own death and wondering when I should tell one of the random people sitting a few seats down from me that I needed to go the ER. It’s not pleasant or enjoyable.

Since developing anxiety, I’ve thought a lot about how difficult it is to convey or understand psychological experiences. In particular, I’ve grown frustrated with the difficulty people have with imagining what a person’s struggle with mental health feels like. More disheartening than my frustration with trying to explain my experience to others, however, is my own failure at empathizing with people. Despite working through anxiety myself, I still find it incredibly hard to empathize with others who deal with mental health issues. As much as I’m ashamed to say it, even sympathizing for other people who battle with mental health issues — often much more serious than my own — has become hard for me. I struggle to fully absorb the difficulties people face, and even harder to detach the health issue from the person’s character.

Even as I have difficulties relating to other’s stories of mental illness, I have not discovered a way to share with anyone how imprisoned I feel within my own mind during periods of intense anxiety. Many people show support or care, but many others fail to understand — or even acknowledge — the reality that I and others battling a mental illness face. Empathy seems nearly impossible when it comes to mental health. Because the experience is so often masked by those suffering through it, onlookers have a hard time detecting any signs of true illness. Further, because mental illness can be conflated with ordinary emotion or one’s innate personality, people fail to comprehend the intrusive and pathological reality of mental illness. This is not who I am — this is a disease, an imbalance, some emotional baggage that I battle to fend off most days. On anxious days I have to fight to unshackle the me within.

My parents, while being very supportive, sometimes fail to grasp the heart of the issue. It’s easy enough for them to say, “Emily, you’re perfectly (physically) healthy — there’s nothing to be worried about,” but what does it matter if I’m healthy or not? It’s possible I’m experiencing — to a lesser degree — many of the same feelings of grief and withdrawal that someone who is actually terminally ill would feel. Please understand that I don’t mean to diminish the severity of terminal illness, or to claim that my struggle compares to struggle for life those with terminal illnesses face. But honestly, my mind actually believes that I’m dying — perhaps not at every moment, but often enough that I do not have any grand plans for my future. I hope to live a long life. But I don’t count on it, and in many ways I have already begun to mourn myself. When I told my father this he answered, “Hm, I’ll have to think about that,” at once revealing both concern and a complete inability to comprehend my perspective. My parents are awesome and really couldn’t be more supportive than they are, but trying to explain to them how I feel doesn’t feel much different from playing the game “broken telephone.”

Likewise, my closest friends and my partner show endless love and some deep belief in my experiences, but it stings to see the way they sometimes attribute my anxiety to my character. When my partner said with love, “You come across so confident and sure of yourself — I’d never have thought you’d deal with so much anxiety,” I felt a little crushed. Since then, I’ve told him that I believe my ability to talk about my anxiety and share my experience comes from the very confidence and self-assuredness that he sees. I don’t think having insecurities or battling mental illness makes you a less confident or weaker person. In fact, I think these struggles present opportunities to improve confidence and prove strength. My partner is one of the best people in the world. He is incredibly important to my happiness and security, and he is one of the most empathetic and respecting people I know. Yet somehow it feels like even he can’t understand me.

This year, my partner has started experiencing an anxiety of his own related to his work and living situation. Having both now dealt with issues of our own mental health, we are more able to give each other advice on managing the hard moments and what long-term resources are available. However, I still find myself frustrated on the phone with him when he’s only focused on overthinking his own day, or when he doesn’t put enough effort into paying attention to whatever banal stories I have. It’s silly, but because it’s so hard to understand the way his anxiety takes hold of his attention, I am terrible at being sympathetic 100 percent of the time.

I will have to settle for faith and my own recognition that there will always be things that I don’t understand or can’t simulate. Pursuit of belief will have to suffice, as full understanding will always be unattainable. More than wanting to free myself from my own anxiety, I wish I could purge myself of the doubts I have regarding others’ experiences. To me, this is one of the greatest injustices you can do — not fully acknowledge another’s experience. If we could all perfectly empathize, I believe the world would be a better place.