F41.1. GAD, or, Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s a helpful code for medical professionals, for insurance companies, maybe for Therapists. It’s not the most helpful code for the person being diagnosed. At least it wasn’t for me.
When my anxiety got really bad, right after my wedding, I remember telling the Doctor that I thought it was just “transitional anxiety”. I told him I never handled change well, which is true. But transitional anxiety or adjustment disorder typically only lasts for 6 months and after 6 months, my anxiety symptoms were still raging. I didn’t want to admit I had an anxiety disorder. I didn’t like the label. He told me he thought Lexapro would be a good idea for me, but I didn’t want to be “medicated” at the time. Although, the reason I was seeing the Doctor in the first place was for an Ativan prescription on an “as needed basis”, but for me, that didn’t seem as bad as being on a daily antidepressant. Weird, how the stigma works, how my mind rationalized it.
Years prior, when I moved to the States as a teenager, and I was having constant stomach issues, I remember my friend’s mom saying something flippant about me having anxiety or an eating disorder. I remember feeling so ashamed. I didn’t want to be viewed as having any kind of “disorder”. It made me feel less than, like I was somehow defective, and it led to the long-held fear that there must be something wrong with me. This was back in the early 2000’s, and anxiety wasn’t discussed the way it is today (not that we’ve completely broken the stigma, but there’s definitely less judgement out there than there was back in 2000). It became a secret I had to hide. I didn’t want to be judged anymore.
So, I did my best to hide how awful I felt and eventually the worst of it passed.
But, those beliefs, that shame, and the hiding were a part of my subconscious. They hadn’t been dealt with, they had just gone dormant. I was pretending.
Anxiety makes itself known in strange ways, but it’s goal is to get your attention. It got my full attention in 2011 when I was sitting in that Doctor’s office wondering why I couldn’t cope, wondering if I actually was losing my mind, or dying. I had just gotten married. I should have been in newly-wed bliss. What was wrong with me? There it was again. That thought. And the Doctor told me he thought I had Generalized Anxiety & Panic Disorder. Great. There it was again. That judgement. I felt it from the Doctor, but really, I felt it from myself. That diagnosis was the nail in the coffin. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I was messed up. I was weak. I left the Doctor’s office feeling totally hopeless.
I cried to my Therapist. I didn’t want to be “diagnosed”. I didn’t want to identify with an anxiety disorder. That wasn’t who I was. That wasn’t who I wanted to be! My Therapist, bless her, calmly explained that an anxiety disorder diagnosis is only helpful for Doctors and Insurance companies when describing a set of symptoms. It really doesn’t have to mean anything more than that. It doesn’t have to become your identity. We worked through some of my shame surrounding the diagnosis. It’s been a process, to say the least, one, if I’m being honest, is not quite finished yet. But it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore.
I am a person, a complex, messy, human being just like the approximately 7.5 billion other human beings on the planet. I happen to struggle with anxiety, just like almost 40 million other Americans do. Doctors diagnose, it’s their job, but a diagnosis, whatever it may be, doesn’t have to become your identity.
I’ve come to terms with it, but sometimes, when I think I’m over it, the stigma and shame still sneak up on me, and when it does, I remind myself I am not alone and I am not my anxiety. It’s just something I struggle with, something that has helped me grow immensely in my faith and as a person. It’s helped shape me, but it doesn’t define me.
It’s a tough balancing act, because anxiety has massively shaped my life and my experience, so I’m trying to own it but at the same time let go of the label. I think that’s the healthy place to be – owning the struggle, but recognizing it isn’t who you are.
The diagnosis doesn’t define me and it shouldn’t define you, either.