When Anxiety Is The Only Thing On The Menu

I know I touched on issues with food already this week but I thought I’d go into a little more detail so those of you who don’t experience this difficulty can get a glimpse into what it’s like. Food is a massive problem for me; it’s a daily cause of stress. Where am I going to be? Will there be food I can eat? If not, can I bring my own food? Can I get away with not eating or will people notice and point it out? It’s a constant loop and that is exhausting.

As I said in a recent post, I’m incredibly sensitive to the flavour of food; add even the smallest sprinkling of pepper to a meal and I can’t eat it. It overwhelms me and I just cannot eat it. Forget spicy food entirely. So I can only eat the simplest things: plain rice or pasta, unadorned chicken or fish, and so on. I practically live on fruit and vegetables. When there are lots of different flavours, I get overloaded. I can’t describe it better than I did in my sensory sensitivity post: “It’s like throwing a load of different coloured paints together: you don’t see all the different colours, you just get one new colour and it often isn’t a nice one.”

I’m also very sensitive to texture; there are very few things that don’t trigger my gag reflex. I’m sure all of you have experienced that at one time or another so you can imagine how desperate I am to avoid it. I remember a particularly bad experience with tofu; I’m actually shuddering just thinking about it. I have a similar problem with wet foods touching dry foods. It triggers the same response. So while my family – who are all fairly adventurous when it comes to food, at least from my point of view – flip through a library of cookbooks, I eat simple meals with ingredients that I can separate and I eat them over and over again.

Honestly, I don’t mind that. It’s safe. It’s comforting. It’s the pressure to eat ‘like a normal person’ that’s stressful. Going to restaurants and eating in public is a major anxiety: it’s very rare that there’s something on the menu that I feel able to eat and asking for something simple feels impossible. I find asking for anything difficult and drawing attention to this issue is something I try to avoid if at all possible.

As a child, I was labelled a picky eater and strongly encouraged to try different food. I know that my family and friends were just trying to help me: they were trying to prepare me for a world that would expect me to eat complicated food. But instead of it getting easier, it got harder. So eventually we reached this uneasy stalemate. But getting a diagnosis made a massive difference: it gave people an explanation, made them realise that it was something I couldn’t help. It took the pressure off in a big way. But as important as that is, it hasn’t fixed my problems with food. And as much as I struggle with it physically and struggle to get the right nutrition, it also has a big impact on my mental health.

People make assumptions when they hear how little I can eat. They think I’m being picky or deliberately difficult and see me as an inconvenience. I know that it’s not my fault and that it’s a valid reason to struggle but I find it incredibly embarrassing that I can’t eat like everyone else. I feel like it keeps me from really becoming an adult, especially when so much socialising revolves around the consumption of food and drink. It feels like a weakness; it’s something I’m ashamed of, which definitely feeds into both my body image issues and my depression, as well as my anxiety. When I get really low, as in dangerously low, food becomes even harder and I just lose the will to eat all together.

I vividly remember being about ten years old and reading a magazine article about a girl who had to have intravenous nutrition for medical reasons and I found myself wishing I could have the same, wishing I could not eat because it would be so much easier. And I still relate to that. I would give anything to be in control of this, rather than it have control of me. I wish I could choose what to eat, rather than navigate around the things I can’t. I wish I could eat according to my beliefs instead of having to worry about whether I’m getting enough protein or calcium or whatever (I would love to be a vegan, or even a vegetarian, and often feel guilty that I’m not but health wise, it’s ill advised when there’s already so little that I can eat). I wish I didn’t have to be afraid of blowing a sensory fuse, of getting completely overloaded, which can trigger a meltdown. I wish I could enjoy food. But I can’t and I’m scared I never will.

Living With The Volume Up Loud

I have always been incredibly sensitive, ever since I was a little kid. It was one of the words used most commonly to describe me as I grew up. While it was usually emotional, I was also sensitive to what was going on around me and that seems to have increased over time. I can get overwhelmed by all the sensory information coming into my brain and I end up struggling to process it all. The processing can get stuck or I’ll zero in on one specific thing, like tunnel vision. It can also happen emotionally. The smallest thing can unsettle me and it can take hours or days to come back to myself. When I was diagnosed with ASD, someone described this really well to me: where neurotypical brains can filter out information that isn’t relevant (not ignoring it but not consciously processing it), neuroatypical brains can’t, so all the information comes in at the same volume and overwhelms the brain.

I struggle a lot with noise. Loud, sudden noises, like a slamming door or a fire alarm are very upsetting. It’s like they’re inside my body, inside my head, and before long, I can’t think and my anxiety overwhelms me. If it ends quickly, I can slowly force it back until I can function again but if it continues, it can lead to a meltdown where I lose all control of my emotions and thinking. It’s awful.

When it comes to studying or writing (although not songwriting), I need some background noise, almost to fill the space around me and in my brain. I often refer to the earlier example of information coming in through every channel: if I listen to something familiar, like a well watched TV show or audiobook, it’s like I’m filling some of those channels with something that I don’t need to process because I’ve already processed it, leaving me with only the channels I need to work on whatever it is I’m working on. Having said that, if there are too many different sounds going on, I start to get overwhelmed. It’s like my brain can’t balance them correctly, focussing on one too much and not hearing the others and so on. As you can imagine, that can make playing music quite difficult. I’m finally getting into the habit of carrying earplugs around but that has issues of it’s own: I find the sensation of essentially blocking my ears a difficult one, plus they’re pretty uncomfortable.

I’d never really thought of myself as being sensitive when it comes to touch but the more I think about it, the more experiences come to mind. I’m pretty specific about the fabrics I can wear and there aren’t many things I can put on my skin. It doesn’t take much before it feels unclean and once that feeling sets in, I can’t shake it. It’s horrible. There have been a few days where even multiple showers won’t fix it. I’ve also had some pretty bad reactions to various soaps and make up products, even those labelled as suitable for sensitive skin. The most dramatic example of this was when I was given perfume for my birthday. I love the smell of it but wearing it causes this weird reaction: my eyes water, my nose itches, my throat hurts, and so on. The worst part is how badly it irritates my lips: the skin burns and splits and it can take days to heal. And I don’t even have to be wearing the perfume to have that reaction; I only have to be wearing something I once wore with the perfume. Washing and airing the clothes hasn’t seemed to help much but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually fade.

My relationship with food needs it’s own post (I’ll get there, I promise!) but I think it’s important to mention in this context. I am really, really sensitive when it comes to food, so much so that I can only handle pretty bland stuff. This used to be a big problem because my family is pretty adventurous when it comes to trying different recipes and that often caused stress and anxiety all around. I got labelled as a picky eater and the most common response was to push me to eat the things I didn’t like, assuming that the experience would get better. But it didn’t; I just got more and more anxious around food. But since the diagnosis, it’s been easier. Well, easier to manage. It’s something that people can understand and that has really lessened the pressure on me. Now, the people around me let me decide what I can and can’t handle. I struggle with both texture and with taste and that can make some food impossible to eat. I get so overwhelmed by all the flavours that I can’t taste any of them individually. It’s like throwing a load of different coloured paints together: you don’t see all the different colours, you just get one new colour and it often isn’t a nice one. And that links into being really sensitive to smell. Something that those around me can’t smell can overwhelm me like a fog. It gets into my throat and my eyes. I won’t be able to focus and often have to leave the vicinity.

There are other things that overload my brain and while they aren’t exactly to do with my senses, they feel pretty similar. I guess they’re based on intuition and it seems that my intuition can be as amplified as my other senses.

Being in a crowd of people also overwhelms me emotionally. I get overloaded with how everyone has a name, a favourite colour, family, friends (who all have names and favourite colours), foods they hate, superstitions, dates they always remember, phone numbers they always forget, movies they quote, and so on and so on and so on. I get overwhelmed by how much is in everyone’s lives and I end up feeling like I’m being crushed by the weight of that. I feel like I can’t breathe. Some days I don’t feel it so strongly but on the days where I feel really fragile, like I don’t have any skin, it’s very, very stressful.

Another thing that needs it’s own post is my reaction to other people’s emotions. I feel like a lightning rod for them, especially the strong ones. I want to write more about this at some point but again, it’s relevant here. When I’m around anyone feeling a strong emotion, I start to feel it too. Most commonly I feel other people’s grief. And there’s always guilt mixed in: they’re not my emotions so I shouldn’t be feeling them. But I can’t help it. And it doesn’t take long for me to feel overwhelmed by all of that.

All of these things become exponentially worse when I’m stressed or anxious which, of course, is when I feel least able to cope with it. I don’t know if it’s something I can change, or whether my brain is wired this way, making everything so intense. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither.

Backwards Binoculars

Over the years, I’ve had periods of feeling really far away. It often overlaps with my bouts of depression but sometimes it creeps in out of nowhere and I feel completely lost, untethered from everything around me. It fades in and out like a fog, sometimes with no warning and often there’s nothing I can do to dissipate it or avoid it. It can be really scary, especially when it first started to happen, but at the same time, it’s like I can’t really feel that fear or any of my emotions. I’ve described it in different ways but they all describe the same feeling: feeling completely disconnected from myself. But I thought I’d include a few of those descriptions because they give more of a sense of how it feels:

  • It’s like looking backwards through binoculars so everything seems really far away when it’s actually close. Sometimes I can almost see the black tunnels that would be the inside of the binoculars. This is the way I usually describe it; I think it fits the best.
  • I feel like I’m five miles back inside my head. I can’t reach anything or anyone and it feels like no one can hear me, the real me.
  • It’s like watching everything happen and feeling like it would continue as normal if I wasn’t there, almost like people wouldn’t notice if I disappeared. They’ll keep talking, leaving spaces for me and responding to what I would’ve said if I was there.
  • Similarly, it can feel like I’m invisible, like people will look right through me.
  • It feels like I’m stuck behind glass, like there’s glass between me and everybody else. I am physically separated from everyone. This is another one of my ‘favourite’ ways to describe it.
  • A variation of that is feeling like I’m wrapped in cling film: separated from everyone but also trapped. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe.
  • I feel disconnected from my life, my body, like I’m in control but it’s not mine. I’m moving my limbs but they feel oddly numb, thick and heavy and clumsy.
  • One of my earliest memories of this feeling is feeling like I was out of sync with everyone else. That’s a very lonely and uncomfortable feeling.
  • Sometimes it feels like I’m underwater. It’s like I’m surrounded by something other than air and there’s more resistance when I try to move.
  • The most recent description is that I feel like I’m sleepwalking and can’t wake up. This one overlaps with how I feel when I’m really depressed so it’s not the most reliable analogy, if that makes sense. It fits both.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure what causes it, given the overlap of the different mental health problems I struggle with. This is something I have a lot of anxiety about, not being able to pinpoint where individual problems come from. Everything’s connected to everything else. Everything influences everything. But from my own reading, it seems to be common in depression and in Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s often a coping mechanism for stress or overwhelming emotions. The Mind website has a great page about this. My experiences line up best with the description of ‘Depersonalisation’.

I still haven’t found anything that does much to help it but there are a few things that give me a few seconds of relief, of connection. Usually, it’s about tapping into my senses. That seems to bring me back to the world a little bit. So things like opening windows, sitting in the sun, touching leaves or flowers, stroking a pet, having a cold shower or holding something cold… they don’t fix it but they do have a positive effect. Even if it’s tiny, they do create small positive spikes in my mood. They’re like stars in a suffocatingly dark sky. With this, it’s more about getting through it than trying to fix it. It’s about creating one moment after another to carry you through to the other side.

I want to add that I’ve also used self harm to ‘wake myself up’ from this. I’m not advocating it; it’s dangerous and damaging and really difficult to get free of. But if nothing else, I’m honest and it has helped. When I’m in a really bad place, I don’t want to hear that I shouldn’t do it because it feels like the only thing that helps but when it’s not quite so bad, I try really hard to find other ways to cope. I try the things I’ve listed or I try to distract myself. I don’t want to get too far from the point of the post so I’ll come back to this in another post but I felt like I had to include it here.

Friends and family have asked me what they can do to help and if I’m honest, I don’t really know. It can be hard to think about that when I’m just trying to get through it. But I do want to help them help me. At some point, I will write more about this, but I do find it really helpful when the people around me let me set the pace and decide what I can and can’t manage. Sometimes a push is helpful but in this situation, it isn’t. A sense of control grounds me a little bit. Plus, there are some things that are just really hard to manage when you feel like you can’t connect to your emotions. For example, I find it really hard to write songs and be creative when I feel so disconnected from everything. So being able to (and feeling safe to) adapt my activities does help. And talking. Talking it through, figuring out solutions, letting off steam. That really helps.