Anxiety is Rigidity
And stubbornness, and irritability, and looping, elaborate contingency plans. Not just fear.
For years, I pictured anxiety as a thin woman with a narrow face, Shelley Duvall-ish, wringing her hands over every little thing. I imagined that anxiety was weakness, and frailty; a mousy voice in the corner of the room. Anxious people had no sense of self, it seemed; they were brittle, their thoughts were small, whatever somebody else wanted. Anxious people apologized a lot. They were sorry. They were never sure. There was a flexibility to them that hurt.
I thought all this despite being obsessed with psychology since I was a teenager. Perhaps even because of it. I spent a lot of free time in high school reading the DSM-IV and diagnosing my friends. I thought reading highly simplified, committee-crafted summaries of symptoms prepared me to place complex individuals into tidy categories. It satisfied me, made me feel powerful.
I liked to see myself as powerful. I was someone who said no. I had firm ideas, unyielding ones, and was willing to fight for them. I yelled at bastards on the street, and my parents, and my friends. I made decisions about my life that were unlike the decisions anyone else around me made. I had plans for graduate school when I entered undergrad. I longed for big cities when my family found them daunting. I embarked on a career that was outside of the traditional path for someone with my education. I lived in ways that my colleagues and peers did not.
But I was brittle. Still am. I make unique decisions, in part, because I have imposed rules on myself. I am stubborn and strong in observance of the rules. I exist in a thorny forest of rules, and my life is lived by contorting myself around the sharp points. The rules seem incredibly logical. They are justified by three decades of successful living. Even when I curse them for restricting my movement and cutting off paths, I respect them and follow them with a reverence I’ve given nothing else in my life.
These rules are caused by anxiety. My adherence to them is anxiety-disordered. I have been plagued with anxiety my entire adult life. But I only recently noticed.
— — — —
Some of the rules are specific. For example: Walk five miles a day. I followed that rule without relent for years, from approximately 2011 to 2016. I knew the distance from my apartment to virtually everywhere else I visited. I avoided the bus and the train unless it was absolutely necessary. If running errands didn’t get me to my daily five miles, I took a walk. I knew a perfect five-mile round-trip route from my house to a park that hugged the highway. I followed it in the snow and rain and even when I had a fever.
Another rule: Don’t buy food if there is some in the house. I followed this rule from 2009 to 2015, I believe. What began as graduate school frugality rotted into something more rigid and perverse. I had popcorn as a meal. I tried to make mushrooms and veggie dip satisfying to an empty stomach. I drank lemonade powder and water all night to curb hunger pangs rather than going to the store. It could wait till the next day. It was responsible to wait until the next day.
I had other money-saving rules: no internet if I could kind-of steal it from a nearby library or university. It didn’t matter if the connection was patchy, if it could only be reached from a perch on the windowsill when the weather was good and my computer was tilted just so. It was wasteful to not take advantage of the opportunity.
I had firm rules about how much time and money I could spend socializing (next to none) and traveling (also next to none). I checked my bank account each week and required of myself a net increase. If I wasn’t saving money, I was losing money, and that would be the end of me. I did not go to the doctor. I did not get prescriptions except for birth control. I always, always took my birth control on time, at the prompting of an alarm, 7 pm on the dot. I took it in front of classes and on the train. I was flawless in my treatment adherence, and took pride in that.
(some of my rules were beneficial, at least in the short-term)
I could not change what I was doing. I couldn’t even get close. Even when the pills made me frighteningly depressed, frantic with sensitive, lonesome sadness, I didn’t consider stopping. I couldn’t. I needed to be medicated because I needed to be able to have sex without worry. If I couldn’t, I might end up alone. And I couldn’t end up alone. I couldn’t switch to a different med either, because it might be more expensive. And I certainly couldn’t risk getting pregnant by stopping the pills. I had gender dysphoria (though I didn’t realize it at the time), and if I got pregnant, I’d want to stop existing.
I was tearing at the edges. I was always unhappy. But I couldn’t do anything to help it. I couldn’t go out (that cost money). I couldn’t go to therapy (ditto). I couldn’t change my entire life and give everything up (I was afraid of losing the good things in my life, of which I had more than most people). I couldn’t take medication (because of money and because it might make me gain weight). I couldn’t find time to attend free events that might connect me with people or help me get help (I needed to spend my time being productive). I couldn’t go to support groups (people were difficult and annoying). I couldn’t go to church (I didn’t believe in God). I couldn’t get a new job (a full-time one would get in the way of my other rules). I couldn’t throw mysef into a new friend group (most people were ignorant, or chewed too loud, or were somehow otherwise insufferable). I couldn’t take a break of any kind (I had to be a person of value — work, saving money, writing, and doing activism were all requirements for living).
I could not live.
— — — —
Every year it seemed the thorns became more numerous, until they enclosed me like bars. I could not slink around them, moving flexibly around their requirements. It was now impossible to constrict myself enough to not get pierced, yet move forward. I was stopped in place. You remember that Arcade Fire song: My body is a cage but my mind holds the key? I imagined a darker, even more dirge-like version, one that was so bleak it made me laugh even when I was caught in my worst, murkiest feelings: my body is a cage, and my mind is a cage, and my life is a cage, and everything is a cage.
I was trapped and I still had no idea I had anxiety.
— — — —
Anxiety is not just feeling frightened, cowed, or weak. Anxiety can manifest as irritability. It can make you over-sensitive to annoying sounds, small discomforts, or inconvenient situations. Anxiety can make you blow up in rage at a guy for telling you to smile, because you’ve been feeling unsafe for years and the entitlement of his actions remind you of far worse ones. Anxiety can tear apart coasters and beer bottle labels and hangnails and your skin. Anxiety can make you withdraw from the world out of exhaustion and frustration, rather than terror. Anxiety can be a pulsing vein in your temple and a clenched stomach and speaking too quickly in front of your class, so you need to gasp at the end of each PowerPoint slide.
But I didn’t know that. I was a psychology professor and I had no idea I was an anxious person. I couldn’t sleep without Tylenol PM, I raged at the sound of my neighbor’s footfalls, my tone was forever caustic, my resentments were a roaring fire, and my world was increasingly miniscule. I hated everything and felt trapped, but every possible solution was inconceivable.
I couldn’t see the problem with my thinking. I thought it was the world that was the problem — it would not yield to my needs. Everyone was too loud, too lazy, too interested in doing expensive and frivolous things, and none of them ever loved me enough. They always left me feeling on edge. It was them. It was the fucking universe. All the better reason to withdraw. If I was in absolute solitude, then no one could notice I spent hours in front of the mirror nervously picking at my skin.
— — — —
One evening a month or two ago, I was angrily cleaning the apartment and my mind was unspooling a litany of resentments when I felt a lump in the bottom of my couch. It was rounded at the edges, a dead weight that flopped when I pressed into the couch’s lining. There were small particles around the larger lump in the couch, and when I moved them around, they made a quiet, beaded sound, like when I dump out the dried turds from my pet chinchilla’s cage.
As I manipulated the mystery lump, an image suddenly manifested: it was a dead rat surrounded by dozens of its own dried out poops. My stomach sunk. I looked around and immediately found a gap in the couch that a rat could easily fit through. I remembered a day, weeks prior, when there was an odd smell in the building.
I imagined myself slicing open the couch with a trash bag in my lap, to collect the corpse and the crap as it came raining down. I conjured up what the smell might be like. I knew I would be unable to use my living room for months. I wouldn’t be able to make food in the kitchen or eat. I would starve. Because of course I couldn’t get into the regular habit of eating food somewhere else. That would be too expensive. I would have to keep food, or at least eat, in the bedroom, and never use the living room, which would stink like dead rats for the rest of our time there.
I sat on the floor of the bedroom wrapped in a blanket, considering this possibility. The locus of fear widened out, and suddenly I was thinking about the cost, location, and endurability of my apartment. If I could not live here comfortably, then where? How much would I have to pay for something better? Could I afford it? If we found a new place, how long would my partner’s commute become? How much harder would it be to find quality time with him? Would I become even more lonesome and sad? Did I need to buy a place? Was it even possible to find a decent rental property in this town? And why did I have to be responsible for finding it and making things work every single fucking time?
When my partner came home, I made him feel the rat lump in the couch. I couldn’t help but tell him what I thought it was. He believed me. He put on gloves before touching the mound. With my highly articulated anxieties in the air, he could imagine it as a dead rodent and a pile of poops too. He winced, fearing that he’d need to be the one to clean it up.
Then, as I watched him gingerly poke at the body, the voice of actual rationality spoke to me: It’s a fucking silica packet.
And it was.
The hallucination cleared from my mind and his immediately. I felt like a child who’d seen a monster in the shadow of a coat rack.
— — — —
Everyone has distorted, fear-filled thinking from time to time. But as a kid, my fears were at least dull and murky. I could still drift to sleep thinking my pile of shoes looked like a grinning maw. With a fully developed, adult brain, my anxieties are too vivid and sharp. They feel and look more real than the real world, make more sense than the real world. I spend more time in anxiety-world, after all. No wonder it’s supplanted the actual one.
— — — —
My anxiety is not pitiful or Shelly Duvall-ish. It’s not a quiet, internal simmering. I lash out at people. I scowl. I make my partner and my loved ones help me preemptively solve worst-case scenarios that will never come to pass, then blame them for lacking the foresight to see such scenarios coming. I miss life experiences. I sit among the thorns and blame other people for begging me to cut through them.
— — — —
I am sick of displacing the blame for my sour moods, poor sleep, and tangential thinking. I cannot play loud enough music to drown it out, cannot make my partner come home early enough & often enough to feel convinced that I am lovable. I cannot resolve every paranoid contingency, no matter how many plans I have. This is not an external mound of problems with external solutions. The call is coming from inside the house.
My solution, so far, is to push myself to go do things and also take a lot of Benadryl (it is a sedative, after all — and cheap!). I’m considering drinking alcohol again (I stopped because I have a low tolerance, not because of addiction). I am considering forcing myself to say “yes” to everything. I am circling therapy and looking up additional support groups and listening to mental health podcasts. I’m reading more books. I’m writing again, but not keeping track of how much I write.
I don’t know how I’ll get through this thicket. I don’t know what the ground really looks like. For years I’ve been gobsmacked by how other people live. Aren’t they tired? Aren’t they annoyed all the time? How can they get anything done? How do they have any money left at the end of the day? How do they feel good about accomplishments that have drifted into the past? How can they just…talk about what bothers them? How can they feel okay having flaws, having needs?
I guess now it’s time to find out. I’ve tried living in anxiety-world; now it’s time to try the real thing. Real life is probably more of a silica packet than a dead rat: kind of banal and unspectacular, but more endurable than what my imagination has replaced existence with. So I’m gonna pay close attention, and notice when I’m bumping up against a prickly, restrictive rule. I’m gonna examine it and determine if I actually need to follow it. And then I’m probably gonna break it. And if I do it, for real, I might actually become a bit more vulnerable and flexible and Duvall-ish in the process. I don’t know why I always considered that such a horrible thing.