I was 24 when I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. My life had started to feel like an endless to-do list that I could never get through, and that feeling was dizzying. That same year, I had my first panic attack. I was at a shoe store on New York’s Upper West Side, and suddenly began to get flushed and nauseous — the moccasin-lined walls seemed to be closing in on me. I didn’t fully realize what was happening, and hastily purchased a pair of (ugly) black knee boots that were a size too small in order to get out of there before anyone noticed that there was something wrong with me.
There was, indeed, something wrong with me. Anxiety disorders, per a 2016 medical study, typically manifest around age 21, and generalized anxiety disorder (which I have in spades) is twice as common in women, according to the Anxiety and Depression Organization of America. The former statistic dovetails inconveniently with many of our entrances into the professional world.
For me, the cocktail of untreated anxiety and employment had already proved disastrous. Following graduation, I received a Fulbright teaching fellowship which sent me to rural Argentina, where I was to give English classes both at a university and to a select group of loquacious retirees. This seemed straightforward enough, but anxiety made everything endlessly complicated and I was convinced that I was a fraud — my great fear was that everyone would find out that I had no idea what I was doing, that I wasn’t smart, and that I really didn’t deserve a Fulbright. For one class, I was dispatched to deliver a talk about approximately 100 years of North American history. How could I do this without essentializing? I overprepared and fumbled through the class, which was met with a scathing review from my supervisor. The result of the negative performance evaluation was that I felt like I deserved to die.
Anxiety is a funny thing. It runs on perfectionism but, unchecked, can make it impossible to achieve even passable work.
I went to see a psychiatrist. He would be the first of many. He told me that the town I was living in — a soy-production capital where feral dogs would frequently tick into my classroom and relieve themselves on the floor — was the problem. “You need to move to the capital where there’s CULTURE and people will understand you better!” he proclaimed. This struck me as the best idea ever (who among us doesn’t want to hear that their problem is really everyone else?). My supervisor (also, incidentally, the ex-wife of the psychiatrist) thought otherwise, and threatened to terminate me. She took it upon herself to send an email to all my colleagues asserting that I was mentally unstable and that they hadn’t been welcoming enough, which caused great consternation among the faculty, and certainly didn’t make me any allies. My worst fears had come true: I was failing, and I was hated.
Out of pride, or stubbornness, or some unforeseen reserve of strength, I stuck it out in the town, and sought out a cognitive behavioral therapist to help me practice coping mechanisms. I found the worksheets and prescriptive nature of this therapy soothing and productive. I started to do well at work, to everyone’s dismay. But the constant churn of creating “perfect” lesson plans still wore on me, and I burned out. I had fun in the classroom, yes, but the preparation tormented me. I felt like I needed to be working constantly, and when I wasn’t working, I felt guilty about not working. The lesson plan could always be a little bit better. A little bit better, I’ve since learned, is a dangerous sentiment for someone like me.
I finished the school year, but the specter of anxiety convinced me that teaching was ultimately not the right profession for me. It was “too stressful.” Instead, I wanted to be a magazine journalist — an interesting choice for someone who is pathologically terrified of people.
In hindsight, I think that if I had been medicated then, and not simply prescribed a change of scenery, I could have been perfectly happy as an educator. A study on gender and women’s mental health by the World Health Organization states that “Despite being common, mental illness is underdiagnosed by doctors. Less than half of those who meet diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders are identified by doctors.” Not that I harbor any hard feelings toward that well-intentioned psychiatrist, or my supervisor. I’m grateful to them — and to my anxiety itself — for propelling me toward my career as a writer, despite all its attendant struggles.
When I returned to New York, I began to look for an elusive “writer” job and went to see another psychiatrist — the one that finally formally diagnosed me. My anxiety had gotten so bad that at times I was unable to eat, and then along came that panic attack at the shoe store. The doctor, another man, prescribed me Lexapro, which is an SSRI (short for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor; it’s designed to increase serotonin levels in the brain) that’s commonly used to treat depression, though it’s meant to work wonders on anxiety too. While I waited for it to kick in, I lolled around on my parents’ couch watching the box set of 24 for hours at a time and generally feeling like life was unmanageable.
Medication has been a rocky road for me. By the time I turned 30, I’d been on pretty much every imaginable combination, with mixed results, and logged more hours than I can count on the therapist’s couch. I had a (wonderful) therapist who died of cancer; another one got repatriated. A laundry list of mental health professionals, some exceptional, some hapless, came in and out of my life. Meanwhile, I was busy building my writing and editing career, first as a fact-checker at New York Magazine, later as the fashion news & features editor at Harper’s Bazaar. At times, my anxiety has been unbearable. There was one dark period in which my hair started falling out from stress. I’ve had insomnia. I’ve felt isolated. I’ve wanted to die.
I was talking to a friend today who is currently suffering from social anxiety. “Eventually, you’ll come out the other side,” I heard myself saying to her. And I believed it. Without the professional U-turn that anxiety caused me to take at the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t have the life I have today. I would probably never have met my husband. I wouldn’t have my amazing daughter. I likely wouldn’t live in Los Angeles, where I’ve found a gentler, kinder lifestyle. And I wouldn’t have a job that requires me to step out of my head and do that most difficult thing — talk to other people — every day of my life.
Christine Whitney is a writer, editor and consultant living between Los Angeles and NYC. She writes frequently for publications like The Cut and WSJ, and most recently served as Editorial Director for Violet Grey; prior to that she was the Senior Fashion News and Features Editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She lives with her husband, set designer Daniel Horowitz, their daughter Romy, and their cat Mittens.