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What’s it like to live with high functioning anxiety?

What’s it like to live with high functioning anxiety?
Photograph: Katie Barget | TEDxSydney
Jordan Raskopoulos on stage at TEDxSydney

You might know Jordan Raskopoulos for being the co-founder and lead singer of the Axis of Awesome, or for her campaign to change the date of Australia Day to ‘May 8’, or recently coming out as transgender. You may not know that the confident musician and performer also has high functioning anxiety.

In her TEDxSydney talk on Friday, Jordan said, “I don’t get stage fright so people don’t get it when I tell them I have an anxiety disorder.” Speaking in a her humourous, assured way on stage, she told the audience stories of arriving at parties too early and going for multiple walks around the block to avoid the awkwardness of socialising. Of her heightened sense of worry over everyday scenarios like picking up the phone or checking her email. Of how she’s often mistaken for being arrogant or rude by not starting conversations with people.  

It’s the first time Raskopoulos has spoken publicly about her anxiety, which she dubs “life fright”, though she’s made reference to her behaviour through her writing. “It’s the first time I’ve labelled my behaviour as anxiety. I often say that I’m quite shy, but this is the first time I’ve devoted a talk to it,” she explains to Time Out in an interview immediately after her talk.

“The hardest thing is finding other people like you. I’ve discovered that people I thought didn’t like me very much actually turned out to have the same problems as me. I just thought they didn’t like talking to me, but actually they were just like me.”

Raskopoulos said there were bonus points to having high functioning anxiety: it’s very useful in situations other people would find stressful – emergencies, deadlines, public speaking. “We’re high achieving perfectionists,” she said. “If you need someone to pump out some zingers, I am so funny at the drop of a hat. I’m quite good at a party when I’m just making jokes, I often use that as a coping mechanism, which can be quite inappropriate sometimes.”

On stage Jordan joked about how TEDx organisers like to be very involved in the talks beforehand and that if she could just leave everything to the last minute it’d be fine. “I didn’t put pen to paper until the day of the rehearsal. There were three farts in the first draft and there are still three farts in it now, so the fart content remains consistent.”

In our interview Jordan is noticeably less buoyant, less loquacious than the woman she is on stage. It’s only in the last year that she’s been able to give her anxiety a name, before that she just believed she was rude. When asked if giving a name to her behaviour would have made a difference earlier in life, she said it was too hard to answer. “There are similar questions that I get asked, you know, ‘If you knew you were transgender earlier, would you have transitioned earlier?’ I find it just fuels regret and regret is not a very helpful feeling. Maybe, but I didn’t, so here I am!”

Raskopoulos first realised she had anxiety when she came across a YouTube video detailing the hallmarks of that disorder. I thought ‘Oh my god that’s me’. I had a very similar experience with a transgender article as well and that sparked a lot of reading.” She then approached her doctor, who gave her a number to call (something Jordan jokes about in her TEDxSydney talk: “I didn’t ring it for weeks!”) “Actually saying it, rather than internalising it, can be quite freeing,” she says. For anyone else recognising those traits, her advice is to talk about it. “Once you know what it is you can start dealing with it. There are experts that can help you get through it and you don’t feel so alone.” 

Referencing the Myers Briggs Personality Test, she says, “On ‘introvert/extrovert’, I’m bang on 50 per cent! When I’m in control, when I’m comfortable, then I’m good. Sometimes I won’t be comfortable in an environment and then once I discover I have a talent there then it’ll flip.” Like being on stage, any activity that involves focusing on one thing is where Jordan feels most comfortable. She paints, she plays strategy games, she writes and she does roller derby (her roller derby name is Judge Booty). And, of course, she’s super funny. On stage she jokes, “Because you don’t get paid for doing a TED talk, might as well get therapy for it.”

7 memorable moments from TEDxSydney.

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