I had thought anxiety was just a hallmark of my youth, something to be grown out of like pimples and woeful crushes on the wrong boy. Surely adults, with their clear skin and disciplined hearts never lay awake at night wringing their hands, praying away the sunrise. Going about their days, they didn’t throw themselves at the universe’s feet, begging it in a tiny voice to fix them. Anxiety, I figured, was merely a situational discomfort: one a person needed to suffer through to progress from elementary school to high school, high school to university, university to law school-and so on-to a time when they would plateau into emotional evenness. Like a Russian nesting doll, with each decade passed and each degree earned, I expected to shed a layer of my frayed casing, until I reached the hard, self-possessed, indivisible figure at my core. Seeing an anxious youngster I would then shake my head in retrospective understanding. “How hard it is to be young,” I would say.
Anxiety, I’m afraid, is not a childhood virus like chickenpox.
My entire life-my days and hours-can be neatly divided into two distinct categories: time when I am anxious and time when I am less anxious. The latter times are consumed with worry if my anxiety will rise again to intolerable levels. Is this headache really a precursor to a panic attack? Is this nausea a forewarning of debilitation to come? I must always be on guard because the only thing worse than having a panic attack, is having one in public. It feels shameful, having to wear one’s emotions on the outside, allowing others to bear witness. My tender skin feels chaffed from so much exposure. Up close, my body is covered in a million tiny cuts. What will I say should someone point to one and ask, “What happened?” “Don’t you see?” I’ll have to say, “Nothing happened. Even nothing makes me bleed.”
Seeking help, the doctor asks me where in my body I hold anxiety. She leans back, waiting for me to begin but I am confused by her question. “Where in my body do I hold anxiety?” I repeat, “I hold it everywhere.” I feel its thickness saturating my skin, feel it leaching parts of myself out of my pores. I feel it sprouting from every follicle on my head, coiling itself around my hair and clinging to my neck. I taste its metallicness when I swallow.
Sitting in this psychoanalyst’s office, talking through my worries, it becomes clear to me that my anxiety isn’t just a discrete part of me that can be excised like a tumor; a single knot in an otherwise straight piece of string. I have long dreamed of the person I knew I could be, if it wasn’t for my anxiety. But I see, now, that my anxiety is me. The panic that lies at my core is as irrefutable as the color of my skin. And to deny my anxiety is to deny my essence, those parts of myself that make me most me. To deny my anxiety would be to erase my sensitivity, my acute awareness of the world around me, the way I can feel other’s pain so deeply. It would be forgetting my strength and resolve, my sense of humor and the animated way I laugh at my own shortcomings. It would be deleting my creativity and my fundamental desire to drain it from myself as art. It would be refuting the strange way I bounce my legs when I write, the way I stick out the tip of my tongue when I smile or nervously fiddle with my fingers when I meet new people. To deny my anxiety would be to rub out the sweet vulnerability that made my husband fall in love with me. Why would I want to disavow all that?
I continue to work at managing my anxiety through medication and therapy so that it can be just a facet of me and not the whole. In doing this, I am learning to be kinder to myself. I am growing and healing: not by hating my anxiety and what it has done to me, but by honouring it and how it’s made me the resilient person I’ve become.
Wendy Litner runs the blog www.sadinthecity.com where she writes about her struggles with mental illness. She has also published a number of these pieces on The Huffington Post. You can also follow her on twitter @sadinthecity