This story is featured in Issue №2 of Anxy: The Workaholism Issue, a magazine that takes a creative perspective on the inner worlds we often refuse to share.
Bound and blindfolded, my classmates were locked in tiny, ramshackle rooms below the yip-yipping of their captors. We were inside a warehouse, somewhere in the Maryland suburbs, a chorus of car alarms and howling rioters embellishing the realism of this mock-kidnapping and detainment. The sounds interstitched with strobe lights for nearly 20 minutes. All I could do was watch.
I recused myself from participating in this portion of a hostile environment training course for journalists and aid workers, in which I’d enrolled before taking reporting assignments in Iraq. Looking back months later, I wasn’t proud of abstaining from the activities at hand. But I could not shake the angst and anxiety that has been woven into me over many years, to say nothing of what it meant for me to take an assignment in a war zone thousands of miles away from my rituals of comfort.
The class was a prerequisite for reporting in war-torn Mosul, a city and battle I briefly visited in the spring as the last fighters of the Islamic State were driven out, and one I returned to this fall. Before this I had never visited the Middle East. I had never covered an ongoing conflict.
The course instructors — former combat and special forces veterans — stressed the importance of becoming a hard target. Never remain still. Never lose focus on your surroundings. Remain ever-vigilant and hyper-focused. It was not so much the course that became useful to me as what it eventually illuminated — that I had spent the past decade essentially preparing for extreme, anxiety-inducing situations. I even welcomed them.
My inconsolable need to check over my shoulder every moment, or the way I jump when someone touches me, makes sense in a country like Iraq. It’s only at home, devoid of these situations, that I haven’t conquered the hardest part of my disorientation: what to do with silence.
The instructors said nothing of my recusal and offered no signs of concern that I’d be going to a war zone ill-prepared. Though, if they had, I might have said this assignment was something I needed to do.
My anxiety had gotten to the point of damnable complacency and self-destruction that all but crippled me from social and professional aspirations. If I’d balked at the chance to cover these stories, then I might as well have given into the wretched shell of fear and isolation that controlled me forever.
Without anything to restrain the strife, the anxiety reappears in ways I’m unable to handle. Some days I shun the world, the feelings so crippling that it seems reasonable to just stay in bed. Inevitably I find myself contemplating how few people would miss me were I to vanish. During these moments, of course, my phone hardly rings, which in turn perpetuates my self-loathing, and I curl back into a ball.
I could blame the root of these feelings of worthlessness on an elementary school crush.
Co-ed dances became a thing in elementary school and I had no luck there. No one would dance with me. But one day, miraculously, someone did agree to a slow dance. I could feel the girl looking over my shoulder as we moved, waiting desperately for the song to end, after which she quickly ran away, back to her friends who surrounded her in a shield of giggles. She had won a bet. Fearing that rejection, I never danced again.
Or perhaps, I might blame my father.
He is not a commanding presence, but what he lacks in dominating appearance he makes up for with intelligence. At restaurants he meticulously corrects menus, scanning them for typos with his ballpoint pen. My mother blames him for discouraging my twin sister, Rachele, and me when we were younger, excitable, and eager to share. I’d begin telling a story by saying, “Today me and Rachele — ” and my father’s stern, low-growl of a voice would cut me short, correcting me. “Rachele and I,” he’d say, and I’d by then forgotten what I’d wanted to say.
Later still, when I was 13 years old and attending a military academy, I was often met by physical punishment. Some nights my commanding officers, only 17 themselves, made me assume a pushup position, maintaining it until I collapsed and could not feel my arms. One night, facing a wall, nose pressed against the drywall for hours before my knees buckled, one of them took a sword and shoved it into my back.
I wondered if I had invited this behavior. Perhaps they, too, knew of my worthlessness, which is how I became the obvious outlet for their misplaced aggression. Then a sock filled with pennies connected against my head, followed by darkness.
While my patterns of anxiety started young, they slithered into college life and later a master’s degree I couldn’t finish.
The thought that everyone on campus hated me for the same reasons that I hated myself — because I couldn’t formulate, vocalize, and defend an argument without becoming enraged, because I never spoke much and when I did it was only to criticize, because I couldn’t handle feedback, because why was a troubled manchild attending the Ivy League — was unbearable. That particular spiral found me standing on a southbound train platform one autumn afternoon, popping anxiety medications and contemplating what pleasant end would be met at the front of an oncoming subway car.
Thank god for writing and reporting, which helps me straighten these coils into something more manageable. My extroverted work emboldens my introverted self: it grants me brief public achievements that set me on an even keel and save me from a darkly permanent and hermetic life. Otherwise I generally prefer the solitude of my home, where my cat won’t confront me about a choice made earlier in my life. I relish the comfort of my squeaky wooden office chair, from which I know my mistakes can be discarded onto the editing room floor and swept away.
Publishing, seeing my name in print or pixels, allows me some self-actualization. I celebrate at each proper paycheck because they mean, in some small way, that I had been somewhere. Someone saw me. I’m not worthless, and neither are the stories I write. The checks are my hedge against the twitch of anxiety that tells me to stay indoors and placate my inherent worries with solitude.
It’s this need to push myself out into the open that’s caused me, for example, to chaperone a man who tried to mug me at gunpoint in Georgia. He needed a lift to his girlfriend’s house and since I didn’t have any cash, I offered him a ride and a chance to tell me his story. This is also how, as one of my early beat reporting assignments, I landed in Alaska on a damp spring evening after flying into the airport sideways and barely landing, my excitement pounding through my chest.
It is why I take on so many reporting assignments, because to be anything other than busy is to welcome unease, becoming anxious in stagnation.
When I arrived in Iraq I knew the downtime would be the most difficult.
The Tigris River stood to my right as we moved closer to the checkpoint ahead. Dark clouds from rubbish fires surrounded the car in which I was alone with two men I hardly knew and could hardly understand because I did not speak Kurdish. I felt eclipsed by my most irrational fears. We were at a standstill not far outside the liberated city of Mosul, sure, but what I worried about most was whether or not I would return home with the stories I set out to write.
I also worried about my colleagues based here, if they thought less of me for having parachuted into their country without knowing the nuances of the people or situation here. I fretted that the concierge at my one of my hotels in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, despised me for asking him to watch my stuff while I visited the frontline for a few days. I stewed in the knowledge that nearly 6,000 miles could not divorce me from my most basic of worries: everything.
I tried everything to keep from thinking I was failing at reporting, failing at gathering enough information for the story. When finally we reached an area from where I could make a phone call, I shared some of my reporting concerns with my editor, a dear friend.
She told me to trust myself, that I’d done this before, and that I should go in whatever direction the story took me. I like to think she knew what I did: focusing elsewhere was the only way to move forward. Pointing the lens outward would allow me to heal my inner disruption.
It is easy to get lost in this workaday craze. It is easy to become swallowed by your passion. The alternative is to be gobbled up by something more smothering, like anxiety.
But I’ve slowly come to learn that some days can be spent in bed. Not every day has to be striking, or leading toward something that helps quell an existential dread.
In fact, please don’t let every day be striking.
It’d be too much.