Rambling thoughts from an Anxious Optimist
Anxiety is something I have lived with my entire life. I remember as a young child trying to articulate to my father the “voices in my head.” That was all I could get out. But they were worries, negative self-talk, worst-case scenarios, and what-if’s. They scared me and sent me to tears, but I felt I couldn’t speak about them, I literally didn’t know how to. When I was in Jr. High, I was incredibly depressed. Again, I didn’t know how to articulate all that I was feeling and I truly just felt broken. Like something, somewhere broke me, and there was no going back. Maybe I came into this world missing pieces in my brain and I was just different from all the other kids. I felt things too strongly, was too emotional, too sad, too much of an outcast. I worried I was destined to be stuck like this forever, or to somehow find my own way out. What an impossible mountain to climb alone!
I remember in school, one of my best friends and I tried to articulate our struggle with anxiety to each other. It bonded us to lean on each other, but how the fuck do you do that in your teens when you have no idea what you’re doing or how to help another soul with something as delicate as that? His anxieties were different than mine, but we understood we both had them. And I tried (as I sometimes tend to do with a lot of people) to fix him, give him advice to combat his illness, when really he didn’t need to be “fixed” at all, and I sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing. I was still learning to deal with my own anxieties, but I was one of the only people he’d told. I tried to carry the weight of his world, and mine, even though my intentions were in the right place. Circling back around now, in our late 20’s, I still speak to him from time to time. He now has a tattoo on his arm reading, Rise Above, beautifully reminding him he’s more than his anxieties.
At the time, I didn’t think this experience would shape me in any way. I didn’t think it meant anything to have a “I thought I was the only one” moment, especially at such a young age. But it was the first of many moments like that, a first of many stepping stones to the mountain I climb today, very much not alone (even when it’s not obvious). It’s not uncommon for people to have suicidal thoughts, deal with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses on a daily basis. For people to go through life feeling too broken, unlovable, too messy, yet, not to speak of the dark. They keep it in, push it down, deal with it silently. And yet, in the last 10 years, I’ve had conversation after conversation with people dealing with the same struggles. But they all still feel lost and alone.
Lately I’ve been overwhelmed by my anxiety and it’s exhausting. Mentally draining me from the inside out. I feel tired, but not physically. Somedays it feels like there’s too many swarming, over-thinking thoughts to even try to speak of them all. But like so many, I still hold on, even when it feels too hard to, even when my hope feels lost. Some days are just harder than others, and that’s okay.
I never shy away from speaking about having anxiety and depression. I’ve always been vulnerable and open on the subject. However, I realize now, I’m vulnerable and open in a somewhat general way. I still struggle to articulate my worries, negative self-talk, worst-case scenarios, and what-if’s. I still sit in them and think “no one would remotely understand this nonsense, I’m better off in it alone” or “I am too damn much for people, I feel too much, think too much, worry too much, who the hell would want to spend a minute of their day in this mess of a scattered brain?!” Funny enough, those in and of themselves are just irrational anxieties, but tell that to my brain.
It has occurred to me recently that with anxiety we try to assume what’s going to happen, what people are thinking, how something is going to go–usually by assuming the worst. And the unknown becomes crippling. We get lost in it and it becomes all consuming. It just feels like a scribbling mess of darkness. But it’s a bunch of assumptions. With depression, we sit in the past, wallow in the worst that has happened, and lose all faith in our future, sinking into a hopeless oblivion. But it’s focusing on negative memories. Maybe it’s not this simple…but maybe it is.
In a recent session with my therapist, she gave me a tool to try to help with some anxieties I'm currently carrying. It’s stuck with me in a lot of ways, and got me thinking even more about how to live everyday with mental illnesses. I know we know it’s a maintenance thing, but I think we’ve been going about it a little bit wrong. There seems to be a stigma to “get rid” of anxiety, to “fix” depression. But what if we hold hands with them instead?
I know, you’re probably thinking here we go the optimist, making light of an impossible situation. But hear me out. One of my current anxieties and limiting beliefs is waiting for the other shoe to drop. That there’s been a lot of positive things happen in my life after a lot of heavy and negative things, and I’m worrying when/if it’s all going to come crashing down. I’ve had some advice from friends to let that go, but my therapist said: don’t, hold onto it because it has a place inside you either way.
Letting go doesn’t always necessarily work and can honestly sometimes feel like pushing down instead. So what if we sit with it? She taught me to close my eyes, acknowledge where the anxiety was living. For me, it was in my back and it looked like darkness and felt like tension and pain. She told me to sit with it a minute and feel it. Then, she asked me to think about all the positive things in my life right now and acknowledge where they are living. For me, they were in my chest and looked like a warm, bright, growing, yellow light. She told me to sit with that for a minute, feel it.
“Is the tension in your back still there?” She asked.
“Yes, but it’s less.” I answered.
”Good, sit with them both, see them both. How does that feel?”
It felt like balance. It felt like a foundation. It felt like something a heck of a lot more sturdy to stand on than sinking or rising.
Sit with them both. Yin and Yang. We all have darkness inside of us. It lives within, even in moments of joy. We all have the negativity pulling at our thoughts, feelings, words, internal dialogue. It’s always there and more often than not when it comes to anxiety and depression, it seems to be a lot louder. But here’s the thing: there is always light too. Sometimes we have to work a little harder to focus on it, sometimes it’s just simply not as bright. So what if instead of trying to “get rid” or “fix”, we simply exist while the two tango inside us. We choose to see them both, acknowledge these two roommates, let them each hold their space. Maybe one day, one feels more prominent than the other, and that’s okay. The point is to let them dance, to exist, to acknowledge them and give them a face, feeling, or location. To know they’re there either way, and that’s okay.
I can’t help but think that if these are the struggles we bear on a daily basis, wouldn’t it help just a little to try to change our thinking on them? That maybe, just maybe if we can stand on them both, they could become something that carries us through life, instead of pulling us under. Again, maybe it’s not this simple…but maybe it is?