Missy Elliott’s Anxiety Disorder & Why It Matters When Celebrities Come Forward

Missy Elliott is a commanding presence — lyrically and visually.

Her facial expressions and her style:

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Her supremely self-confident words:

Y’all can’t stop me now
Listen to me now
I’m lastin twenty rounds
And if you want me
Then come and get me now

My awkward, inexperienced inner college kid would describe Missy Elliott as “cooler than cool.” In control of her every motion and her persona — I was in awe, even if I could only manage to mouth every third word as “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” blared at frat parties and clubs.

I mean, look at her:

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She just oozes IDGAF:

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So when she admitted in an interview with Billboard Magazine last week that she’s struggled with pretty serious anxiety for most of her life, I was floored. My shock quickly became gratitude for her honesty and bravery.

As someone who’s anxiety disorder goes back to childhood like Elliott’s, I appreciate every time a public figure discusses persistent anxiety and other related conditions. They risk the ridicule of stigmatized, dismissive comments like “Well if you’re so nervous performing in front of people, get a different job” and “What do rich people have to worry about?” the same way I risk being seen as weak, incapable, and unprofessional.

The neurotypical often treat those of us with anxiety like a poorly trained puppy or annoying younger step-sibling they’ve been suddenly saddled with. Other people “can deal,” so what’s our problem exactly? Have we not tried X/Y/Z? Do we like being self-indulgent, making everything about us? Can’t we just take a vacation or a breath or yoga class?

People have a near-impossible time seeing anxiety as an actual disorder the way we do “more serious” mental illnesses — possibly because everyone has been nervous at some point and think that if they could “get over it,” others should be able to do the same. Instead of anxious experiences building empathy, they often serve as grounds for judgement.

Which makes having a successful, broadly liked, cool AF celeb like Elliott describing anxiety severe enough to cause a full-blown panic attack this far into her award-winning career an important piece of the effort to end stigma.

As her assumed quick, surprise cameo in Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime performance had grown in scope while online rumors spread, Elliott, well, freaked out.

“[Perry] said, ‘I want you to do three of your records,’” Elliott recalled for Billboard. “And I’m just like, ‘Did she say three?’”

By the night before her appearance, her anxiety had gotten so bad she required medical attention.

via Billboard:

“Like, IVs in my arm, everything,” she says. “Nobody knew.” The day of the show, she remembers being just offstage and hearing the opening riff of “Get Ur Freak On.” “I said, ‘If I can get over this step, then I know all my dance steps will be on point.’”

If you missed it, she nailed it and stole the show.

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It’s more than just her admitting to some stage fright or a few backstage nerves. Even the way Elliott talks about her creative process and how much writing takes out of her feels familiar to me, as someone who is largely at the mercy of my day-to-day anxiety and ADHD fluctuations.

When she described the break she took producing her own music, she said she hadn’t expected it to last quite so long:

“But it was much needed,” she told Billboard. “People hadn’t realized that I haven’t just been an artist, I’ve been a writer and a producer for other artists. When you’re writing that much, your brain is like a computer. You have refresh it.”

PREACH.

Elliott’s certainly not the only celeb struggling publicly with a disorder. Sarah Silverman has gotten more candid about her depression recently: Buzz Aldrin has also famously suffered from depression; Johnny Depp’s social anxiety disorder makes gossip column news from time to time; and David Beckham and Cameron Diaz both talked about having obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But there’s something about Missy’s degree of cool that made her candidness about what’s going on behind her persona so impactful. She’s also well-liked and perpetually sought out in her industry for collaboration and creative contribution — which defies the stereotype of the anxious, impossible to work with “neurotic” anxiety sufferer.

Clearly, Elliott hasn’t allowed her anxiety — or anything else — to define her. And while her work gives the impression that she’s precise and detail-oriented in her art, I now love her more for her very public admission that:

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Katie Klabusich is a contributing writer for The Establishment and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio. Her work can also be found at Rolling Stone, Truthout, RH Reality Check, and Bitch Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @Katie_Speak.