The Anxious Itch of the Appropriate Metaphor
My anxiety turns me into King Pellinore.
The hapless knight, and I’m specifically thinking of the version from The Once and Future King, wants but also doesn’t want to find the Questing Beast. It is a hunt that is also a love affair. In that way, I may obsess and worry but deep down I’m just obsessed with the pursuit, trying to really truly understand an event or feeling (real or imagined or merely foreseen in my infinite wisdom). Then I’ll name it and file it away where it can be later dissected for whatever magical silvery goo lives in the horn of my own Questing Beast.
Like Pellinore, I am hapless and lonely in my pursuit. Not only because anxiety can be very isolating, also because once I find the “truth,” my Quest will be over and I will have no purpose. So the truth has to be eternally just out of reach, even though I’d love to find it and maybe just chill out for a while.
Maybe I’m actually more like a 19th century naturalist. All those fronds and fossil records and rock strata needing classification by Victorians with their anxieties laced up so tight they were fit to burst social-sexual anxiety all over the clean lines of ledger books.
It’s so tempting to name the whole world. (See also: foolhardy, fruitless.)
As a kid, I would replay things over and over in my head, panning the camera around to every possible angle: What did she mean by that, why was that hug weird, am I crazy for thinking that, am I just crazy, I should probably deal with all this by washing my hands again, probably.
It was a routine my brain would settle into given the slightest downtime, scaffolding for everything else in my life.
Long before I dropped way too much cash on graduate school, I applied the latest in adolescent critical discourse to the situations and characters in my life. I’ve been trying to unpack what does it all mean for a very long time.
A lot of my kid-memories are instances of contained freak out, times I felt so jumpy and high-voltage that I was rendered nearly an abstraction. In the 6th grade, paralyzed with the fear that I would be unable to stop myself from cheating, I took a Social Studies test (my favorite class!) with my head two inches from the paper — until my teacher asked, kindly and to my great embarrassment, if I’d forgotten my glasses.
Eventually, I would arrive via mental acrobatics at some explanation that made sense, or “sense.” No, I would not get HIV from the mosquito that bit me last Saturday because apparently some thought experiments were too exhausting for even my anxious and energetic young mind to maintain.
The explanation I came up with didn’t have to make sense, anyway. It just had to be airtight. A perfect circle of cause and effect, wrapped up tight around me.
This has eased up with age, thankfully. But I can’t deny the continuing allure of a grand unifying theory, one that will seal off all possible exits or entrances through which something horrible might enter my life and burn it to the ground.
(I had a brief fear-of-arson phase, after stumbling across a 60 Minutes when I was probably already tying my stomach in knots about school the next day. Were rogue arsonists fire-sweeping America in the mid-90s? In my brain, yes.)
Recently I tried to describe a fit of anxious thinking as a tape loop running endlessly through my head.
I am neither out-of-it nor avant-garde enough to listen to cassettes, however, or to use them in my metaphors. Although doesn't it sound awesome, so lovely and analog, to stick a pencil, eraser-side-first, into one of my gears and twist backwards to stop the song’s unraveling and go back to before whatever endless earworm of worry is currently keeping me up at night?
But, similar to stumbling at 3am onto an interpretation of my day that makes it seem as though I will not someday in the near future be cast penniless into the streets with only my accumulating student loan statements to keep me warm in the harsh Brooklyn night, I realized with the relief of proper classification just how to describe my anxiety:
My anxiety is a gif.
An endless loop where the resolution is always out of reach because the resolution doesn’t matter? Get out of my head, Tumblr!
I do have trouble with actual gifs sometimes, squinting at my office computer screen like a maniac trying to figure out where the loop starts over again.
See, e.g.: For the love of all that is good, did anyone ever turn that French Bulldog puppy back over onto its belly, or is he doomed to spend all of time Weebling for our amusement? This truly causes me physical and mental distress.
Usually I have to close the tab, get up, go to the bathroom.
Knowing the fate of our puppy friend isn’t the point. The point is the rhythm and the hypnosis of the repetition, not release from this soothing, maddening eternal moment of time. For all I know, the truth I’m after might not even exist, I might be doomed to live in this headspace forever.
But realizing my anxiety is a gif was singularly satisfying. Thinking of anxiety as a meme going viral in my mind gives me critical distance. It lets me breathe.
The beast is mine!
What’s the mental equivalent of closing a tab? Confessing my anxiety to someone who I trust almost always does the trick. I’m not mastering the worry or casting it aside, just handing the burden to someone else: Here, take this and tell me what you think it is.
I could trust in my own instincts, I guess. If I’m going to occupy myself with world-building and name-giving, if I’ll so readily believe someone else telling me that the story has a happy ending, can’t I just cut out the middleman of racing pulse and obsessive thoughts and get on with it?
How hard could it be to construct my own narrative? I could make my own gifs! This doesn’t seem too tricky for the rest of the internet. That French Bulldog is probably 8 years old and happily upright. Right?