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January 15, 2020

The World Teaches Women to be Anxious.

Anxiety is a feminine plague.

According to Scientific American, 33 percent of women will experience anxiety disorder within their lifetime—a number far outreaching the comparative 22 percent of men.

Anxiety is a diagnosable condition based on chemical and nervous system imbalances, which masquerades as character traits such as “overreacting,” “jitters,” or “irrational fear.”

I know that anxiety can be born or bred. I know that I was born with a predisposition to this Jedi mind challenge. Call it serotonin, perfectionism, type-A, or vata personality—I have it and have always had it.

But I recognize this important truth: genetics gives you the gift, and then life circumstances slowly unwrap the box. And frankly, I’m sick of women being shamed for being anxious. Anxiety is both born and bred. While reading our elevator pitches, sure—anxiety seems irrational. But then you dig, and, well, you decide for yourself if we’re really wrong to not be all hunky-dory.

About Me: My Elevator Pitch

I was always small for my age, and smart. I skipped kindergarten when I could read and do third-grade level math. I started gymnastics young, and the same smallness that made me “tiny” in my class helped me excel in gymnastics. I was a gold-medal gymnast all through childhood, as well as a straight-A student and top of my class. I made friends easily and kept them. I graduated high school salutatorian, two-time Varsity Pom State Champion, girlfriend of the state wrestling champion, and Homecoming Court Princess. I went on to graduate top of my class from college, became an accomplished yoga teacher and writer, all the while achieving my dream job working remotely as a dietitian with my soul mate of a husband and in the mountain home of my dreams.

This is the me that I identify as. When people call me “anxious” and chuckle to themselves, it is the above “oh, silly me” who is overly cautious and at times a bit emotional. It’s only recently occurred to me that this isn’t really a true narrative. And I have a sneaking suspicion that this applies to most of us in the anxiety life raft.

If you were to ask our therapists, this is what they’d have to share:

The Making of Her Anxiety

When she was four, she had night terrors. So bad that when her father was working swing shift, her mom would dread the bad nights. The nights when she’d wake up screaming in terror, biting her own tongue, and reciting what sounded to like Latin bible verses. A four-year-old trying to save herself from whatever invisible terror she sensed around her.

You see, women are intuitive. Your terror becomes theirs. And it did. Her mom once took her to the emergency room in such a case, frightened. The physician told her, “You will have a very spoiled daughter if you continue to treat her fear as an emergency.”

When she was 13, she qualified easily for state at the first gymnastics meet of the season. At the following meet, her coaches, in an attempt to “build performance under stress,” surprised her moments before her beam routine by telling her that if she wobbled or fell, she would not be allowed to attend the state meet she’d already qualified for. As a 13-year-old, she was powerless to these things—the flippant decisions of adults. She fell off the beam. 

When she was 15, she wondered what it would be like to make out with a guy. Not just “peck,” but really go for the whole mouth experience. She got her chance; a boy asked her to be his girlfriend who knowingly had “made out” with other girls in the past. She asked around to her friends to learn what you do with your tongue. Half moons? Full circles?

When the time came, she paid absolutely no attention to her tongue, because his hands took on a life of their own. Rapid and angry. She held the hem of her pants against her skin firmly—creating a “seal” with all her might while he moved around the rest of her. He broke up with her the next day, telling his friends that she was “too easy.”

When she was 16, in AP U.S. History class, she was told by the teacher one day that out of all the students taking the AP test, she was the one he thought would pass. Later that week, they did a class activity called “warm fuzzies.” Each person took turns writing on classmates’ papers, to say what they admired about that person. When hers came back to her, she beamed at all the kind things classmates had written about her. And then her eyes landed at the bottom, where her teacher had written, “You have a beautiful smile, and absolutely captivating eyes.” She folded the paper, but did not throw it away. A small voice somewhere said, “If you throw it away, he can do whatever he wants, and nobody would believe you.”

For the remainder of the year, that teacher would tug on her ponytail every time he passed behind her, smiling back when she’d yelp in surprise at the pull of her hair. She did not earn AP U.S. History credit.

She still keeps that crumpled paper, as some sort of sword ensuring he can’t take one more step toward 16-year-old her. 

When she was 17, she decided on a whim to run for class president. She made the decision day-of, after overhearing the reigning president comment about how he didn’t have to make a speech because he was unopposed. She took her lunch hour to prepare. When she stood to give her speech in front of 208 classmates, a male classmate yelled loudly, “Vote for Brittany; she wears short skirts!” She took a deep breath, plowed through her speech, and sat down.

She won class president. She still wonders if it was because of her speech or her skirt. 

When she was 20, she was at a concert with a roommate. The guitarist who she’d been chatting with wrote the date of his next concert on her arm, asking her to come. A month later, she and her roommate went. She was intrigued by the man who wrote a save-the-date on her arm. He didn’t realize she had come to the concert, so he left soon after playing. Two other band members found her and her friend after the show, convincing them to hang out post-show. She told them the story of the guitarist who she’d had a crush on, who she’d come to see. They all went back to her and her friend’s apartment (four of them), to play guitar and continue the party. She woke up the next morning in bed, with nothing on except a T-shirt.

She will never know any details about that night.

When she was 21 and still at college, some new roommates moved in next door for the summer. They all frequently hung out together—theirs being an apartment of four men, and hers being an apartment of four women. She had taken to calling early nights and never drinking more than three drinks at a time.

She went to bed one typical evening. She woke up at 2 a.m., to the neighbor man at the foot of her bed, staring at her. This same man later was caught sneaking into her apartment after she’d gone to bed. He’d drop onto the back patio of a third-story apartment from the roof, entering through the patio door. She reported it to the police, with no outcome.

She learned it’s not enough to lock your front door. You must also lock the back door, your bedroom.

When she was 24, living with a new set of roommates outside of college, she was constantly teased for her by now seemingly innate “old lady” policies: no hard alcohol, in bed by 10 p.m., always lock the bedroom door. She insisted that she just liked to feel safe.

One night, she was drawing down her bedroom window shade, when the neighbor man caught her eye from inside his window, and did not look away. Chills ran through her. She told her roommates that she had a bad feeling. They told her she was just anxious.

Three months later, that man was caught breaking into their apartment. When the police took him into the station, he was wearing several pairs of her roommate’s underwear. He was then released on bond without notification, during which time he again broke into her apartment, placing items of hers that he had stolen in the middle of her dining room floor as some sort of twisted “peace offering.” He also used her toilet before letting himself out. No, he did not flush.

She learned that no matter what doors you lock, or who you report to, people who want in can find a way.

When she was 27 and working professionally as a manager, she entered a fellow manager’s office to give him the results of his performance review. He sat down, smiled, and patted his lap, beckoning for her to sit on him. She continued to stand and delivered his review. 

Two months later at the same job, her own supervisor, who was 30 years her elder, continued to single her out in group meetings by commenting on the size or shape of her body. What she did or did not eat. She told herself that her discomfort was just anxiety. Don’t let your past jade you.

On her day off, he texted her an article entitled, “How to Use the Principles of Kundalini to Enhance Your Sex Life.” She couldn’t imagine walking into work the next day, but had no remaining PTO to use. She worked side by side with him for two weeks until his female manager visited her facility. She asked for a private meeting, handed this virtual stranger her phone, and sobbed with the pure shame of even the words she knew she was reading. His words.

She heard nothing for three full weeks, as she worked side by side with this man who continued to drool and grin at her. Then one day, he was walked out of work, and she never saw him again. His manager continued to make visits to the facility and never again acknowledged her.

She learned that even though you are right, you won’t necessarily be respected.

Age 30. She changed jobs and was again in a managerial roll. An employee had to be reprimanded for sexual harassment of his coworkers. She delivered her speech, letting him know that should the issue arise again, he would be terminated. As she walked away, he sang “Bad girl, bad girl, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” She reported this and was told that this was not a punishable action.

Two days later, he entered her office where she worked alone at a desk, leaned over her with an arm pinned against the wall on each side of her, and asked her what size dress she wears. Through shaky breath, she told him to get out of her office. Then she called HR and begged them to send somebody else to do the reprimanding for sexual harassment, as surely the harassed cannot also be the reprimander. They didn’t understand the urgency in her plea to get somebody else there.

She learned that nobody can understand a past that leads to a present, in such a way that makes them comprehend the seriousness of what is (again, and again, and again) happening.

This is her story. This is the making of her anxiety. This is the making of every overreaction when she feels unsafe, overreacts, or can’t relax quite as cooly as you. This is the forming of judgement that now doesn’t know when intuition is accurate or jaded. This is the result of a society that teaches women to cover over, brush up, “don’t be crazy,” and keep face.

To all my fellow, average females: I honor your anxiety. I honor your past that nurtured it. I honor the response in you that says, “I have the power to perceive. And act.”

Even if unfairly overdeveloped, this is now our superpower. Our combination of spidey intuition paired with a learned sense that sometimes you just need to save yourself, without time to contemplate what’s rational.

I hope that—with time—you see female anxiety is not a flaw. It was your life raft.

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