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A Tale of Anxious Women

18 September 2017

I meet Rose* at the place she can be found every Thursday morning, escaping the cold in her favourite campus café, laptop open next to a pint of coffee and bowl of edamame. She’s working on her Spanish. “I study languages,” she tells me. She speaks loudly and clearly, moving her lips like an actress; slightly dramatically – which she’ll admit – and often with a smile. “Spanish and Indonesian.”

Rose has high-functioning anxiety. Dormant for a long time, it intensified in high school when the workload became heavier and she found herself drowning in a multitude of tests and assignments. Some people thrive under such stress. Others struggle to cope.

Her thoughts were altered. They became darker and overbearing; a cacophony of negative self-talk. “I’m not good enough, I’m not achieving enough, I could be better.”

She points to a little black notebook sitting by her laptop and opens it: the originally blank pages are now filled with colour-coded notes and tables. It’s the equivalent of a diary, except it’s scored beyond your average calendar reminders. There’s a list titled ‘people to stay in touch with’ – a measure that prevents her from losing friendships. There are lists of tasks to complete for uni (she counted 46) among tasks like, ‘fix my bed’. Pencilling it down means there’s one less thing gnawing at her thoughts.

“The reason my to-do lists are so long is because there is a constant fear of missing something.”

“Does this always work?” I ask her. “No,” she gasp-laughs and proceeds to tell me about her anxiety attacks. “My breathing will become shallow, my stomach… it just drops, like there’s a heavy brick put in it. Tears start running down my face.” But she isn’t crying; they’re numb tears. And she doesn’t let other people see, lest they assume she’s being hysterical. Hysteria; that 19th Century diagnosis for women succumbing to their emotions.

One in three Australian women, compared to one in five men, will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. Why? No one really knows, but Beyond Blue does list some of the could-be causes: caring for family members who are unwell, separation, violence or abuse, eating disorders, same-sex attraction, pregnancy and menopause. All plausible enough to elicit a, “hm, makes sense”, from me. But Rose hasn’t experienced any of the above, and she’s not the only one.

“One of my friends who’s started getting into business and working at a big company, she really has to hide all of her anxiety because as a woman in that field, she’s already seen as more emotional and less capable. For people to see her as weaker could really stop her from getting promotions. So I guess sexism and anxiety can affect each other.”

I wondered aloud whether this friend bore any resemblance to her. Raised eyebrows and a vigorous nod of the head told me it did, and she echoed, “I would hide it.” I asked her what she meant.

“Women will feel like they need to hold it together for everyone around them,” Rose tells me. “They’ll pretend like nothing’s wrong. I never told my last boss that I had anxiety, simply because I thought that she’d see that as a weak link for me and either would’ve exploited that or stopped giving me shifts.”

Her passions have also been restrained. “I’ve always wanted a career in performing arts, which has been, as I get older, dwindling. I never felt fear about being on stage. That never frightened me. However more and more, I can see me talking myself out of actually pursuing it, simply because I don’t want to hear that ‘no, you’re not good enough’.”

With less stage-based release, the drama has accumulated in her everyday life – but largely in secret. I can’t help but think that this might be the case for other women; women who want to further their careers, who want to be involved in the world but fear their altered mental health might be perceived as a weakness.

Anxiety gnaws at the fragile balance between Rose’s mind and performance and she has to fight to restrain it. “I don’t want to fall victim to my anxiety.”

Rose’s story is not unique. With so many women succumbing to the grip of anxiety, I wanted to hear from other sufferers. In my search, I met Grace, the artist, who has also been grappling with an anxious mind.

It’s crisp but sunny at the VCA campus. Grace tells me she doesn’t know which is colder; her face or her hands. Regardless, she opts to sit at a bench table outside, next to the tin-shed of art studios from which she emerged.

“I’ve got the collector’s edition of all the anxieties,” Grace tells me. She started seeing a psychologist in Year Five and, as the anxiety became more apparent in her early teens, she undertook cognitive therapy that sometimes helped and sometimes didn’t.

Despite being surrounded by supportive people, there is still a jittery something tapping away at the back of Grace’s mind that convinces her that society interprets her anxiety as otherness. She fears, “people not thinking that it’s a real thing, and thinking that you’re overreacting. It can seep into your own thinking, so it’s like, ‘I’m being a wuss’.”

Perhaps this judgement is all in her mind. Or perhaps Grace, who is strikingly androgynous, is also juggling society’s expectation of her as a woman. I think of the ancient ‘wandering womb’ theory and ponder whether anxiety in women is the modern equivalent that prevents women from sharing their mental condition. Is this why women like Rose and Grace conceal their anxiety, so that is doesn’t become inscribed on their female identity?

“I don’t tell other people about it because I think there’s a stigma, where people think you’re saying it for attention.” If she can help it, people don’t see it. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.”

A friend of hers walks past and she gives them a rapid wave, breaking eye contact with me for the first time. Stigma. That little voice that we thought we ditched as a society that tells Grace she’s less normal, turning anxiety into more of an inhibitor than a spur.

“My anxiety tells me not to do certain things, like, ‘don’t go outside because if you do you might have to talk to people’”. At other times, Grace will spend hours in her studio, clinging to her art. Apparently stigma around mental illness no longer exists, but it still seems as though it’s brewing in the minds of women with anxiety.

So I ask Grace the forbidden question: Does it matter that you’re a woman?

“As a woman I think it’s almost expected of me, or it’s not surprising if a woman feels like that, whereas it’s more surprising if a man is feeling vulnerable.” She makes reference to hyper-masculinity, and I instinctively envisage confidence and assertiveness. I’m ashamed at this thought, and I immediately scrap it, but it keeps on edging its way in.

Is anxiety more acceptable in women? It seems that the ‘overreacting’ and the ‘weakness’ that are the tropes of anxiety are still deemed female traits; that women – talented, sophisticated women like Grace and Rose – who have anxiety are just incubators for hormones gone wild. It makes me question how much progress our society has made since the days of the ‘wandering womb’.

“People probably aren’t as surprised by it because I’m a woman,” Grace says. “It’s hard to tell.”

Just like anxiety, I suppose, it’s hard to tell.

* Name has been changed for privacy reasons