I vividly remember my feelings towards Christmas presents when I was a kid. I remember feeling simultaneously excited and uneasy, what I later began to realize is straight up anxiety.
Someone once told me the difference between anxiety and nervousness is that “anxiety” is being nervous but feeling excited about the possibilities, and “nervousness” is being nervous but feeling frightened or scared of the consequences (I wish I could punch this person in the face for using the word they are defining in the definition).
I thought this was the truth for years, as kids are susceptible to believing anything they are told, much like I believed “gender” and “sex” were interchangable for years until I learned about queer theory, and how my child mother thought rubbing alcohol and nail polish remover did the same thing and told everyone she knew until she was 12 and someone told her otherwise.
I learned general “anxiety” can be excitement mixed with nervousness. However, instead of anxious at this point, I like to think “nervously chomping at the bit”. The way I thought about it was that I was “anxious” when I was behind the curtain at a childhood dance recital; uneasy in the moments leading up to the performance but just because I was pumped to absolutely kill my routine in my poofy red and black/white checkered tutu. The way I thought about “nervous” was the butterflies and worms in my stomach in the minutes before a test that I know I studied for but knew was still going to be hard. I remember for either of these stomach-churning feelings I would feel an immediate sense of relief when the event causing the feelings was over. I didn’t know there were adult definitions that I would have to relearn later, and that these feelings would sit around longer, and sometimes for no reason at all.
I remember feeling nervous about the expectations of Christmas present giving. Specifically because this was the one time of the year there was a double-sided anxiety sword. You weren’t just Giving, like on someone else’s birthday, or Receiving, like on your birthday, but now both. “Double the chances for doom,” as my tiny eyes saw it.
It’s as if we were groomed as children to learn how to dance through this odd ritual. You purchase, or make something for someone you love, and then open things your loved ones purchased for you based on what they assume you need, like, or would use.
However, if you receive something from someone that you are not happy with, you must put on your best show and pretend that you are elated to have received it. Simultaneously, you want the other people to enjoy the things you got for them “out of the kindness of your heart” (the necessity to reciprocate due to social norms and potential guilt), and it’s cool to see them enjoy the items they open.
At 7, I started thinking, “Wait… if I have to pretend that I like something…. Who’s to say that everyone else isn’t just making the same surprised and excited faces I’ve been trained to make? If I’m 7 and can act well enough, surely the ancient people around me must be pros because they’ve had eons of practice.”
I think that’s the first instance of having actual anxiety that I can remember.
Because, here’s the thing. Who cares if they are pretending? I understood (and still understand) the purpose of needing to save face for both you and the bad gift-giver by showing a couple white lie facial expressions and saying vague things like “Thank you so much! This was so thoughtful of you!” You know, things that aren’t specific enough to be falsehoods. Every time I’ve received a present I wasn’t fond of or didn’t use, my brain didn’t criticize or chastise the gift-giver. And to be honest, even if I did, it would have absolutely no bearing on their life, besides a couple bucks lost from their bank account and a little less gas in their car, which is really neither here nor there.
That’s what my logical brain tells me, and then my anxiety brain slowly turns around and pulls logical brain up to its face with its shirt gripped in its sweaty hand, red and flustered. “That’s what YOU think, but we don’t know what they think! They are probably thinking about you right now, and what a horrible gift you gave them. You should have known better than to have gotten them that! Because of this blunder they will think you don’t care and next time they are around you if they so much as don’t look at you right we’re going to not be able to breathe and need to go to the bathroom for several minutes too long for a piss or a shit; just enough to make you seem like a fucking weirdo. Enough to have someone say ‘boy, that was a long time, everything okay in there?’ Now not only are you ‘bad gift-giver’, you’re ‘takes too long in the bathroom person’. All that’s gonna be on that person’s mind for the next hour is going to be how weird you are for taking that long. That’s two people in this room who hate you, you wanna try for three?”
It is so ridiculously exhausting to have the constant “ask your mom/ask your dad” cycle of your anxiety telling you everyone is always thinking about you, and your depression telling you that no one would ever actually take the time to do that because no one cares about you enough. A carousel of perceived narcissism and low self-worth, a ride I would love to but can’t dismount.
Then there comes the constant internal questioning of whether or not your acting passes the test of “believable”. I am not emmy-nominated by any means; I actually have had a hard time lying about anything since I was a baby, still do. I’m already exhausted just thinking about how exhausting it is to fake happiness for someone else, so much so that I’m either going to come back to it, or just not write this section. I may let you use your imagination or pull from your memory bank of experiences.
This paints the picture that I was an ungrateful or anxiety-ridden child. This is quite the opposite. I am incredibly grateful for everything I’ve ever received, good, bad, or in-between, because someone put in the effort to give it to me in the first place, and that is more than enough. I was truthfully mentally pretty unburdened, until around the age of 15. This was just something that I thought about now, as a concept, as an adult, with a hindsighted perspective. I never understood the intricacies of this specific social situation, truthfully I still don’t fully. But who can say that they fully understand anything? No one, not even the guy who invented it.
Regardless, I always thought of these states of unease as a temporary feeling. It’s crazy as an adult to reflect on those very clear, very definitive thoughts you had, and to realize that you wish you were still wrong. I wish I still thought they were temporary, I wish the excitement stayed past the nervousness of a great event, and I wish the fear would find its way to the exit, as the bugs in my tummy settled down, as my fight-or-flight instinct eased. Maybe that’s why I always have heartburn, because they’re trying to get out, and I just need to open my mouth.
I have felt in a constant state of fight-or-flight for years now. In a constant state of paranoia, fear, and anxiety. I have never been clinically diagnosed for anything but physical ailments. I always relished in the fact that I was obviously depressed but “did NOT have anxiety”.
I laugh at this now, because I am clearly the most anxious person, but just passively so. It’s not a great weighing presence on my mind, it’s like background static on a radio that gets out clear lines of dialogue at the strangest of times.
I’ll go to a concert by myself and suddenly the constant “chhhhhhhhhhhhhh” noise clearly says “They’re all looking at you because you’re alone” and then it goes fuzzy again. It’s when I’m asking for help on a project at work and another edit is asked to be made and the grey noise turns into a black and white “It’s you, they hate you and don’t just need a change made because of another reason” and back to grey. Fortunately, my logic brain works out a lot more and eats a bunch more spinach than my anxious brain, so he kicks the other’s ass most days.
I have certain reasons I’m rightfully anxious about specific things, but most of them are easy enough to brush off and justify by thinking “Everyone just thinks like this. Everyone has these doubts or thoughts.” Other things, I inherently know are dumb. I know my mom loves every piece of art I make her for the holidays, it’s in her face. I know I showed that I loved the Ferris Bueller t-shirt my dad got me, it was in my tears that streamed on sight when I saw the logo emerge from beneath the crinkled paper. I know when one of my family members isn’t exactly delighted by something generic, like a candle or some candy or something. But I also know they will light it, and eat it, respectively, regardless, because they love me and aren’t thinking any of the things I think they are.
(Or are they…?)