Half an Inch From Terrible

We got a parking ticket this weekend.

Our permit lives loose on the dashboard, and in trying to stop it from flying out of the car I’d pushed it down – to the point where the expiry date couldn’t be seen. So we got a parking ticket. It’s the second time this has happened.

You can appeal, of course. So theoretically, it should just be a nuisance – not a problem. Even if we did have to pay it, we have the luxury of being able to afford it. Not everyone does.

The problem is, my brain doesn’t work this way. When things like this crop up, my brain’s reaction is not to go “ugh, that’s so annoying!” and then carry on, or “oh well, it’ll be fine”. No, my brain does something very different.

Presented with the parking ticket, I had several reactions all at once: it is my fault; I am a terrible person; why does anyone even bother with me.

I completely shut down and became unable to do – well, anything, really. I couldn’t even respond to the person right in front of me straight away. It seemed that all I was was the screaming litany of abuse in my head.

It’s very easy to characterise anxiety disorders as just being nervous when doing certain things. But whilst that’s certainly a part of it, in many ways it’s not the worst part.

No, the worst part is that anxiety makes something moderately annoying turn into the Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened And Proof That You Are A Terrible Human Being.

This isn’t hyperbole or humour. I spent fifteen minutes sitting on my bed gripped by the realisation that I had not only done something wrong, I had done something wrong and then done precisely the same thing again. I hadn’t learned. I hadn’t improved. I obviously wasn’t worth anyone’s time.

This is the pain of anxiety that you cannot properly articulate the gravity of to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Because it’s piercing and all-encompassing. It’s everything that you are feeling pressing in on you, and none of those feelings are ones you want and very few of them are true.

Think of moments where you’ve been overwhelmed by an emotion. Getting terrible news, getting brilliant news, the sad bit of a film, the euphoria of your sports team winning. Think of that surge of emotion.

Now imagine that surge of emotion is the belief that you, and you alone, are a sorry excuse for a human being who is not worth anyone’s time. That it would be better if you had never existed. That you should immediately leave all of the people around you because, surely, they cannot possibly want to be with you.

And you can’t stop thinking it, even though you know it’s wrong. That’s what anxiety is. It’s not just anxiety, either – there are plenty of mental health conditions which can be characterised by this kind of mind-numbing, paralysing panic.

Now add this into the mix: it can happen at any time. You can knock a mug off the table and feel like this because you broke it. You can be scrolling through Facebook and see the face of someone who hurt you and become overwhelmed. You can get a parking ticket because you pushed the permit half an inch too far down.

This is why we talk about anxiety being so draining. So exhausting. This is why if you are anxious and you’re alone, it’s so terrifying – because there is no one to help you break yourself out of that loop. You’ve got to do it all on your own, whilst believing that you’re worthless and incapable of anything.

You can do it. It’s not impossible. But it might be the hardest thing you ever do.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing anxiety like this, please get or support them to get help.

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