Years ago, when I experienced debilitating bouts of anxiety, I would easily lose my perspective and feel like an outcast — a freak. I momentarily transformed into a negative abstract of myself that possessed undignified emotional and behavioral idiosyncrasies. But, over time when I regained perspective, I appreciated my odd peculiarities as not only “unique” but as vital assets that helped me achieve some success in my life.
Perspective: Use it or lose it.
Got it. Seems easy. Not.
The hard part was weathering the often betraying nature of this positive, elusive outlook. Whenever life flipped the coin on me, it didn’t always land on the “unique” side and the chances of me slipping into the dark view of myself as a flawed person returned within seconds. Same coin, two very different sides.
In decreasing the time between the lost perspective and the reacquisition of it was crucial to managing symptoms and getting well. Finding the gray area was all that mattered. It was the best I could hope for day in and day out. Thankfully, over time I became pretty good at it.
However, even today, as a psychotherapist, I still endure rare wisps of self-doubt that creep into my head every now and then. For example, most of the time I feel like a skilled clinician capable of helping patients heal and stop their negative behavior patterns. Other times, I feel like I can’t stop a nosebleed. As a published author, I see myself as a good writer and other times I feel like I can’t write a grocery list. And, sometimes in gloomier moments, I critically reflect back on my existence and think I’ve never really “lived” life. I’ve only learned how to survive it. And even though we know thoughts aren’t facts, in the moment, they still feel real. The nagging and distorted reservations can be very convincing.
After treating patients with anxiety and phobias for many years and from my own experience with panic attacks, here are a few examples of how sufferer’s imagined inadequacies can be seen conversely as assets:
For instance, many people with significant degrees of chronic anxiety have a very strong attention to detail. They are focused and get things done on time. They are rarely late and are extremely reliable. They toe-the-line better than anyone else.
Why? Because they are too afraid NOT to.
Additionally, suffering from any mental health condition expands the breadth of human compassion. They experience feelings more deeply. Some love to nurture and take care of others.
Another advantage is that many sufferers are very effective in crisis situations and when placed in positions of responsibility. Because they’re always anxious anyway, a crises or an emergency of some kind doesn’t faze them. For some, it doesn’t heighten the angst any more than it already is. In fact, it helps to distract them by focusing on someone or something else for a change. It gets them out of their heads. Worry is their game and under pressure, they can be tremendously helpful.
It also levels the playing field. They feel at home in a sense because for a while others can understand what it’s like to feel on edge all the time. A crisis gives them permission to be scared for a legitimate reason. It’s like receiving oxygen.
Breathe. Hold. Exhale. Repeat.
You see, chronic worry during non-crisis times (which can be most of the time for many), can be shaming to expose when there isn’t an identifiable stressor that a normal person can see. A crisis validates the psychic pain so significantly that sufferers feel whole. They feel human.
Same coin. Two different sides.
In a recent book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder, journalist Claudia Kalb draws attention to great minds and luminaries that may have suffered from mental illness. She takes a look into Albert Einstein’s alleged autism, Abraham Lincoln’s depression, George Gershwin’s ADHD, Charles Darwin’s anxiety and Marilyn Monroe’s Borderline Personality Disorder, to name a few. It’s obviously difficult to posthumously diagnose someone accurately from the distant past but, the profiles are fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down.
To me, the most interesting analysis is Charles Darwin. In addition to suffering from anxiety and a tormented need for order and perfectionism, he also sustained chronic, physical illnesses. It is documented that he struggled from digestive issues, muscle weakness, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Kalb writes, “He was a worrier. He fretted about his children, about his deadlines, about his reputation and always about what ailed him.”
Any person afflicted with extreme anxiety and/or digestive issues wouldn’t be caught dead embarking on sea voyages for several months doing research amidst dingy, primitive travel accommodations. However Darwin was still able to change the world and the way we see it. Darwin wrote to a friend about his scientific travels, “I look forward even to seasickness with something like satisfaction…anything must be better than this state of anxiety.”
Another incredible aspect about his story is that the controversy he stirred up about his theory of evolution and the origin of man was earth-shattering for that era. Darwin was an easy-going man who eschewed conflict and most of all, the spotlight. But, regardless of the fear of backlash via his blasphemous suppositions challenging divine creation, he forged ahead anyway. Perhaps his anxiety and excessive worry gave him the boost he needed to complete his work? Maybe the stress of deadlines and his fear of tarnishing his reputation drove him to triumph?
Lastly, think about Bruce Feirstein’s evocative quote:
“The distance between insanity and genius is measured by success.”
Obviously, most people (including myself) do not possess Darwinian or Einsteinian smarts, but imagine if the people out there suffering from some form of mental illness had their uniqueness discovered? Imagine how greatly they would contribute to mankind?
I can only hope that future generations learn how to acknowledge everyone’s special gifts and uniqueness without having it be contingent on public success.