In my freshman year of college, I didn’t talk to my roommate.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to her. We just never exchanged words, even when we were alone together in our tiny cubicle of a room. “It’s weird,” I would say in a puzzled tone when I mentioned it to a friend; then I’d shrug and change the subject. If pressed, I’d say that we had very different schedules — she was a partier, I was a morning person. Or that we just didn’t have anything to talk about. I’d leave it up in the air, like, I don’t know why she doesn’t talk to me. I tacitly avoided my own complicity in the situation.
The truth was that I felt massively uncomfortable with the silence in the room. Uncomfortable with the presence of someone else in the room. Jittery. Nervous to the point that I didn’t know if I could form a casual sentence. What would we talk about? What would we say? What sort of a conversation did you have with a roommate? My brain would lock up and, instead of staring blankly at her making the awkwardness palpable, I would turn to my computer, or my book, or retreat to a practice room in the music school. The more I avoided conversation, the more insurmountable the idea of it seemed. I mumbled my hellos and good mornings and kept headphones on as much as possible, to minimize the need for chat. I have no doubt that this made my roommate exceedingly uncomfortable, although our schedules were quite different and she never articulated any distress.
The biggest, most pressing sign that I needed to talk to a PCMO?
I couldn’t ask to borrow my landlady’s vacuum.
Let me be perfectly clear. My landlady lives next door to me. We share an entrance hall. She is one of the most generous, kind-hearted people I have met in this country. She has a twelve-year-old internet-savvy son whose favorite words (at least when I’m in the room) are “Не деді?” She speaks a little bit of English and fluent Hungarian, and we are very good about interpreting hand signals when mutual language fails. My CP, her younger sister, has repeatedly encouraged me to visit her in the evenings to exchange language and keep loneliness at bay.
But there are a couple of things. I’m an early riser, and like to keep to myself in the evenings so that I can go to bed when I want, but in the afternoons — when I’m occasionally free — my landlady is busy running a business down the street. She’s free in the mornings, when I’m at the school. And because our doors don’t actually have latches, her door is almost always locked.
Between the locked doors and the sparse encounters, from day one I felt a kind of nervous inhibition about bothering her. I remember being on the phone with a friend, sometime in the first few weeks at site, and saying that I didn’t want to do such-and-such because the walls were very thin and I didn’t want to bother the landlady. My friend replied with the verbal equivalent of an exasperated eye-roll. But the less I talked to the landlady, the more intimidated I was by the thought of talking to her. No matter how many times I reminded myself she was nice, she was my CP’s sister, she wanted to talk to me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
There was always a reason. Maybe she’s still asleep. Maybe she’s eating dinner. Maybe she’s busy. Maybe, maybe…
This came to a crux on the weekends. I’d usually spend one morning cleaning the apartment, intending to finish by vacuuming the carpets. But inevitably I’d finish around one or two in the afternoon, around the time my landlady left. I’d be afraid to knock on the door, in case it would inconvenience her if she was getting ready to leave. I’d dawdle around until I heard the keys in her door and saw light in the foyer — oops! she was leaving. I couldn’t ask for the vacuum now. I cleaned the carpet once a month instead of once a week.
The worst part of this is how ridiculous it sounds. Intense displays of emotion over something upsetting, you know, that’s understandable, that’s relatable. But avoiding small talk with somebody week after week? Finding it more nerve-wracking than the substantially more awkward alternative? It’s nonsensical.
Worse, I knew the nonsensicality of it even as I participated in it. All the energy went out of me after I gave up on asking; I felt ashamed and unable to accomplish simple things. Once I decided I should just borrow it in the evening instead of the afternoon, and geared up to ask her when she arrived. But then I was in the middle of eating dinner. And then — oh no — guests came over. How awkward would it be to interrupt that for housework? I told myself that was stupid, and tried to convince myself that my carpet had to be clean. (It shouldn’t have taken much convincing. My carpet was pretty dirty.) But then, when I unlocked my door, I heard the clink of cutlery. They were eating dinner. I couldn’t possibly interrupt that. What if (horror of irrational horrors) they invited me to join them? I’d have to make conversation. Even in that moment I couldn’t explain to myself why conversation was a bad thing — I needed to practice Kazakh, after all — but still it rooted me in place. At one point over this half-hour dance I made it as far as my landlady’s door — only to flee when I heard her voice, very close to the door already.
This is what anxiety looks like for me on a daily basis.
It’s not life-threatening. It’s not massively, visibly impactful. It’s ridiculous enough that I got in the habit of sending a friend silly texts about it. But it’s a real thing, it’s exhausting, and it hurts. It hurts to know that you are wasting hours fretting about something most people would not think twice about. It hurts that it scares you so much. It hurts to know that it is unreasonable, and to be unable in the moment to convince yourself that it is unreasonable. It hurts because it is a pattern made up of tiny, invisible, excusable avoided moments which are humiliating to admit the truth of aloud.
This is anxiety. This is real. Panic attacks and breakdowns are not the sum total of it. You do not have to have panic attacks and breakdowns to be suffering in a real and tangible way. Those little moments absolutely can add up into something big.
And if you are having these moments: It does not mean you did something wrong. It does not mean you are in the wrong. It means you’re struggling with something and you have a right to get help. You have a right to be healthy, and nothing else should come in the way of that.