I know I never used to have the anxiety that sits at the back of my mind, in the depths of my lungs, in the pit of my stomach, until the PhD.
Something that never was and now can never be shaken off. Not totally, not properly. She sits close by, makes the hair stand on the back of my neck, like a spectre twin.
I don’t know what I could have done to prevent her from arriving.
Sometimes I think it was a perfect storm of difficult people, a hard task, and an overwhelming stuckness. I didn’t lash out at others. I brutalised myself.
All the should’ve.
All the could’ve.
That I wasn’t anything less than useless, weak, because I didn’t live up to impossible standards that none but a few people I should never have listened to held and where doing the impossible wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.
I used to wonder which is more of a failure – where you finish but can hardly recognise yourself for all the brokenness or where you give up and find yourself broken but now without any direction?
No matter any of this really. She is here now – this other me in a way – this hungry hag. Not a ghost because she feels too tangible – she makes herself felt so viscerally.
Anxiety brings nightmares with her – where all of the sudden the very worst of a situation will play out in living colour behind my eyes. The worst has hardly ever happened, and I’ve always survived it, but it doesn’t make things any easier. The relief when the worst doesn’t happen is ridiculous only because the weight that sheds from carrying the fear can crush any colour. And I carry it for the people I love too where it feels like constant watching, constant waiting, just in case. And then worrying that I’m not doing enough.
Sometimes I wonder whether my heart is ever inside my body.
She is the most harmful – in truth no one can say anything that would hurt me more because anxiety knows all my weaknesses so deeply. She knows where the bodies are buried and how to twist the knife just right. She screams, she whispers, she knows the tones that will set my teeth on edge. When she’s loud and heavy, so much clarity disappears into a numb dullness, a fuzzy wasteland of sharp edges. I know better how to talk back now but I still have to find the words, and they can take time, especially when what she says has a ring of truth. There are so many dented, imperfect things – I have to find the beauty in them all to protect myself. I have to defend the difficult things just to get by.
And the worst, when things get bad, when none of my cajoling has worked – it’s not just the racing heart, and the way my breath gets stuck in my lungs, where my body sets itself up to run or die. And because I don’t want to do either – and sometimes can’t because they frown upon you racing out of a plane mid-ascent – all of a sudden this energy takes a physical manifestation. Bursts into a pain in my chest, hyperventilating, where if anyone would touch me I would scream. For those few minutes – that feel like the rest of my life – the end of time – my heart has felt so close to bursting that I’ve wondered if last thoughts can really be so inane.
The truth is though, these panic attacks hardly ever happen.
Almost all the time, she is not so dramatic.
Mostly she is just very dull.
And very heavy.
She is worry about things that will never happen but that I have to make contingency plans for, just in case, to settle her down. She is fear of spaces I can’t easily leave, which means I sometimes say no to things because working out how to take the anxiety away is too exhausting. She is being aware all the time of how people are, and how I am, and if everything is OK, and will they be OK.
But sometimes, more often lately, she is quiet and I am still. And the peacefulness is so wonderful that I don’t want to move to disturb it. And these moments don’t need anything dramatic, just safety, and that can come in many forms. Sometimes it is just sitting in the sunshine with a coffee looking at clouds as Laks tries to sing to the birds.
I’ve tried to inscribe the peacefulness in tangible ways as well. All my tattoos are little mantras to remember. A little bit of therapy last year, just when I needed it, gave me points to remember that are now on my phone.
I can only write about her now because she’s quieter at the moment, less heavy on my shoulders.
And that’s the thing. All the energy I’ve spent on her, that I spend on her, just in keeping the world from falling apart.
Anxiety makes me positive – silver linings – positive reframing. Because it keeps her settled, more quiet. Helps me find those peaceful moments.
Anxiety helps keep me humble – grounded – where I’m learning to be more openly proud of my achievements but there’s always more to do, better to do. The balance between challenging myself and hurting myself. I know far too deeply the imperfections of what I do and I can see them in other work too but I try not to dig too deeply I case they have their own hag following them.
There are things I’ve learned that I would have missed – and beautiful things too – if I’d not been listening so hard to other people to make sure the worst wasn’t going to happen.
But she is heavy, and she is exhausting.
I am strong, but I am exhausted.
And so I am careful. I trust the universe and do my best to keep her still. I write out the fears because they lose their grip when transferred to a page. I hold the peacefulness to my heart to settle it. I try to breathe…
And I sit with Laks in the sunshine, with a coffee in hand, and enjoy every peaceful moment.