Rolling Boulders

You know that moment when you realize you’re about to cry? Like you’re poised at the top of something, and there’s an instant of emotional weightlessness at its apex, before gravity kicks in and it all goes tumbling down? That’s what anxiety is like for me. My chest tightens and my breathing becomes erratic, as I struggle to ride it out and remember where I am. It’s like standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a surging ocean, or the top of a roller coaster just before that first downward plunge. It’s an endlessly drawn out moment of imbalance.

I worry about things. Most things. I think them through over and over. I rehearse my life. If I have somewhere to go, I consider where I’m going, and then I’m already there in my head, circling the block in my car, panic rising. I’m missing my appointment. I’ve failed. And yet it’s not so much a fear of failure as it is an assumption that failure is a given. And even the word “assumption” doesn’t feel strong enough, because it’s rarely an active thought. It’s looking at every situation and going from A to Z without the steps in between, and it’s knowing, or rather, believing, that “Z” is going to end badly. My therapist calls this “all or nothing” thinking.

This is where my anxiety and my depression walk hand in hand. The weird thing is that, unlike the monster, my anxiety is only trying to help. Fear, after all, is only there to keep us out of danger. It’s the combination of fear and constant uncertainty that makes it difficult to move forward. It turns the most mundane actions into Sisyphean struggles, and makes everything on my to-do list feel like a boulder waiting for me to carry it up the hill. When I was a child this manifested in the frequent repetition of the words, “I can’t.” Now that I’m an adult, the only thing that’s changed is that I’m grown up enough not to say it out loud. My anxiety gives me all the options, and then the monster tells me all the ways in which those options will inevitably fail. It can cause cycles of avoidance and escapism as I attempt to distance myself from the pain of things I haven’t even experienced yet. For example, I stopped going to parties because in my head I’ve already made a fool of myself, or because my monster has convinced me I have nothing to share. I avoid visiting new places because I’m convinced I won’t find a parking spot. I start (and lose) arguments with imaginary strangers, rehearsing situations in which I might one day find myself. It is exhausting, and often overwhelming.

What’s funny is that I just took a step back from writing this and re-read that last paragraph. I’m using the word “everything,” and my tone has shifted. That feeling of finality, that level of hopelessness in the face of the evidence, is a symptom of all or nothing thinking. Not everything feels impossible. I can still manage to walk my dogs, for example. I run errands, I get to my appointments, and I go to work. I am, for the most part, functional. But it goes to show how insidious this can be. When I get caught up thinking about something that makes me anxious, hyperbole doesn’t cover it. I say “never” and “always,” a lot, and I lose sight of the present because I’m stuck in the past, or worrying about the future.

The upshot is that I’m great at playing neurotic people onstage

It’s unpleasant to admit, but I’ve been in a rut for a while. I’m an actor, but I haven’t been to an audition in over a year, because facing that self-doubt over and over has become unbearable. I realize that dealing with rejection is part of an actor’s process, but for me every moment spent waiting becomes a moment convinced I’m simply not good enough, and then the monster takes that and spreads it around, blowing it out of proportion. So, “not right for this part,” becomes, “Not right for anything, ever.”

The thought of going to work, or going to an audition, or even going for a walk can feel like boulders waiting to be rolled up a hill. I do what I can to minimize them, but progress is slow. Anxiety is a mental-health version of an immune deficiency. It’s a beneficial process that’s been turned against me. But as long as I make an effort to see it for what it is, I can move forward. Self awareness is the key to progress when your brain being attacked from the inside. I’ve gotten good at noticing when I’m starting to think in spirals. Just as I’ve done with my depression, I’ve become better at spotting my anxiety at work.

You have to step outside of the fear, and name it. You have to let it do its job without letting it consume you. And sometimes (not always, not yet), I can take a deep breath, and let the panic recede. The goal is that one day I will know- I will believe- that I can reach the top of the hill; that I can make the journey unburdened by what might be, or could have been. One day I’ll climb the hill and leave the boulders at the bottom, where they belong.