The Persistent Hum of Anxiety
I could feel the hum starting on an ordinary Friday, but I tried to ignore it. Swatting it away like you would a mosquito buzzing near your ear.
As I dropped off my oldest kid at her last day of art summer camp and headed to a coffee shop to work, I almost convinced myself that I wouldn’t be anxious, if I could just pretend that its hum wasn’t there.
All summer, I worked in coffee shops because her camp was only a half a day, and I had to squeeze work, editing and writing, in any way I could. As I sat down with my giant red mug filled to the brim with caffeinated coffee, I opened up the document of the book I was developmentally editing. The deadline approached, only a week away, and I was making progress — slow progress — but I was convinced that I would make my deadline.
Before I could even take a sip of coffee, all my other deadlines started to loom: the magazine I edit each month; the public lecture for next month; all of the fundraising I’m in charge of at my oldest kid’s school; and the three books I have under contract due between October of this year and next. I took a quick gulp of my coffee to clear my head and scalded my tongue. My breathing became a little uneven. My tongue continued to burn.
I make my deadlines, I told myself in a hushed whisper, I always make my deadlines. The words didn’t soothe, and I began to feel the panic — abject terror really — that maybe I wouldn’t make my deadlines this time. The gig will finally be up. This line of thinking was bad for me, and I knew it. I knew it, and yet, I couldn’t stop myself. I threw myself into editing to try to get out of my own head. Sometimes, being busy can help me avoid these harmful thoughts. Sometimes, I can out-work my anxiety. And yet, my heart beat felt quicker. I started to sweat a little. I could feel the tears lurking at the edges of my eyes. I resisted the urge to tap my foot in a rapid beat.
I’m just a little overwhelmed, I reminded myself, That’s all, Kelly, that’s all. Stay calm.
Being overwhelmed was okay when you had a reason to be overwhelmed. And I did, didn’t I? I fidgeted in the shaky wooden chair, and I couldn’t help but drum my fingers on my laptop keyboard. I pretended that I wasn’t actually anxious, only overwhelmed with my work piling up day by day. I tried to pretend, for a moment, that I was a person who didn’t have anxiety or even who knew what anxiety it was. I tried to pretend that I was normal. I tried to pretend my brain was actually a friend rooting for me rather than an asshole who constantly derailed me and made me miserable.
When I woke up on the next day, a Saturday, my jaw ached. I had I clenched my teeth all night. Again. Each night, I wear a soft mouth guard because I started clenching my teeth while I slept in graduate school, and I never stopped. I clench when I get stressed or worried or anxious. I used to have a hard plastic one, but I cracked it, not once but at least twice. I clenched and clenched and clenched, so the plastic didn’t stand a chance.
A sore jaw is never a good sign. The radiating pain is an indicator that my brain has begun to work against me. Again. That my anxiety is taking control. That the hum was becoming almost persistent and harder to ignore.
There’s nothing to be anxious about, I told myself, Everything is fine.
I made a list of all the things that are fine: the youngest kid’s trip to the orthopedist went as well as it could; school would start on the next Monday, so summer was officially over (hooray!); all of my assignments for the magazine were complete except for two; my family was healthy; my therapy sessions were working; and I love the three fabulous human beings that I live with more than anything.
But, the hum was a little louder and a lot more demanding. I could no longer ignore the vibrations. I could no longer swat away that which was ailing me. The hum was now impossible to avoid, an unrelenting presence that forced me to pay attention.
Deadlines loomed larger than the day before. The first day of school brought more trepidation than joy. My right eye started to twitch, and I had a headache that I couldn’t get rid of, a steady pounding in my face. I tried to recognize what was happening and rationalize what might have triggered it. Maybe, I was unnerved by the start of a new schedule. Transitions always set my brain into overdrive, and after a few days, I adjust. Maybe, the fact that I was already behind on work made the deadlines seem a little harder to reach. Maybe, I was still working through my nerves about the youngest’s appointment earlier in the week. Maybe, I was just anxious, as if anxiety can be just anything.
By Sunday morning, the what-ifs had started. My brain prodded me for weak spots and found them instantly. First, my brain turned toward my youngest kid: What if I misunderstood what the doctor said at this visit? What if his next appointment wasn’t a good one? What if the pediatric orthopedist decided it was time to intervene? What if he had to have surgery? What if he could no longer go to preschool? What if something bad happened to his hips if he fell or tripped? What if…
Then, my brain pivoted to my oldest kid: What if the first day of school went badly for her? What if she ended up breaking her wrist on the first day of school like she had last year? What if her new teachers became a problem like her teacher was last year? What if she decided she hates school? What if she gets bullied again? What if she wouldn’t make new friends in her class? What if I couldn’t help her with any of this? What if…
And then, to me: What if I couldn’t write my assignments? And if I couldn’t write assignments, how the hell was I going to write these three books I had contracts for? What if my column was flaming garbage? What if my edits sucked? What if the issue of my magazine was terrible? What if I couldn’t write anything good again? What if I had never written anything good? What if this was the time that everyone realized that I was a fraud? What if I was a fraud? What if I wasn’t just a terrible writer but a terrible mother, partner, or human being? What if…
My thoughts were spiraling, and I knew they were. It was just impossible to stop them. I tried talking to myself calmly. I tried internally shouting about how stupid all of this was. I tried to will myself calm again. I tried being even angrier with myself. I tried to find something to do to chase away the thoughts. Neither reading a book nor watching a movie with the kids helped. My eye started twitching again. The hum was so much louder that no matter what I did I couldn’t tune it out. Now, a crashing wave of sound that forced me further inside my head.
We went to lunch to get out of the house, and I hoped to get away from the what-ifs and my jerk of a brain.
But as we sat down, I realized my error as I began to worry about what was in my food. I can’t eat anything with gluten, so I have to pay careful attention to what I order and eat. Restaurants can be hard enough when my brain is working with me, and this was the moment that my anxiety turned mean, cruel even, and less manageable. I worried about what was in my food, but I also began to worry about what other people thought of me, not my family, but strangers.
At the table next to us, two white women, who looked close to perfect in their sleeveless dresses and artfully applied make-up, sat with their well-behaved kids in polo shirts and ate their salads. I have never managed the preppy white lady aesthetic, and I don’t want to. But, my hair was a barely dry, a wavy halo around my head. Some of my tattoos were visible. I was wearing a denim jacket like it was armor over a tank-top and an older pair of shorts. I felt judged every time they turned in my direction, though I doubt my presence registered to them. I became more and more conscious of what I ate and how I ate it. I looked at my chicken wings and then at their salads, “righteousness on a plate” according to one of my favorite TV shows, Supernatural. I ate my gluten-free fries and tried to take up less space. I attempted to not make eye contact with either of them.
Later, we took the kids to an arcade, and I was on the precipice. I could barely stand anyone glancing in my direction. I worried about what they saw. I worried about what they thought. I worried about what they might say to me or to the kids. I worried that I might not be able to keep it together because I already could feel the tears that threatened to fall. I worried that I would ruin everyone’s time, which only made the urge to cry more pressing. My anxiety makes me think I ruin everything and that I am a ruiner of all of the things. So, I left Chris and the kids to play a few more games of Skee Ball and to be devoured by the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.
They were all smiles and fun; I was a hot mess who hated my brain.
By the time I crossed the parking lot, only a short distance to our car, my hands were shaking and my armpits sweaty. I avoided the gaze of the large white family jumping out of their van. The kids’ excitement palpable while their parents were a little less so. I slouched my way by them with my head down and climbed into the car. I cranked the car to let the cool A/C blow over me, as I tried to convince myself, once again, to calm the heck down. I know my anxiety has gotten bad when I start to feel judged by strangers. Social phobia is yet another disorder that my biological father passed down to me, one of too damn many.
When I start to feel judged, I harshly judge myself, especially my weight and appearance. It’s okay, I whispered, I know what’s happening, and I’ll be okay, if I can just make it through. Of course, I didn’t feel okay. I wasn’t okay. My anxiety was riding me hard, and I could feel the insufferable hum with each shake of my hand and each twitch of my eye. The hum was now a deafening roar. My anxiety had taken over my brain, and I didn’t want to let it. I knew that I just had to keep breathing until it passed. And it would pass. Eventually.
“Are you okay?,” Chris asked when they returned to the car. All I could do was shake my head, crank up the car, and drive home.
The fact of the matter is that anxiety has worn paths into my brain that I can’t help but follow. They are well-trod and familiar, as soon as I set off on one of these paths, I have to make the whole journey. Once the hum starts, I know what’s happening. I can be logical about it. I can understand why it happens. I can rationalize how I feel. But, I can’t stop being anxious. I can’t stop the thoughts. I can’t change the path. Sometimes, I can make the path diverge a little from it’s familiar route, but this wasn’t one of those times. Anxiety took over, and I couldn’t help but follow the path to its finish.
By Sunday night, I had nightmares about the first day of school for the oldest. One nightmare after another, in which she was kicked out of school, ostracized by friends, and/or punished by teachers. And I was too. My anxiety chased me even when I slept. I felt like my brain should know that it wasn’t my first day of school; I had already survived fourth grade. But, my brain didn’t seem to care.
“I want a new brain,” I told Chris on Monday morning.
“That’s not how it works,” he said, as he hugged me.
I knew, logically, that my anxiety was in overdrive. As surely as I know, that it passes. But, I’ve had a hard time coping with it. It’s not fun to be a hot mess even when you realize why you are.
And now, I can’t decide if it makes my life better or worse to know that what I have is anxiety. I can’t decide if the diagnosis is useful or not. Having a name for what I’m feeling doesn’t make what I’m feeling go away, but at least, I know what’s happening. At least, I know that it will come and go, and I will make it through. Again.
By Monday afternoon, the hum started to fade. I strained to hear it, and I was relieved. The kids went to their first days of school and pre-K. They came home excited to share the details. I did more editing on the book and could see that the project was almost finished. I reread my column for my magazine to assure myself that it met my standards, and it was good. The eye twitching disappeared. The fidgeting stayed.
By Tuesday, the hum was so faint that I had to strain to hear it, and I knew I made it through another round of anxiety. I savored its absence; I dwelled in relief.
And I knew that I would hear its hum again, its persistent hum, and I would still manage to survive it, even though I never feel like I will.
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