‘This is Us’ Shines a Light on Anxiety Attacks

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I’m a pretty naturally anxious person. There are times when it is manageable. But there are other times when it consumes my world.

My first memory of it overwhelming me was when I was 11. I became so irrationally fearful of germs after a bad bought with a stomach virus that I could barely function. If I heard that someone was sick at school, I’d start to hyperventilate. Some students would bully me by touching or breathing on my food at lunch because they knew I wouldn’t (couldn’t) eat it. I’d wash my hands obsessively until they were cracked and dry.

This all led to my parents taking me to a psychologist and a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My parents didn’t particularly want to put their 11 year old on medication so instead I learned how to manage my symptoms through weekly therapy sessions for about a 6 months. I learned deep breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques.  With time, the overwhelming fear that came from the prospect of germs at every turn dissipated.  But my desire to control the world around me as much as possible and my sometimes violent bodily response when I felt like I was losing control did not.  It just shifted from germs to something a bit more easy to control (but no less at the whims of the universe)–my academic success.

I had to be the best at any cost to my own health or sanity.  It wasn’t some kind of narcissistic drive for power, but instead a fear that I was not anywhere close to being the best. That I’d fooled everyone to get even this far, and someone was going to figure it out.  But also that I needed to be the best to feel like I had any kind of worth in the world.

This lead to many nights in high school where my drive for success spun out of control and left me hyperventilating, crying at the computer, blind with internal rage, or screaming and thrashing nonsensically on my bed. My mother and father would try to talk logic to me. One grade isn’t that important. Nothing in school is more important than your health. You know this, you just need to calm down and think. But it did little good. I was too far gone into the black abyss of an anxiety attack.  The few things we found to work were my mom forcing me to take a half a Valium pill or if I wasn’t a harm to myself, to let me rage it out alone until I drifted into an exhausted sleep. This is not ideal, obviously. But I didn’t understand my own emotions, and my parents didn’t understand enough about mental health to really help.

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But this was my life as a teen and young adult. It wasn’t until I graduated college and got into therapy and on an antidepressant regime for issues with depression that I really started to understand what was happening. At first I thought it was all caused by depression, but I wasn’t depressed when I was 11 and diagnosed with OCD. At 22, I was still experiencing some of the same attacks where my chest would constrict, my thoughts would race, and I could work myself up into an irrational fit. At 11, it was about germs and whether or not I was going to throw up because of a stomach virus. At 22, it was much more complex than that. Sometimes it was just me sitting in church or going into a grocery store. I didn’t have school to stress about or try to control anymore so what was causing these overwhelming feelings?

With some research, I began to see that while depression was the overarching factor in my life (perhaps because I had lost any sense of control once graduating college?), high-functioning anxiety had been a constant companion for years. Most of the time, I didn’t even recognize that I had anxiety. I mean, yes, normal social anxiety, but not an anxiety disorder. Does someone with an anxiety disorder find as much success academically as I did? Does someone with an anxiety disorder give speeches and travel to new, uncontrolled places so easily? Well, you might think, no. But with high-functioning anxiety, it’s not like I’m curled up in a useless ball on the floor of my bedroom 90% of the time. I FEEL like that’s what I should be doing but very rarely do I actually give in to the constant buzz of anxiety in my head and belly. But when I do succumb, it’s bad.

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It’s the kind of the bad that I’m fearful of talking about or allowing other people to see.  Which is why when This is Us portrayed Sterling K. Brown’s character Randall’s overwhelming anxiety and subsequent attack, I was in awe. It was the first time I’ve ever seen in any kind of mainstream entertainment, a portrayal of anxiety like that. And what was great, was that it showed Randall’s experience as a high-performing teenager trying to make sure he was Valedictorian (something that hit all too close to home), and as a adult juggling family and work responsibilities.  In both instances, we find him crying, murmuring incoherently, trembling uncontrollably, and losing his sight. The outcome of his teenage attack is not revealed, but as an adult he’s shown in an almost catatonic state.

It’s ugly and painful on screen. It raises the questions: Why can’t he just let it go? Why can’t he ask for help? To someone who can think rationally, the solutions to his problems seem obvious.

But I know what it feels like. I know how irrational everything becomes when you get into that state. I know that it’s not a simple “let it go” or “ask for help.” (If it was, we’d have far less people suffering through anxiety).  

So I loved this episode of This is Us. I want to delve deeper into Randall’s high-functioning anxiety. We’ve now established it as a problem so let’s not just move on and forget about it. (That’s an all too common way of dealing with it in reality…until the next attack comes around). It obviously doesn’t have to be the main focus of the show, but it’s an important aspect of Randall’s character, and it gives the This is Us showrunners a great opportunity to bring mental health awareness and recovery to the mainstream rather than using it as a stereotype or easy plot point. Representation has power, but accurate and resolutionary representation has even more.

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