Anxiety

My chest coils, churning that icy pre-post-permanent adrenal response. It’s not permanent. Right? It just feels like it. I’ve been coasting on the edge of another anxiety attack since coming down from the first. Monday consisted of 13 hours of my autonomic nervous system getting stuck on overdrive. This hasn’t happened in a long time. But it’s familiar enough.

If you don’t know the feeling I’m talking about, imagine you’re in a group. Work, school, social, political—doesn’t really matter. Now imagine that group is chatting about something and suddenly decides that they’re going to present on the topic to a larger group.

NOSE-GOES!

Nose wha…shit. You’re it. Podium’s waiting. Gogogogo! Chest tight yet? No? Okay. You’re scared of heights: welcome to the rollercoaster. You’re scared of spiders: don’t look down. You’re scared flying: please fasten your seat belts. You’re scared of dying: dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. You’re scared. You. Are. Scared.

Welcome to anxiety. Except here’s the kicker: you don’t always get to know why you’re scared. You don’t always get to see cause, but you sure as shit get to live in the effect. I get to live in the effect. That’s been this week. Luckily, I’ve been to this party before. I’ve tapped the keg, know where the bathroom is, and yes, you can hide your purse behind that chair. I know anxiety, I know my anxiety. I just haven’t seen it in a while.

I’ve been medicated for it since 2007. Anti-anxiety medication let me start college, which petrified me. I managed to chill out a lot since then, particularly in the past year or so. Staying home alone doesn’t lead to a panicked spiral, Kermit-flailing, or weapon-snatching at the first stray noise. I figured out my fear of being alone was actually a psychological manifestation of my fear of my own inability to take care of myself. The more competent I became, the more it receded. And I don’t me martial-arts competent, just general competency. That wasn’t the only factor, though.

Meditation has also been huge. And of course, self-care. But sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes I realize that I went from slight nerves, to manic joy, to wow-that’s-a-lot-of-work-and-I-don’t-know-how-to-use-this-site-and-what-is-that-and-wait-how-many-assignments-are-there-and-they’re-all-do-the-same-day-and-FUCK. Seriously, fuck. Even typing this I’m tense. The adrenaline is fluttering, the icy-breathlessness is haunting my chest, and there’s a pressure on my collarbone like a thumb, pressing, pressing, pushing me back into my chair.

As you can imagine, it sucks. But again, my sideways luck strikes. I know why it’s happening. Superficially, and obviously, it’s my workload. I’m taking two sizeable Communication courses with teachers who believe in academic rigor (not a bad thing, just intimidating), one five-credit French course online (it involves quizzes, tests, fill-in-the-blank, discussion posts in French, a digital textbook, a metric shit ton of audio files, written lectures, a couple of essays, interactive slideshows and I can’t get the French keyboard I installed to work), trying to move out, trying to gain life skills, trying to drum up more editing business, sacrificing relationship time, trying to get this whole AM/sleep thing sorted, attempting to combat health issues and insecurities, and of course, writing two blogs and a book. But that’s just the surface.

It explains the stress, but not the anxiety itself. You see, I’m a recovering perfectionist. The idea of getting less than an A disturbs me, and the idea of not doing my best results in lip twitches, while the idea of my best not being good enough? Well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? This is a lot of work. What if I can’t manage it? What if I drop the ball? What if I don’t complete it? What if I can’t understand it? What if I fuck it all up again? What if I fuck it all up again? Again. That’s the source. I’ve let myself down so many times. And I’m actually succeeding right now. I’m mostly on track. I’m getting better. And that’s fucking terrifying. Even me writing two posts a week is scary.

It used to be not doing things that upset me. I’d hide from the mountain of work and will it away. If I failed because I didn’t do it, then I failed because I didn’t do it, not because the work wasn’t good enough. I controlled the failure and protected my worth. But now I’m controlling the success, and that involves way more moving parts than failure. Success is also more finite and impermanent. For me, it’s also more abstract because I’m consistently moving the goal post. I’ll never be done succeeding. There will always be more to do, which means I’m stuck like this. I’m with the switch ON.

I can’t take a break. I can’t turn it off. To turn it off, to relax, that risks backsliding. I know me. I don’t want to work, and if I lose momentum, I’ll stop, I’ll curl up and escape into fiction and pretend that things will get better without applying effort. They won’t. They can’t. But after so long conditioning myself to avoid, hide, and only perform in small, violent bursts of procrastinator panic, consistency is fucking exhausting and terrifying.

When I wrote the first draft of this Thursday, I spent the majority of the day on social media and talking to my coworker. I was invited to things (to help the literary magazine I used to edit, as they’re short staffed; to a slam poetry thing yesterday). I avoided work. Then when I decided to start, bleakness settled in. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to work.

Yesterday passed in a similar state, except I let avoidance win. I tried to convince myself that it was rest, and maybe it was, but then it carried over into today. I’m only just now, at midnight settling in to work, and my schedule swung again. I’ll be trying to get to bed early, but I know I have to do things first. There’s just so much. I’m struggling not to look up and out at the miles of unchartered territory I have to traverse to succeed. Hell, even the easily mapped stuff makes me woozy.

Between my life and the state of the country, of the world, it’s constant overwhelm. I’m trying to stay logical about it. I know thinking about it only makes it worse, just as typing this all did (but that realization was worth the strife). The only thing that helps is looking down and focusing on the actionable steps, occasionally looking up to note my progress and make any necessary adjustments. It’s a struggle. Fear is infectious and not easily cured. Work is the only solution.

This is something. This is work. A month ago, I wasn’t writing. I’ve written over 15,000 words since then. That matters. Going to classes matters. Just as I matter, regardless of passing or failing or the quality of my essays, or the skills I obtain. My worth is not dependent upon any of this. The problem is, only the logical side of my brain believes that, and even it adds caveats. If I do nothing, what can I be worth? But what’s the point of that argument? I am doing things. And now you see the problem. What I know isn’t the same as what I believe, or what my instincts twitch toward. This is anxiety. It doesn’t care about logic or reason. This is the entrance to the rat’s nest snarling up my mind. The deeper you go, the more things get caught in the brambles.

Anybody have some shears?

Driving Me Crazy

Almost a decade ago when I was 15 years old, all my friends were getting their driver’s licenses and permits. Naturally, wanting to stay up with the in-crowd, I bounded over to my parents tail-a-waggin’ and asked if I could get my permit. The answer, contrary to what they say now, was a resounding “NO.” I asked more than a few times before eventually losing interest. After all, my best friend had just gotten hers, so, ultimately, I had little need for one.

The years slipped by unnoticed and suddenly I was 18 and Dad was demanding to know when I would drive. This was a couple of years after I had begun consciously collecting phobias. I thought about his question for a moment and realized just how thoroughly the concept terrified me. I had been so removed from thinking about it that the mere idea had me hiding behind walls of aggressive dismissal.

How could I, a girl who barely controlled her mood swings, let alone her life, be expected to control a ton or more of moving metal at high speeds on highways and back roads, bullied by the traffic teeming around her? It was too much.

But why did it scare me?

There’s a car downside up. There’s a girl half outside it, half in. There’s a girl, her insides half outside. She’s a puddle on a low tide beach of glass cubes and gravel, shining in a sunset of flashing blues and reds. It’s harder to hear than to feel. Everything muffled by her pained pulse. There’s a man, his edges indistinct, blurring into the blinding lights behind him. He doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand.

He asks again, touching her. Did he ask if it hurt? Stranger danger! The childhood chant summons itself into the hollow hole of her mind. She wants to laugh. There’s not enough air to laugh. Why? What was on top of her? A glance up gained comprehension. The door was on her, off its hinge. The door was off its hinges, in her.

“Miss, you’ve been in an accident. Try not to move.”

Why does driving scare me?

Because my brain never stops writing. But rather than be a one trick pony, my innovative little brain started writing excuses on top of its frightful fiction, each as logical as the last.

“I’ll get a license when I go to college.”

“I’ll practice this summer when the roads are clear.”

“I can’t drive the Jeep while she’s using it to get to work.”

“I can’t practice if you keep loaning the car out.”

“I’ll get it when I have a car.”

Between 18 and 22, I drove a grand total of ten times. I hated it. It set flaming nails to my nerves and pounded them in with each passing car. How could I be expected to survive? An irrational fear that I would die in an accident at 23 (spoiler alert: I’m 24) tightened the tension and my grip on the wheel.

Fear mixed with a wounded pride when my brother got his license at 16. My brother is four years younger than I am. Worse still, was the discovery that of all my teachers, he was by far the best when it came to driving. Despite our fights and differences of opinion, we somehow managed to click while driving. It was a Goldilocks kind of thing. My mom was too hot, gasping, grimacing, gripping the door, and crying “Careful!” at every move I made. My dad was too cold, disinterested, ambivalent, and inattentive whenever we drove, more focused on his phone than the road. But my siblings were just right. My sister calmly corrected and talked, pointing out that I was doing fine and my fears were unjustified, though perhaps she was a touch too supportive. My brother was laid back but impressively aware, keeping up conversation while course correcting and offering advice I’d never heard before (“Don’t turn the wheel back into place, loosen your grip and let it slide back on its own so you don’t overcorrect.”). However, no matter how “just right” the meal is, it can’t last.

Eventually, our different mindsets brought our conflicts to the road as well. Like my dad, my brother lacks the ability to empathize with my worldviews. He doesn’t understand why I don’t just drive down and get my license. His logic (or lack thereof) is “Just do it.” Those words still make me cringe, regardless of what they’re referring to. Just do it. What on this planet or any other is that simple? More to the point, how could someone tell that to a person who was quite literally prone to anxiety attacks at the thought of driving and expect said person to not be offended? Offended is putting it lightly; I was livid. Nothing frustrates me quite so much as being misunderstood, and for him to think that it was so simple proved that he had misunderstood a great deal.

That said, months later I now stand on the verge of “just doing it.” As of August 25th I have my own car and drive to school with Mom almost every week. I’ve conquered driving back roads and highways, I’ve mastered not turning the wheel when I check my blind spots, and I’ve even parked in the garage next to Mom’s car without hitting it. Parking in general and backing up still pose a bit of a problem, though they are far from the monoliths they once were. Admittedly, I’ve never once attempted to parallel park. Presently, my issue, the last lap keeping me from the awkward photo-finish that is any form of identification, is yet another concept: driving alone. I’m comfortable driving now, to a degree, but so much of that has to do with the person in my passenger seat, the person who saves me from mind slips and calls out “Red light!” or “Blind spot!” the person who plays the pivotal role of failsafe, of safety net. I know that when I’m finally forced to do it alone, the anxieties will return, the unsteady lack of confidence that can be all too fatal.

I promised them the test at the end of October. I promised them the test when I got my car. I promised them so many things so many times. I promised myself. I feel the excuses behind me, see them pointing out exit strategies and pushing me towards the escape hatch.

But I have a lot to do.

But it’s Halloween next week.

But it just snowed.

But I am busy.

But I can’t do it right now.

But I can’t parallel park.

But I can drive.

Collecting Dust

A friend once told me that they—the experts-that-be—call my generation “the Boomerang Generation” because after moving out, we’ve all ended up back home at least once. Clearly, I’m just more efficient than the others because I never left. I jokingly (and sometimes dismissively) defend my failure to launch by citing a lack of need to, the availability of familial support, the economy, and of course, free room-and-board. But the truth lies between the logic.

I’m a collector. I collect stories, dreams, words, knickknacks, pens, hats, corks, clothes, people, and phobias. The latter is the only one that happens both unintentionally and effortlessly. I’m terrified of “what-ifs” and haunted by what has yet to come. Burglars, fires, car crashes, and even creeping crawlies compel me to mask my mortification beneath the guise of grownupness and a gratitude for the familiar, for family and the memories firmly affixed to our home. The world, the thought of being in it alone, yoked by independence and trudging up the treacherous mountainside of adulthood, staggered by a 9-to-5 and whipped with the worries of continued existence (rent-food-light fixtures-leaky pipes-noisy neighbors-the needs of a car-a knock on the door at midnight) on top of the weird weather patterns sparked in the bipolar blend of chemicals and synapses science calls my brain, is…too much. It stays the first step and steals breath when the notion of the last lingers too near.

But to say that the worst of what-could-be awaits me only out in the world is an overgeneralization of the threat, one which overlooks a narrower needle, a needle that pierces deeper for its perpetual presence. At home too, I feel fear. It’s muted, muzzled by the dogs who bark at the slightest shadow on the walkway, decreased by those who sleep (but could wake with a well-placed scream) upstairs during my nocturnal sojourns through laptops and televisions. It’s never worse than when they leave, when my parents head off to Arizona once a month, and move the dogs to the vet’s kennel because my ever-changing sleep schedule makes tending to them impossible. When they’re gone, I’m here alone, left to survive in a jungle of houseplants and cavernous rooms, hounded by every unknown sound at night, every flicker of maybe-movement twitching out of sight. The plight is worsened by a writer’s mind, an inventive mind that tracks down every possibility, every cause of every concerning occurrence, lessening my odds of survival with worst-case scenarios.  By the third day, fear finds in me a breeding ground and readily propagates, hunting my heartbeats for sustenance until each must skip to survive, racing over ribs and repelling reason that would slow them. I carry a pencil for protection (a weapon few would worry about if a woman held it loosely in hand). I realize how outrageous this sounds to saner people, to those who have only occasional moments of weakness, to those who were forced to overcome childish fears to win the trophy of independence. Yet these are the walls I’ve built around me, they form the box that blocks me from a life I could and should lead.

I hold no satisfaction with the state of things. I hold no desire to continue to dwell amongst fear-emboldened excuses, to cleave to the support inherent in an age I’ve long since outgrown. It’s not enough for me, it’s not enough for my parents. I want to gain the skills, the bravery necessary to claim independence. Unfortunately, I’ve been saying that for years, to the extent that it’s become a mocking personal moniker, an empty slogan. So what makes this declaration different?  This does. This blog, you, my theoretical readers. It’s my hope that the outside pressure and expectations will push me beyond the borders of the self-sewn apron strings that bind me and into something better, someplace endlessly bigger. It is clear to me now that change must come from without as well as from within. And change must come. After all, no good story is static, and as a writer, I would hate to disappoint.