I Have an Anxiety Disorder. Here’s What My Women’s March Experience Was Like
By Patricia Grisafi
As a person with anxiety, I have three very specific crowd-related fears: being sexually assaulted, having a chunk of my hair cut off swiftly and without my knowledge, and being attacked silently by a piquerist and then later finding a tiny pinprick in my skin.
Somewhere in between Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants and his comments about pussy-grabbing, it became clear that public demonstrations and marches were going to become a regular part of my life. So, I had to make a choice. Would I avoid participating in demonstrations, anxious that some demented misogynist would show up and stick me with a hat pin? Or would I stay at home, confident that I’ve avoided the smug creep who knows he can snip a lock of my hair without my noticing?
I’m aware that my crowd-related anxieties are mostly excessive responses to fears of male sexual aggression and violence. After all, I am the product of a world that both normalizes male sexual aggression and prioritizes female hyper-vigilance. For a woman with a well-regulated nervous system, this dynamic is stressful enough. For a woman with a sensitive nervous system, it can cause full-blown panic resulting in heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and stomach problems. However, because of my particular phobias, it felt even more crucial that I take part in large-scale demonstrations in support of women’s rights. Part of my feminist practice is fighting rape culture, and rape culture has certainly informed my anxieties about being a woman in public spaces.
After I decided that my participation in the Women’s March on Washington was non-negotiable, I started taking extra steps to prepare myself psychologically and emotionally. I had frank discussions with my friends as well as my therapist. I wrote down a list of all the outlandish, nightmare scenarios that could happen, one of which featured a man assaulting me with a semen-filled syringe.
Dressed in a “Feminist as Fuck” T-shirt and armed with a fanny pack that included a bottle of clonazepam among other necessary items like Band Aids, antibacterial wipes, granola bars, and a portable phone charger, I set out for our nation’s capitol with both excitement and trepidation. My friends and I arrived at Union Station around 9:00 AM on Saturday, January 21st with a swath of poster-wielding, pussy hat wearing protestors. “This is going to be much larger than we thought,” one of my friends observed as we merged into a group of marchers headed towards the Capitol Building. Here we go, I thought. Deep breaths. This is bigger than your anxiety.
Over the next hour, though, something surprising happened: my anxiety dissipated. Despite the fact that I was body-to-body with complete strangers, shuffling rather than marching because of the sheer bulk of humanity, I felt peaceful and relaxed. I was surrounded by kind, thoughtful women and their allies, floating in a sea of pink hats and surprising, almost surreal politeness. Warnings to “watch out for the curb” rang out. “There’s a mud puddle, be careful!” others shouted. I have rarely heard so many repetitions of “please excuse me” and “thank you” in my life. My friends and I were never separated because everyone was cognizant of making sure that groups stayed together. Best of all, no one cut my hair or grabbed my crotch. It truly felt like a safe place, and there were over 500,000 people coexisting in a relatively small location for upwards of eight hours.
Not all marches will be as easy or conflict-free as the Women’s March on D.C. for a number of complex and important reasons. Regardless, I remain committed to working on ways in which I can confront and manage my anxiety and be an active agent of resistance. I might have to be uncomfortable. I might have to place myself in triggering situations. I might also need to recognize when it’s time to hang back. But luckily, there are many ways we can contribute to supporting women’s rights from our own homes if we struggle with disabilities both visible and invisible. Self-care is a radical act, perhaps now more than ever.
Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a New York City-based freelance writer, teacher, and poet. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bitch, Bustle, Ravishly, BUST, Rogue Agent, and elsewhere, and she is a contributing writer for Luna Luna Magazine. Trish’s academic interests include Postwar American literature, Confessional poetry, horror and the Gothic, representations of mental illness, and sexuality and gender studies. She is passionate about pitbull rescue, cursed objects, and designer sunglasses.