To Live and Still Live with Anxiety
Anxiety is not drowning. Anxiety is not burning alive. By whatever deliverance, those fatal miseries end. They end because you’re saved or you’re not and you die. Either way, you don’t have to go on too long with the panic. Your suffering in the moment, for better or worse, ends.
Anxiety is not that benevolent.
Anxiety is drowning even though you can reach the surface. Anxiety is burning even though there is no fire. Anxiety is having to suffer through those experiences in your head without the experience itself. Worse, you know you will survive it. You’ll survive because madness has no place to live if you aren’t alive.
Anxiety is parasitic. It will take over the host and dictate actions through the zombified body that used to be yours.
Anxiety does not usher you into the rightful deliverance of death. Instead it makes you immortal while thriving like a tapeworm, a studied parasite that consumes you from the inside and leaving only enough of yourself behind to ensure you don’t die. You don’t die unless you choose to push through that door, but if it’s only anxiety, you won’t. It’s better to just suffer on this side of the doorway.
That’s what the parasite wants, at least.
When you don’t die from it – and you won’t – anxiety goes on eating through you, subsisting on your joy and your excitement and your fear. Only anxiety isn’t a parasitic worm harvesting whatever you dump into your guts. Anxiety has become you, the you that turns against yourself and every chance you have of changing your actions.
Anxiety is yourself as the long shadow cast forth in your shape under a late sun: stretched out upon the torture rack of the sidewalk, stretched beyond your body’s natural shape; emaciated and dark, unrecognizable to yourself even though it is your self.
Anxiety is the ellipsis interjected inside of your sentence, guiding the eyes toward an unfinished thought and never finishing the statement with anything else but the panic of having to go on. And you will go on.
Anxiety is going to war and dreading, knowing that you will come back. You worry less about not coming back and more how you could ever come back. Though you cannot imagine how life can still go on, life indeed goes on and drags you kicking and screaming.
If sorrow was Kierkegaard’s castle, then anxiety is the soft, termite-feasted bridge that you must cross to enter the castle. The moat yawns below with each step you take upon the rotted causeway.
Anxiety isn’t sorrow. Anxiety isn’t depression. Anxiety wants to keep you alive, to keep the misery going. It accelerates your mind, races you toward a future that you don’t want where you are decaying and dreadful but still alive. Depression would just as soon see you dead.
Anxiety is dreading the life to come after survival or, better, fear of survival; of living marked, cursed, never the same again. Anxiety is wearing the cage of rats around your head in Room 101, torturing you to the point that you desperately scream, “Do it to Julia! Not me!” except there is no Julia and there are no rats. There’s no one to sacrifice for your peace of mind, no one to relinquish the fear-torture. You are your own Room 101 and after the torture, you can only stare a stare into something in a mirror that looks back and says without words meant to be forgiving or understanding, “I betrayed you.”
I remember the first time I felt it. I was in the 4th grade and called one of my friends an “asshole” under my breath. He didn’t hear me but that didn’t matter. I’d said a bad word and bad behavior like that was a punched ticket to Hell. The panic of having sinned, having trespassed against another human, of having done something that would curse my life from here on out was relentless. I worried all night about it. I prayed about it — back when I still felt that prayer could affect the human condition — and hoped salvation could be within reach later in life.
I was in fourth grade and already felt my life was over. Because of a word. Because of anxiety.
Excepting its occasional dormancy, anxiety has been cycling through me like that ever since. Expecting my life as I know it is over. Expecting the very worst possible ending.
Anxiety isn’t always the fear of not being noticed. Sometimes it’s the fear of being noticed because it confirms that you are not, in fact, invisible. All it takes is one person to remind you that you exist and that your existence is uncomfortable. When other people notice you, you feel you must perform your best for these other people. It’s the fear of having to perform and impress, pressured to do something that you know will fail. Beyond rejection, anxiety warms your face every time you have to go before an audience of friends and family because you know everybody will recognize in your crestfallen expression the moment you realize you have failed.
You can’t help but betray yourself.
Anxiety is spending a lifetime dying even though death has forgotten you. Again, anxiety makes you immortal without giving you any divine gift for survival other than waking up to another day to find anxiety waiting for you under your pillow like some demented tooth fairy’s prize.
Anxiety makes a miracle of science out of you. In my own experience, I have been terminally diagnosed with everything that makes you dead and miserable and tainted yet I have survived seemingly unscathed except for the desperation anxiety leaves in its wake. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have been desperate for certain death yet still lived: I have beaten cancer, I have overcome AIDS, chlamydia, toxoplasmosis, schizophrenia. I have survived blood parasites. I survived them all.*
I have outlived them all because they have all – and always – been in my head.
And all of them were only ever there because of my anxiety.
The irony that anxiety thrives on is that, mental illness aside, I am a healthy adult male. I have never had so much as an allergic reaction in my life. Through risky decisions and stupid decisions, ranging from eating a raw egg to having unprotected sex, I am still somehow healthy (with the medical charts to prove it).
In spite of that gold medal track record, anxiety convincingly told me I was never going to be the same after any of it. Anxiety put the diseases in me and made me live through them long enough to survive them until good sense and medication kicked in. And then it was on to the next terminal condition.
I didn’t get a physician’s examination after every occasion because I didn’t want the confirmation that my life was over (nor do I want to spend every waking moment of my life in a doctor’s waiting lobby). Somehow, I illogically thought that I’d live longer if I didn’t know I was dying. Through this terrible judgment, anxiety preserved me and I eventually no longer had the illness I feared I had. Anxiety is never wanting to know because knowing is the funeral gong and anxiety doesn’t support the mortuary business.
The very worst part is trying to distinguish between the voices of anxiety and good sense. The two sound so similar in my head yet I have to find a way to discern between panicked response and educated response. While I’ve been right thus far about what symptoms merit a visit to the doctor, for every symptom that prompts me to make an appointment there are a dozen more that I try to forget until, hopefully, they no longer harass me. With this, anxiety may very well be killing me because it is increasingly difficult to determine what health scares are legitimate and what is simply a product of my own corrupt mind.
That is anxiety. Inflammation of your mind, cells of the imagination fighting against the body. If you haven’t survived it, you can’t know it. It makes you desperate and bends you over backwards, forcing you to see the world in a way it really isn’t. If you haven’t felt the whisper of fear from depression’s closest companion, you haven’t had to listen to anxiety. Anxiety is not depression and it’s not death, but it does enjoy masquerading as death’s false harbinger.
*Thanks to anxiety, the author has also miraculously survived: HIV, brain cancer, syphilis, gum cancer, the clap, appendicitis, rabies, stomach cancer, herpes, multiple aneurysms, blood clots in the lungs, lung cancer, IBS, breast cancer, melanoma, MRSA, tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, kidney failure, testicular cancer, cirrhosis, anal cancer, multiple strokes, cardiomyopathy, several heart attacks, thyroid cancer, asphyxiation, some weird thing when he was eleven years old and couldn’t get the smell of match sulfur out of his nose, lymphoma, throat cancer, and tonsillitis to name a few.