The Least Helpful Thing You Can Say to Someone With an Anxiety Disorder

When you have a mental illness, let alone multiple illnesses that compound on each other, you get used to a certain amount of well-intended but inane advice from any number of people that comes with the intention of helping you out of a rough spot. This generally comes and goes in waves. You’ll receive advice from several people over a matter of a couple of weeks then go months with nary a comment on the topic.

Probably the literally least helpful bit of advice I’ve received time and again is this — “Just suck it up, dude.” Or some variation thereof.

I realize this is said with the best of intentions. It’s said with the idea that I’m just sitting back on my ass and coddling myself, using my anxiety as an excuse for not working. And believe me, I wish it was that simple. If it was it would mean that I actually could just push my way through it, set my anxiety aside, and get the things done that need to be done to further the goals I’ve set for myself.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, or easy. What I have, what I live with every day, is a legitimate illness. I take medications twice a day to manage it. And granted, I’m high-functioning at this point, but I’m high-functioning precisely because I have a combination of the medications I take and a set of specific coping mechanisms I’ve developed over the last couple of years to help me deal with my anxiety. I’ve tested my boundaries. I know where my limits are. I know exactly the size of the box I live in. I know what sorts of things I can do and which I can’t. I know what reactions my body and mind will go through if I exceed those boundaries and the kinds of mental and emotional breakdowns I’ll experience if I do. I know this because I’ve spent the better part of two years experimenting and testing those boundaries, gauging how my mind and body react, and then learning how to still function within the limits of those boundaries.

I always appreciate advice and suggestions, especially from people who have been through what I deal with, from people who also deal with depression and anxiety. I even appreciate advice from people who don’t experience those things but who are understanding of and sympathetic to my condition. Invariably, though, the people who tell me to simply “suck it up” are the same people who have never dealt with anxiety on this level, who have no idea what it feels like to have anxiety and panic attacks every few minutes because you’ve over-reached, because you’ve done too much. They have no idea what it’s like to feel your heart race, your head pound, your vision close in on you, your chest tighten to the point where you feel like you’re suffocating, and to feel like you need to either run or die and that even if you run, you’re probably still going to die. They have no idea what it’s like to feel that not just once in a day but to experience it several times in an hour. They have no idea what it’s like to have to live breath to breath because that’s the smallest single unit of measurement that gets you through from one moment to the next.

I appreciate the concern, though. I really, genuinely do. But telling me to just suck it up is absolutely the least useful bit of advice you can give me. It assumes I haven’t already tried to do that. I have. For years. Ultimately, it landed me in the hospital and forced me to drastically alter the way I live my life. I’ve had to claw my way back to form and function, to carefully and very deliberately test my boundaries and know where they are.

You’re welcome to sympathize and empathize with me. I really do appreciate those people who do that. But please, for the love of sanity, please stop telling me to “suck it up.” All that does is prove to me that you don’t understand, that you probably don’t want to, that you think I’m simply being lazy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ll tell you what — the next time you suffer a crippling injury, like a sprained ankle or a broken leg or a major surgery that lays you out for an extended period of time, remember me and call me. I’ll be sure to advise you to simply “suck it up.” Maybe then you’ll understand, just a little, what it’s like for me.

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