To get us started, I’m going to dive in head first to lay the foundation for the series with a bit about myself and my history with anxiety…
My name is Michael Bird, I’m 39 years old, and for the past 20 years, I’ve been living with generalized anxiety disorder. According to The Anxiety and Depression Center of America “generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things”. GAD manifests differently for everyone but for me, it’s primarily been about health concerns.
Since I was 19, I’ve probably spent about $100,000 on medical tests to cover CAT scans, MRIs, echo-cardiograms, EKGs, ultrasounds, stress-tests, halter monitors, etc. I’ve had frequent doctor visits, therapy sessions, countless sleepless nights, a couple hospital visits, emergency phone calls to loved ones and friends all under the false sense of “there is definitely something wrong with me”. I convinced myself I was going to die at any given moment or that I had cancer or ALS or that I was about to have an aneurysm. I was/am convinced that I was going to develop mesothelioma later in life because I slept next to a suspect pipe for a year when I lived in a loft back in 2008. All a direct result of anxiety and how it shaped not only the way I looked at myself and my health but how I looked at the world around me.
Then there’s a whole other side of the effects of anxiety on my life that operates on a different level but I’ll save that for another time (it just doesn’t make me think that I’m sick, sometimes it gets in the way of the most simplest things. It robs me of what should be joyful moments, it makes me feel a crushing need to clean the house when I walk in the door and sometimes, at it’s worst, it makes me freak out because for some reason, my mind decides to go into redline when my wife leaves her shoes on the floor or someone asks the simplest thing of me).
Thankfully, each test has come back normal, each sleepless night ends peacefully and each panicked phone call ends with a laugh or two. The only thing wrong with me, or “challenge” I have, is that my mind likes to ramp up and get my adrenaline going when it doesn’t need to be. My vivid imagination runs wild and creates endless scenarios that are unlikely to happen and each day I have to fight them back. Day after day. Hour after hour. It’s always there and always will be. And that’s ok because I’ve developed the tools to cope.
Through all of it though, I’ve found that I’m my best self, my most peaceful self when I’m engaged in some type of play or playful activity over an extended period of time. This can be both a physical act like playing a sport or a philosophical lens to look through; a filter on how I choose to see the world. There is no extra adrenaline silently running wild causing endless heart palpitations and thoughts of death during a quiet dinner with friends. There is no tunnel vision. There is no shortness of breath. There is no rage. There is no sense of panic, there is no fear of falling asleep. My mind is clear and I’m able to LET GO. It takes a lot of time and practice to get there but I always find my way back and find the balance.
Play can be defined as to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. Scholars push the idea deeper as to what exactly counts as play but for our purposes, we’ll just leave it at that and drill down on the concept later in another story.
I believe in the idea of play as something that should be practiced in every area of our life. At home, at work , in social settings— whatever.
As children, we were often told to go out and play. Play with friends, play with our siblings, even to play with just ourselves. It feels like almost all of our time outside of school was devoted to playing in some way.
But as we grew older, we started to chip away at the idea of play and things got more and more serious. Sure, there were recreational activities: hanging out with friends, going to the movies, going to the mall, reading books and magazines, playing video games and playing sports, but things became regimented. Schedules, objectives, winning sides all changed the way we played. We were told to focus on academics (which are very important obviously) and other extra curricular activities that had purpose. Aspects of play or how we played started to get negative connotations as it related to our age. We had to start to think about what we wanted to do for a living or what we wanted to be when we “grow up”.
All the while, we began to slowly lose that playful inner child. Pablo Picasso had a great line about being an artist and I think the same applies here with the idea of play. For me, the two areas are closely related. “Every child is an artist…the challenge is to remain one when we grow up”.
“Every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain one when you grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
Into our adult life, we need to find a way to continue to play. We need to hold onto that outlet, that expressive creative spirit.
Fortunately for me, when I was in my junior year of high-school, I was introduced to a program called Graphic Arts. Our coursework looked at the use of the printing press, silkscreening, photography, photocopying and illustration to communicate a message. I was immediately hooked and I was hooked because it was FUN. It didn’t feel like school, it felt creative and I was pretty good at it. I liked it so much, my senior year I chose it as my major and became a teacher’s aid. I spent every afternoon in the shop and eventually started to teach the juniors how to run the offset press. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was laying down the foundation for a creative and playful career ahead.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m working as a creative director and graphic designer in New York. On the daily, I’m able to tap my imagination and present creative solutions to existing communication needs that align to different business goals. It’s my responsibility to myself and to my colleagues to keep it in perspective and to have fun with the role throughout the process while never losing sight of our objectives. It takes a lot of effort but I’m constantly reminding myself that while it can be very difficult, frustrating and even demoralizing at times, I’ve got an amazing opportunity in my work to enjoy it, to have fun with it and hopefully create something for others to enjoy as well. Even with all of that, I still have to make the effort in my personal life for play. In my 20’s and early 30’s it was playing rugby, now it’s tinkering around the house on the computer chasing dreams and surfing. It’s staying tapped into either a physical sport or an artistic exercise. That’s the key for me to have a real grip over my anxiety and keep it in check. There are still flare-ups but I don’t go into those dark and heavy places anymore.
I know that not everyone can be working in the creative field and not everyone has their “dream job” — I sure as shit don’t but I do know that there is time in the day for a bit of play, to find a creative outlet or that we are capable of re-framing our perspective, our experience so that we can be a bit more lively to help alleviate the all the stress.
We need to find a balance, we need to be able to return to that place where we play carelessly. You can’t just fart around and do whatever you want (or maybe you can?) I’m not talking about being lazy. We have to be constructive, positive members of society contributing to the greater good but that doesn’t mean that we should lose our imagination and our power to construct new environments, to make new worlds out of thin air, to play games, to make art or to make anything for that matter. Find the time to read that book that’s been by the bed for 3 months, sign up for the boxing class, tryout for the rugby team even though you haven’t played an organized sport since junior high, write the story you’ve wanted to tell, paint the landscape you see in front of you. Do it all.
In the coming stories, I’ll dive into different areas of play — from sport, to art, to philosophy etc. Hope to see you there!