In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences managing anxiety and graduate study. Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts.
It is mid-February as I begin writing this post. I am sitting in my apartment at my computer, my hands floating apprehensively above the keyboard. This is an odd sensation considering the fact that usually I type so intensely that the tiny plastic squares pop off of my laptop and onto the floor. I can feel the words I want to write just out of reach, curled up in the darker corners of my brain. I start to feel my chest tightening. “No, no not right now, please not right now,” I plead with my brain. We have a constant dialogue going, but as of late it’s taken on a significantly more dominant role in those dialogues. I’ve come to know this feeling. It’s like watching a tornado bellowing toward me while being fastened to the ground. As the tornado gets closer and closer, I eventually give in to the fact that I will be swept up in the debris of my own internal natural disaster.
At this point, generally, when I can feel a panic attack coming on, I resign to it. Over the past few months, I’ve learned just how neurological and out of my control those events are, and that trying to resist them (and largely failing to do so) leaves me feeling significantly more exhausted, disappointed, and angry than if I just allow myself to lean into them, tear apart a cardboard box or two, and then sit quietly on my couch and listen to Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the calm after the storm.
See, I’ve known that I exhibit symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or Generalized Anxiety Condition, as I prefer to call it, since I am working against the internalized and institutionalized stigma that the ways my brain operates means there is something inherently broken about me) for a while. I’ve had nervous ticks like compulsively picking at my skin since as early as I can remember. I can be thrown into a state of total disarray over a two-lined text message that I’m afraid someone other than the intended recipient will get a hold of. I’ve found large crowds overwhelming for a long time, and regularly get up two to three times throughout the night to make sure I’ve locked my doors (so that no one can get into my apartment) and unplugged all the kitchen appliances / blown out all the candles (so that a fire doesn’t start when I’m asleep). On my walks to school, I try to replay my morning routine to make sure I locked the doors and unplugged the appliances, and if I can’t remember I will often text message my roommate (if he is home) to make sure I did. If he is not home, it is not uncommon for me to turn around and walk back home to check (even if I am only a few blocks away from school). I have to get to the airport or train station at least three hours before my trips out of town because I am constantly terrified that some catastrophic event will happen that prevents me from getting where I’m supposed to be, and I am known to check the pockets in my jacket up to 15 times before leaving my house, sometimes one right after the other, to make sure I haven’t accidentally lost my wallet, keys, or cigarettes.
All of these are symptoms I’ve learned to manage over the years. For example, I just plan my travel accordingly; I allow an extra 30-45 minutes before I go to bed to check the locks and plugs. I say out loud to myself that I locked my door as I leave my house in the morning so when I run over my morning routine repeatedly on my way to school, my own verbal affirmation to myself will be part of that narrative. And, historically, when I would get the occasional panic attack (every couple of weeks or months), I would allow myself to just experience them and make sure to try to get as much sleep as possible and drink lots of water.
Writing has also been a huge part of my anxiety management. For the past 14 years, I have been writing regularly in a journal. Presently, I am in my 94th book, and have no plans of stopping any time soon. Since I was old enough to hold a pen writing has been the place where I can document the conversations I am constantly having with my brain about all of the things I need to be worrying about or else something terrible will happen. Putting them down on paper both makes them feel real and also like something I don’t have to carry around in my head anymore (it can get quite crowded in there). Writing is the place I go during panic attacks when nothing makes sense and I can’t even really form complete sentences, yet something about the feeling of pen on paper keeps me anchored to this world. Writing is, without a doubt, my most significant and important survival strategy when it comes to my mental health.
So what do I do when I can’t write through the anxiety? For those of us that find a deep comfort in writing, the inability to do it is incredibly destabilizing and painful. Recently, I had to confront this question in a wholly unsettling manner.
For people who live with chronic mental health conditions and/or trauma, we know that triggers can pop up and derail our routines for hours, days, weeks, even months. We also know that triggers can come in the most unexpected contexts and magnitudes. So, just because one is perhaps prepared to handle a situation that has previously triggered them doesn’t mean they’ll be able to negotiate a totally new trigger with as much familiarity.
So, when my understanding of my life was recently upset by conditions entirely outside of my control, and unlike any trigger I’ve previously experienced, I began having panic attacks on a daily basis. Not only did they start occurring more frequently, but also at unexpected times compared to when they’ve previously boiled to the surface. By this point, though, I had convinced myself that writing was all I needed to settle the rush of chemicals in my brain. “Just write it out, Lain, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.” Yet when I sat down to put the chaotic words on paper nothing flowed. I was in a state of mental and emotional quicksand, sinking faster than I could get my words to secure me to this world.
This was even more unsettling because writing is not something I just do for personal pleasure or comfort anymore, it is part of my livelihood. I began to tell myself elaborate stories about how I will never be able to write again and my career as a sociologist is doomed to failure. I walked nervously around my apartment, screamed into pillows, ripped apart cardboard boxes, and smoked countless cigarettes to try and dilute the quicksand feeling but nothing worked. It was in this moment that my brain and I began to have a serious conversation and one unlike any talk we’ve had before.
“Maybe you should talk to someone, Lain. Maybe you really need that.”
“No, brain, I can manage this. You’re just really fucking with me right now. It’ll pass.”
“It has to.”
“How do you know? Maybe you’re just like this forever. Maybe I’ll never stop.”
“Maybe I should talk to someone.”
“Should you, though? How do you know it will help anything?”
Before making an appointment with a therapist, I held my journal and a pen in my hand, so desperately hopeful that I would have some kind of breakthrough by just acknowledging that my mental condition is real, that this experience is out of my control (despite how much control I like to believe I have over it). Nothing. So, I made the appointment and had a flurry of panic shortly after doing so.
Over the past few months, I’ve started more openly acknowledging that I not only live with generalized anxiety everyday, but also that it profoundly influences my life in ways I never expected it would. I am continually learning that maintaining anxiety management strategies, such as writing, is one important component in a large equation of other management mechanisms, such as (for me) therapy, medication, painting, supportive friends and loved ones, and plenty of alone time. I am still learning to overcome the stigma associated with chronic mental health conditions (especially one like anxiety, that many people don’t believe to be real), and the path to figuring all of this out certainly defies the American ideal of a linear progress narrative.
Yet, here I am, in late March, sitting at a café finishing this essay that you are presently reading to the sound of Rilo Kiley’s song, “A Better Son or Daughter” and occasionally picking up the “I” and the “O” keys off the floor. The routine of bending over every seven or so minutes to fetch the tiny, plastic, lettered squares off the ground is a welcome reminder that I am still here, anxiety and all.