On passing

by Kat

Britta knows that some weeks everything feels terrible.

Britta knows that some weeks everything feels terrible. During those weeks, passing for “normal,” whatever that means is nearly impossible, if not exhausting.

Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, social class, gender, intelligence, age and / or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance. (1)

I’ve never thought about having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or being an Aspergirl this way (woman with Asperger syndrome consistent traits), but in a way it makes sense. I don’t have what Elfity, one of the writers of Persephone Magazine, calls “big trifecta of Scary Crazy People” — the highly stigmatized ones: Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, or Bipolar I Disorder (2) — I have the garden variety kind that women sometimes get: anxiety or depression of some form. Not fun, but probably easier to hide my symptoms unless I’m having a particularly bad anxiety day, or in this case, week.

According to the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, “Worldwide estimates of the proportion of people who are likely to experience GAD in their lifetime vary between 0.8% and 6.4%; prevalence rates have generally been found to be between 1.5 and 2.5 times higher in women than men; in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England survey (McManus et al., 2009), the rates were 3.4% for men and 5.3% for women.” (3) There’s definitely others like me, but we still fall on the edges of the bell curve. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to explain what it’s like having an anxiety spectrum condition to someone who’s never had one themselves or lived with a loved one who has.

For the past few days or so, I’ve felt pretty awful, to the point at which I’ve had trouble passing for someone who appears, at least on the surface relatively mentally stable and neurotypical.  I’ve cried in my car as a friend sat beside me. I’ve cried in coffeehouses as a friend attempted to help me calm down by talking about his non-profit work. I’ve noticed that when I’m ridiculously anxious, a few things happen: I talk more quickly and more often, my entire body feels tense, and I feel like hiding from the world. Yesterday was particularly bad — to the point where I found myself sitting in front of my favorite cafe, on the phone with my therapist, trying to figure out why I was so exhausted and miserable. I don’t want to be around people when I feel this badly, but sometimes I’ll force myself to do so because doing so helps me feel grounded when I feel completely scattered inside.

Today was better, but it meant I had to deal with the fallout from yesterday: the people worried about my mental state (yes, I have an anxiety disorder, if that’s any of your business — GAD feel terrible, but most days, it’s more manageable than you would expect), check-in phone call from my therapist (actually a good thing — she’s pretty wonderful — asks good questions and makes sure I’m spending time around other humans when I’m feeling badly), and just a lot of processing on my own time.

I have a friend who works with people with disabilities who says that “No one has it together; some of us are just better at hiding it than others.” I’m beginning to understand what she meant when she said that.

  1. Daniel G. Renfrow, “A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life,” Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp. 485-506; Maria C. Sanchez, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, NYU Press, 2001.
  2. Being Mentally Ill in the Mental Health Field: Experiences of a Graduate Student — http://persephonemagazine.com/2012/01/being-mentally-ill-in-the-mental-health-field-experiences-of-a-graduate-student/
  3. Generalised  anxiety disorder in adults:  Management in primary, secondary and community care — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83459/ (2011 publication by the British Psychological Society)