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.