Imagine you’re making a soup. You’ve never tried any vegetables or meat before, and while you’re preparing the soup, a gremlin keeps adding all this salt. You don’t really know what salt tastes like, and you haven’t added any yourself. When you go to try the soup, it’s far too salty – but you don’t know what not-salty soup tastes like. You try the carrots. Blech! Carrots are terrible! You try the celery. Blech! Even worse! You try the meat, or the onions, or the beans. All of them overhwhelm you with their brininess. You stop eating the soup.
Your friends ask you why you don’t enjoy soup, and you tell them it’s because you hate carrots, you hate celery, you hate meat, and you hate beans. Your friends have no idea why you would hate those things – their soup, after all, has just the right amount of salt. Their salt helps guide their palette, letting heightening the swirling flavors in a way that allows for insight into their own stewy preferences. They try your soup, and agree: it’s too salty. But how could it be too salty, when you didn’t add any salt? Your friends stop coming over for dinner. They look at you funny, like you’re not being completely honest about how much salt you added. Like maybe you just never learned how to make stew. Like maybe you just like the attention you get from complaining about your food.
The gremlin keeps following you, adding salt to your food. Pretty soon you find yourself disgusted by most foods. Eating too much of any of these things makes you feel pretty sick and incredibly thirsty. Only the gremlin is right there at the drinking fountain, pouring more salt into the water. No matter where you turn, what you eat or drink, who you interact with, the saltiness is inescapable.
This is anxiety, and I have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is an utterly necessary part of our ability to function as social creatures. We need anxiety to guide our behavior, signal when a situation may be dangerous, and motivate us to plan for the future. But like salt, in that it’s not really an emotion the way that happiness or sadness is. It enhances other emotions, tempering the happiness of a new love or compounding the sadness of loss. But too much of it, and it will drown out everything else. Too much salt, and you might start to think nothing tastes good.
We naturally try to figure out the external source of our feelings. It’s a basic human drive, to self-regulate our emotions by managing our environment, and it’s how people get out of bad situations and into good ones. The problem is when this system is out of whack, jacking up the anxiety level so high that other emotions – the flavors in the soup – are drowned out. It’s not that you don’t like carrots, it’s that every time you try to eat a carrot, all you get is salt. It makes sense you’d stop trying. It’s not a matter of will. It’s a matter of taste. And now that my anxiety has finally been treated, I’m finally remembering how appetizing the world really is.