Notes from the Anxiety Well

In all great stories there is a third act where it is clear the protagonist is going to lose. But in the stories I like, they don’t lose. They get close. They move to the right side of rock bottom. But first, their suffering needs to go so deep, that it appears that not even a small ray of light could push through the depths of their darkness. But then one does, it gets through, and the protagonist realizes its just the flashlight of a cop who has come to arrest them. And they are pushed deeper still, to that final last sip of breath that makes everything feel more hopeless still. 

And they sit there, the universe challenging each individual firing neuron. They sit there like David Copperfield enclosed in a coffin, with handcuffs and a timer on the clock noting when his oxygen will run out. People watch and experience the cacophony of someone who won’t allow themselves to die. Someone who fights, who struggles to get out of the darkness, to free themselves from the trap. Some secretly hope they will fail, others couldn’t bare to see failure. Others know Copperfield’s too good to fail, and others just approach everything with a sense of hope. 

And when you’re in the trap, none of those thoughts cross your mind. There are no words, only feelings. Fear, exhilaration, hope, fear, grave fear, excitement, uncertainty, fear, elation, surprise, confusion, fear, exhaustion, elation again, excitement, hope, happiness, success.

Inside of the hamster wheel you feel trapped but instead of darkness, you are able to see through the transparent plastic. But no one can hear you. They stare but they can’t understand the movement of your lips. You could go forward, but you also know that if you move you could go spiraling downhill. So instead you stay as quiet and as still as you can so as not to rock the boat.

I wrote that on July 24, 2016, in the throws of anxiety. It was two days before my mom would go to the emergency room for the second time since my visit began on July 12th, and five days before her 72nd birthday, which was spent in the hospital. And for the first time, I gave this sensation, this feeling of being trapped, of being able to see but to not be heard, this feeling finally received a name, the self-diagnosis of anxiety.

Anxiety is different from depression, which is something I also struggle with, but somehow anxiety is easier to talk about, perhaps has less stigma attached to it and is easier to explain. Anxiety creates fear, but there is always a movement forward, towards the fear. Depression stalls you out, stops the momentum and paralyzes you. Fortunately, although depression sits within me and sometimes feels like a cold I just can’t shake, it rarely stops me. What anxiety does is to make everything feel overwhelmingly scary, even simple things, like driving to school.

I have an innate ability to push myself. And over the last six months, I pushed. But I never felt like I was pushing towards any success metric, which I typically set for myself to see mile markers. Instead, I pushed forward as a means of survival. And as I’ve begun to reconcile death and loss exactly four weeks since my mom passed away, I am faced with a new challenge. How do I create mile markers again? Or is it a better way of life to give them up entirely?

Let me back up, explain a little more, this bit of nihilism that rose from fear and anxiety, which is now a visitor that I can’t convince to leave.

On Tuesday, November 8th, we buried my mom. On that same day, the Argentinian company I had been working for told me I needed to return immediately or forgo the opportunity. I told them that I was fully capable of working, but that I couldn’t return immediately, considering I had just buried my mom. I was numb to giving up the opportunity and also couldn’t understand how people could be so heartless as to not give someone time for bereavement. And then, on Wednesday November 9th, at 2:30am Eastern time, unable to sleep because of the unanswered question that had plagued America since the beginning of the night, I checked my phone to see what the election results showed. And then, all of the momentum I had used to power myself forward over the previous months and days came crashing to a halt. It wasn’t enough to lose my mom, to lose a job and an opportunity to live abroad, but now I had also lost hope, and faith, and humility. The world shifted under my feet, the ground unstable, I woke up in a panic. Full blown, couldn’t breathe, felt my heart-beating in my chest and in my ears, recognized it as a panic attack, tried to breathe, then started sobbing uncontrollably, which got me breathing again.

That same panic which engulfed me on the morning I woke up to receive a text from my mom letting me know she had a brain tumor.

And so here I am, stuck in Act 3, unable to make a move for fear of awakening another beast. Imagine Die Hard, McClane just can’t get a break. You don’t think he’ll ever stop spiraling downward. But you so desperately want him to win. Now I’m McClane, afraid to make a sound that would alert the terrorists that I am still in the high-rise of the Japanese company where they are holding hostages. I am hiding under the desk, having come through battle, still bloody, and I’m waiting for a great idea to surface, an idea that will get me out of this mess.

I also know that I’m not alone. This unstable ground is something a lot of people are feeling throughout the world, particularly as they read tweets from the President-elect like this one that was posted on his account on Thanksgiving: “Hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving. But get ready, our country is in big trouble!”

Thank you for the vote of confidence Mr. President-elect. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for making the world a safer, more peaceful place. Thank you for being an example to my young children, inspiring them to want to be the President, the way their young obsessions with Lincoln had done previous to your election.

I am ready to come out of the darkness, to win after the hopelessness of the third act, I’m fired up. As soon as that plan surfaces…