What I’ve Been Trying To Say

The most dangerous thing about anxiety is the stories it tells, the words it howls or whispers into your ear in the thin dark hours of early morning or the weirdly ominous light of a winter afternoon when evening is pressing down, in the pause between supper and bedtime when for an instant no one demands anything from you. When there is a knife-sliver of space, a breath, it insinuates itself, twines tendrils around your throat, clutches hard and then harder until breathing comes ragged and your heartbeat skips and stutters.

I have tried to write about this before. I tried a few years ago when the stigma around mental illness was beginning to lift its heavy smog. I’ve tried since then. Every time, I’ve failed, because I cannot write without feeling, and every time I tried to articulate what it’s like to inhabit this mind, this body, I felt the old terror rising. I could not write about it without my own words triggering panic.

I don’t know why today seems like the time. Maybe because here on the cusp of winter, the clutter is stripped away. The shortening days prick at the back of my neck like premonitions of disaster. My mother loves the coziness of winter, the settling-in, the sense of closeness and warmth and light in the darkness. My aunt once said that she hates the color of the light of a winter sunset. Like my aunt, I grow uneasy at the thought of the coming darkness, and while I can appreciate the hard clear line of the Alleghenies against a watercolor sky,  it also frightens me.

The naked branches fracture the shell of sky like cracks in a bowl. Here at the end of autumn, the stark beauty of the architecture of trees is visible. I love the spareness, the crispness of dark against the blue, but the wind that rubs bark against branch also whispers of death, of the end of all things.

Death is the form my demon takes–not death itself, really, so much as the fear of the possibility of oblivion. It is difficult to write about this. It feels horribly narcissistic to fear my own demise, as if I am somehow more important than any other thing that has ever lived. The thing about an anxiety disorder is that you can’t turn it off. I know most people don’t relish the thought of their own death. But for me, the thought takes over, becomes a narrative that I can’t stop. Even as I feel the fear liquefy my insides and shiver my bones, a corner of my mind protests that this is nonsensical, self-centered, stupid.

The thing that too many people without mental illnesses fail to understand is that you can’t turn them off. The phrase “snap out of it” makes me alternately cringe and lash out. If you’re sad, you can cheer yourself up. If you’re depressed, you can’t. (If you want to understand with absolute clarity what postpartum depression is like, read this piece by Pamela Manasco, who is a brave and brilliant writer and human.) If you’re worried, you can rationalize away your worries. If you’re anxious, they devour you slowly from within while you watch, knowing that they are simultaneously nothing and everything, a lie that becomes its own truth.

My anxiety has taken me to dark places. At its worst, it has made me wonder if the very death I fear is better than living with a story I cannot control. I have called a nurse friend at two in the morning in a panic, certain I was about to die. I have derailed road trips with ER visits when I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I have been a quaking mess of fear, deaf to my own children and incapable of functioning. I have been afraid to run errands by myself. It is difficult to write about these things. I did not choose them. They have no part in the narrative I want to write about my life. One of the most insidious things about anxiety, which takes different forms for different people, is that it seems to chip away at whatever you most want to be, whatever you most value. I want to be brave, strong, fearless, selfless. My anxiety makes me cowardly, weak, afraid, selfish.

I have watched friends and family deal with depression, anxiety, OCD. Every time I hear someone complain that they’re “depressed” because they’ve had a bad day, or that they’re “so OCD” because they want things to be tidy, I feel stabby. I can’t emphasize enough how much mental illness is outside of an individual’s control.

When anxiety strikes, it is like a parasite–not some low-grade thing that maybe makes you sick for a week or two, but a chest-bursting Alien-style one that carves out your insides. Though it doesn’t leave you for dead–it wants to come back, again and again–it leaves you hollowed out and empty, unsure of who you are.

I’m doing better now, though it took a long time, a lot of therapy and medicine, biofeedback, visits to a psychiatrist. My husband and children are saints. My anxiety now is mostly controllable with exercise, massage, medication. I’m lucky.

There is so much happening in the world right now–so much that demands comment, that needs to be addressed. So many evils against which to speak out, to take a stand. But I know that many of us are struggling even before we turn on the news, fighting invisible monsters who settle not in the seats of government or in newsrooms or on film sets, but in our own bones and blood. As winter falls and my own uneasiness prickles to life like static raised on a radio, I think about how difficult this season can be for so many people.

There is a lot of privilege in my experience. I’ve been taken seriously, cared for, gotten the help I needed. I’m thinking of those who don’t have access to the resources I take for granted.

Mostly, I want to let you know that if you are grappling with your own monsters, you are not alone.

The challenge, for me, is to figure out how to incorporate this narrative into the story of my existence. It’s not the story I wanted, but it is part of my reality. I will not let it dominate my story, but I cannot change the fact that it is there, inevitable as the seasons, sharp and cold as winter.


23 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Trying To Say

  1. Thanks for being brave enough to share this. I relate to much of it. Your words give me more to think about. Your vivid descriptions help describe the debilitating feeling of anxiety. I struggle to say much about it. Finding others who write about it helps; I’m not alone.

    1. Thanks very much, Jason. It really is difficult to talk about and describe, isn’t it? I’ve been percolating this blog post for years. I’m still not sure I said all I need to, but it did feel good to put it out there. I appreciate your response, and wish you all the best!

  2. Brenna thank you so much for sharing this part of who you are, and sharing it with such vulnerability and honesty. And with words that are so beautiful that the images you create are semi-permanent imprints for me to consider — like the inside of your closed eyelids on a sunny day.

    People very close to me suffer from depression and anxiety and I think it’s always important for those of us who don’t to hear from someone outside of that immediate circle of familial ties and roles and daily demands what it’s really like. Because it’s too easy to want ask them to “snap out of it” instead of giving them the care and understanding that they need and deserve when their monster within has taken over.

    You say that your anxiety makes you “cowardly, weak, afraid, selfish” – but I beg to differ. In this post alone you are showing up as brave, strong, fearless and giving. Love you! XO

    PS – I LOVE it when the snow starts to fall on your blog. Makes me so happy!

    1. Thanks, dear Barb! And thank you for caring for and empathizing with the folks in your world who struggle with these monsters. I know they are better off for having you in their corner. I know it takes a huge toll on friends and family–that’s maybe a whole other post. I’m fortunate to not have had to deal with the truly debilitating part of it for more than several months, but I know people who’ve dealt with it for years, and wow. They and their loved ones are MIGHTY.

      And yay for the falling snow! I hope you get some real snow this winter! Still none yet here…

  3. “My anxiety makes me cowardly, weak, afraid, selfish.” – I understand that this is how you feel, but I want you to know that this is patently untrue. You are the opposite of all of these things, and a constant beacon of hope and encouragement. I am so glad that you are (mostly, hopefully) better. The world needs you.

    1. I am mostly better, thanks. It’s weird knowing that I will always carry this, that it slumbers inside me. It was your post on postpartum depression that made me brave enough to put this out there. Thank you. ❤ ❤ ❤

  4. Speak of the devil and he doth appear. We applaud your courage in writing this. Our household has too much experience with depression.
    Medicine erred by naming clinical depression to sound like ordinary glum and blue depression. Imagine if pneumonia were called clinical sniffles.

    1. Thank you, valiant beekeepers. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had to face this, too. That is an excellent point–names matter. This really makes me wonder if we need an entirely new word for it. Best wishes to you.

      1. The medical establishment has wondered if we need a new word for it as well. There’s a small movement afoot to bring back the old name “melancholia.” Melancholic depression is currently a specific subtype of clinical depression (“Ask me all about it!” she said with a grimace . . . .) and “melancholia” itself fell out of fashion when we dumped the four humours theory. But I agree that “depression” doesn’t capture it at all, and I’m stealing the “clinical sniffles” example to use in class. 🙂

        I know that there’s a phrase for an experience that changes you so utterly that you can’t go back before you had it – the example I saw was that you can never truly understand what it is like to have a child until you actually have one, and then you can never go back to your previous state – you can never again NOT be a mother/father of a child. (My brain keeps trying to tell me that the phrase is “liminal experience,” but I feel like that’s not quite it.) Anyway, when I read about that phrase, I immediately thought about an experience with mental illness. You can’t fully understand what it’s like until you’re in it, and then your brain and self is irrevocably changed by it.

        1. Jen, that is good to know! I’m glad that there are medical people thinking about what words mean. The parenthood analogy is a good one….and now I’m wondering what that word is, too. 🙂

  5. Brenna, I think you are amazing and courageous. I can’t imagine how hard it was to write this post, but your words brought substance and meaning and more understanding than I at least have had before. I’m sure there are many who understand the world and the lives of others a little differently and better now, thanks to you. And likewise, I am sure there are people who will read this that will feel a little less alone in the world, and that is a remarkable gift.

  6. Brenna, I am so touched by your courage and amazingly fierce vulnerability. Your words – truly a gift – I think will bring greater understanding to many (including me), and a valuable reminder to others that they are not alone. I cannot imagine how hard that post must have been to wade into and right. There are many (including me) who are and will be grateful you did.

    Oh, and I second Barb’s love of the snow. 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, Peggy. ❤ I decided at some point years ago–part of reclaiming my own story–that the reason for my anxiety was to make me more empathetic and hopefully able to help others. I like for there to be Reasons. 🙂

  7. I don’t believe there is any reader who, in some way, cannot identify with you. I know I can and do, not because I have identical feelings of anxiety but because you describe them so poignantly. I have never had the opportunity of reading your novels, but I know that one of your great talents lies in this type of personal essay (or blog if we must call it that). I keep thinking of an essay collection of your personal writings. It would be breath-taking.

    1. Thanks, Sybille–I’m always worried that I haven’t said what I meant to say as clearly as I wanted to say it, so that is very reassuring. And thanks so much for your encouragement.

  8. You are an amazing brave person!! Sharing your experiences and giving a strength to all those suffering from it.. let it be a guide to everyone out there ! It was a great read. Please keep it up. Keep writing and keep inspiring!!
    Please check out my work. I hope you will like my poems.
    Take care! God bless!!😊

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