Let's say everyone has a smoke detector in their brain.
For the most part, it just sits there. Changing the batteries on smoke detectors can be nothing short of an ordeal, so let's say it doesn't need recharging. It's incredibly efficient, so false alarms are few and far between. In fact, most of the time you don't think about it at all.
When it goes off, you know something is seriously wrong. Maybe you're in a bad situation. Maybe someone is giving you the wrong vibe. You listen to it, and it tells you when to back off. You trust it, because it's always right.
But let's say, for argument’s sake, there are some smoke detectors that are wrong.
They're not defective, not really. They sense when something’s about to go bad just like anyone else’s. But these ones are sensitive. When they go off, it can be anything from You forgot to close the garage door to You can't trust this man to drive you home. Sometimes, on worse days, they’re triggered for absolutely no reason at all. But you can't tell the difference. All you know is there's something to be afraid of, and you're not always sure why.
So these smoke detectors are hyperactive, and when they go off, they are loud. You can't disconnect them. You can't break them. They cling to the inside of your head, shrieking at all hours of the day. It's enough to give anyone a headache.
That sounds bad enough, because there are few suburban evils worse than a rogue smoke detector waking everyone up at three in the morning. But it's not just the detector. When it goes off, your body responds right away, because you’re in dangerdangerdanger get out run away hide hide HIDE. It dispatches adrenaline. Your heart starts pounding, your lungs clench, and you get ready to fight for your life.
This happens in your bedroom in the late afternoon. It happens on a Saturday morning. It happens when a girl at the mall gives you a sideways glance. It happens everywhere, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
What do you do with a smoke detector that won't shut up, no matter where you are or who you're with?
You stop listening, of course.
First you get angry. Then you get tired. And slowly, surely, it fades into the background. You don't really care about the screaming in your head anymore, because it's not going away, so what does it matter? You deal with the pressure, the quickened pulse, the sweating and shaking and shooting pains in your chest. It becomes like second nature, a laugh and a shrug, Oh, there goes that darned smoke detector again. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it's sad.
For argument’s sake, though, let's say you wanted to fix it. Because, honestly, who wants an alarm going off inside them all the time? You start thinking about talking to someone, bringing it up in conversation, just offhandedly mentioning the way you've been feeling. You feel a little hopeful. Maybe this stupid smoke detector will finally leave you alone.
And then, just as you get together the courage to say something, the detector goes quiet. Choked off right in the middle of a piercing wail. You have to pause to make sure you're not hearing things, and then you deflate, a little surprised. It happens suddenly, awkwardly, and without warning.
You think everything’s fine, now. You go about your day. You might even enjoy it. You're feeling good and improved and normal, just like everyone else. There could be a little pang of loneliness; after all, that detector’s been going off for weeks or months or even years, and you've kind of gotten used to it. But you'd take the peace and quiet over its insistent beeping any day. You're happy.
Then, one weekend, you're sitting on the couch, talking to your family, when suddenly all the air is crushed out of your chest. And the sound returns like it's never left.
BEEEEEEEP! (not safe you’re not safegetout)
BEEEEEEEP! (something is wrong very wrong so wrong)
BEEEEEEEP! (why should you be afraid, whywhyWHY)
You politely excuse yourself, and close yourself in the bathroom, and shake and cry and sweat it out until you can breathe normally again. Then you return, and they might ask you if you're okay, and you tell them you're fine. The detector shrieks on at the back of your mind.
This isn't the worst part, though.
The worst part is that somehow, it feels good to have it back.
You missed the fear. The hyperawareness, the constant state of readiness for disaster. It's like a constant adrenaline high, and you try to tell yourself otherwise, but you've started to rely on it. You don't know who you are without it. (You're no one without it.)
Let's say this is what anxiety feels like.
This is what you can do:
a. You tell your parents about it. You explain to them you're afraid of a lot of things for no particular reason, and it makes you sick. They ask you why anyway, and when you try to rationalize it, they give you a look that's a little skeptical, a little sad, and sympathetic in the parent way; the I’m-sorry-but-I-just-don’t-get-it way. Nothing happens.
b. You tell your friends about it. Some of them try to understand, but they tell you to take deep breaths and think positive thoughts, and you just look at them with a sinking feeling in your stomach. Others, surprisingly, describe similar feelings. You compare physical symptoms and situations and discover you all have a lot in common, in a horrible way. It's good to have people who get it, but that's all they are. Nothing happens.
c. You tell your teachers about it. They tell you to sleep more, eat a good breakfast, and talk to the school counselor. They then assign you two hours of homework for that night. Nothing happens.
d. You tell no one about it. You can handle this yourself, right? You've come this far, and you're pretty strong. You can do this. (Nothing happens.)
So you don’t tell anyone, and you teach yourself coping mechanisms and breathing exercises and little things, inconspicuous things that make it easier. Maybe you write poetry about it. Maybe you write articles about it, and people read the articles, and realize there are others out there just like them, and that they might just need to tell someone about how they’re feeling. Maybe you use your struggles to do something good. That’s really all you ever wanted to do.
So you don’t tell anyone. But you’ve done something worthwhile. And for that, you can live with anything.