By Becca Schuh
One of my favorite professors from college stood five feet away from me, staring at me as though I was a minor celebrity she was trying to place. An off-off Broadway show? The bassist in an obscure girl band?
“Becca?! Is that you?!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “You look so different, you look so … professional.”
I admired her word choice. Most people were not so quickly able to exercise discretion. Almost everyone else who commented on the changes in my appearance over the last year went for the obvious: You look so thin. You’ve lost so much weight.
They weren’t wrong. Between the summers of 2014 and 2015, I lost around twenty pounds, not a small sum on my five-foot frame. Chipmunk cheeks became cheekbones, flabby arms turned muscular, an obviously round stomach was now relatively flat.
Also in that year, I worked over fifty hours per week at a brunch restaurant where each plate weighed ten pounds. I went from eating five meals a day to one or two—a meal at the restaurant and some granola bars at home. I decided to move across the country. And, for eight of the months of that year, the time during which I lost the majority of the weight, I was in the throes of an intense resurgence of the anxiety disorder that has affected me, on and off, since I was a child.
I did not simply lose weight because I was anxious. Panic made me eat less, made me move more. I began running; at first I didn’t count the miles. But when the sun-drenched blocks stretched long enough that they began to seem countable, I did, and then the miles ticked up—three, five, seven. Those runs were one of the only things that helped my jilted brain.
People came up with many creative ways of expressing their approval over my new look. You are so slim now! How did you do it? They loved to talk about it, as though it were a pop culture phenomenon or a collective accomplishment. You look the way we’ve always wanted you to look. People that I did not realize ever thought about me came out of the woodwork to comment—friends’ parents, friends’ coworkers that I’d met once, the boyfriends of my own coworkers.
There were things in life that I had not necessarily loved but that had been easy and joyful: eating, sitting, chilling. These are things that normal people do, and they provide contentment.
The clearer it became in my mind that I was not normal, the harder it was to take pleasure in these simple acts of joy. Innocuous comments thrown out in conversation at a bar would send me nearly to tears, and I could sense the discomfort in my companion’s voices as they tried to carry on a normal discussion. Standing in the kitchen overhearing the banter of my roommate and her boyfriend made me twitch, I started hoarding cups of water in my room so I wouldn’t have to listen to their easy comfort. If I was so strange that even my friends recoiled from my bare emotions, why should I be allowed to partake in the simple pleasure of cooking and eating a meal? If I was to be barred from the intimacy that others found so easily, why did I deserve contentment?
And yet, despite all these connections my brain made, the weight was separate. I didn’t notice it until it was gone. I had never seen myself as fat, so now I did not see myself as thin. I was the same. My pants were looser, my cheeks were gaunter, but I was the same.
Only to everyone else was I different.
I didn’t notice that I was thinner, but I noticed other changes: I noticed that I was no longer laughing, I was no longer eating, I was no longer able to sit and think without my breath quickening and my chest hurting. I spoke in shorter sentences, if at all. Nervous tics sprouted, my eyes darted around every room. If people could notice weight off my midsection, I’m sure they could notice the changes in my personality as well. But all I heard was this: You look slim. You look different. You look healthy.
I probably am healthier, physically at least. A person who is capable of running four, then six, then eventually ten miles is likely healthier than a person who cannot run one before giving up and going home to eat hot Cheetos.
As a byproduct of the anxiety, I became a person who was able to run four, then six, then eventually ten miles. I didn’t suddenly love running. But I could no longer do the things I loved—painting, writing, sitting in bed and eating a snack. I couldn’t sit stationary without screaming or crying, without nearly imperceptible shrill noises of fear coming out of my mouth. I had to move. I had to run.
People loved to hear about the running, too. I’d always been a sloth. You couldn’t get me out of bed before dinner on a Sunday in college. If my sorority did a 5k run for charity, I walked. The weight loss and the running were the favorite conversational fodder of acquaintances and friends alike that spring. But I didn’t need to talk about running or about my weight. I needed to talk about my anxiety. They did not love to hear about my anxiety.
If it’s that bad, even if you’re exercising and eating healthy, you just need to get a therapist. But I have a therapist. Then you should go on medication. Nobody wants to hear you talk about how upset you are this much.
It’s just, kind of boring, okay? You aren’t interesting when you’re like this.
Of course, the unspoken words were louder than these comments. The friends who I normally texted back and forth with all day suddenly weren’t responding. I used to go out with friends every Friday and Saturday, and I found myself at home curled in bed at eleven, realizing I’d never been contacted about the bars that they were Instagramming from. Eventually I heard the complaints about me through the grapevine, a chorus that I couldn’t hear: Why is she like this? Does she do this to you, too?
And I get it. Dealing with someone with manic anxiety is frustrating. I know incredible people, so I firmly believe that this discrepancy was not intentional, but nevertheless it disturbs me that nearly everyone in my life had more to say about my weight loss than my obvious personality changes due to the anxiety. They were happy to discuss how different I looked (Not that you looked bad before…), but when I tried to reach out for help with my addled brain, people recoiled. I don’t blame anyone for this—I didn’t want to deal with myself, so why would anyone else? But again, the discrepancy is startling, is scary, is something that deserves to be known.
I want to reiterate: I love the people in my life, I blame them for nothing. I understand that it was easier to concentrate on the socially acceptable (a thin body) than the taboo (a ravaged mind).
I can’t claim lack of culpability. Part of me relishes the compliments that I look better than I ever have (Not that you weren’t good looking before…) Especially now that my anxiety has fallen to the flow of a nearly dry creek, trickling along, whereas before it roared like an ocean. I’m able to appreciate that more men want to sleep with me, that more clothes fit, that I look better in the clothes I buy. Pictures are more flattering, and I’m asked to model the new uniform at work.
Now, you look like a small person. Well, you were always a small person but, you know…
And I do know. I do know what she means. Before, I was short in stature, but I was not truly small. And the culture loves a small woman. I’ve never been able to reap the benefits—nothing about me is small. I talk loudly, I talk too much. My personality ricochets off the walls instead of staying in a neat box. I’ve always taken up far more space than is allotted for a woman. Now that my body seems to fit into that space, even if my words and actions do not, I occasionally get to cash in on the rigged pleasure that the slot machine of society delivers. It is not a large pleasure; it is not the pleasure I feel when having the first long conversation with a new friend, when completing a piece of writing, when meeting a woman I admire. It’s a sick one, like a fifth drink when you know you should already be walking home, like reading old emails from an ex-lover.
I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of my anxiety. When my brain enters the place it was living in last spring, it’s frustrating, it’s intoxicating, it comes alive like a virus that can mutate anything into a curse. If we lived in a different cultural climate, I might be able to work myself into anger at my friends, but I can’t. It isn’t their fault that we are taught to fear a woman who is seemingly crazed with her thoughts. I can’t find fault with anybody I know because all of us are taught to praise a woman for dropping pounds off of her body like hail in March and to shun her for letting words of anxiety and fear exit her mouth at the same frequency.
I know that I’m not the only woman I know who has felt such intense anxiety, but no one has ever come to me in the state in which I tried to reach people last spring. Is it because my anxiety is outsized, abnormal, problematic? Or is it because others were taught better than I to hold it inside, to only contact appropriate outlets? I want to say now what I have never said aloud. Please, come to me if you are ever so afraid that you cannot breathe, cannot speak, can only cry.
I don’t want people to be afraid of complimenting me on my appearance. I love hearing that I’m having a good hair day as much as the next person. What I want is for people to not be afraid of telling me that I look good, but to also not be afraid of telling me that I seem bad. Of asking me if I am all right. Because I was not all right. Although I feel stronger in some ways for pulling myself out of that hole alone, I also yearn for the feeling of floundering in the trenches with the people I love and knowing that we can show each other the messiest parts of ourselves, not just the thin ones that fit into the smallest spaces.
How to stop the fear of the anxious woman? I don’t know, but I want to try. I can’t stop anyone else from turning away from the ruminating thoughts turned into monologues, the wide eyes, the tears that are louder than anyone is comfortable hearing. But I can turn into it when I see those signs in others, and ask, attempt to ask, despite the fear: Please, tell me the truth: are you all right?
BECCA SCHUH is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Southern California and Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and the Soundings Review. She is a graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. Follow her on Twitter @TamingofdeSchuh.