The Language of Anxiety

I did not know until years later, but at one point, my father’s anxiety was so overwhelming that he broke out in hives, left his job, and nearly was committed to a hospital.

That piece of information hit me when I was about 20 after I had started plumbing the depths of my own dark holes (that’s how I always saw them), that landed me in the emergency room with stomach pains so severe I thought I had to have some cancer or worse (and of course that made the hole even more profound).

And then, without getting too specific about it, I finally, well into my 40s, began to develop some coping mechanisms to deal with the whole nasty knot when I started to walk with my daughter through a period that ended up far worse than mine or my dad’s.

(Thankfully, she has moved on to a better place too, as we learned together how to tame the raging confusion—learning to go to our “rational place.”)

Like a lot of things—the constant ringing in my ears, or being able to do certain things with my left hand but incapable of doing them with my right and vice versatility—I assumed everyone had the same experience of the world as me.

I mean, I assumed that until I got to know my wife and realized that she simply did not experience the world like me. She let each day come, and each day go and wasted no time using those crazy tics that I used (secretly) to try to bring some semblance of control to those out-of-control places where I seemed to spend far too much time each day. No, she simply did not know about dark holes. Of course, like most people, she had moments when she was anxious—but those were the usual things that come with some big unknown: childbirth, marriage, or moving across the world.

Knowing others did not necessarily experience the (near and far) future as an inevitable place of reckoning did not make me feel lonely or inadequate or anything like that. But it did make me feel like I was going to have to live with this thing and that I was going to have to try to figure out how to think my way through it.

I say “think my way through it” because from an early age, and perhaps intuitively, I developed ways to just “step outside” sometimes and see my worries (as I thought of them) for what they were: vaporous substances that stood up to no rational scrutiny at all.

The problem with anxiety, though, is that, sometimes, by the time you realize what has seized you and driven you to chew off those fingernails to a dangerous and bloody level, clearing the vapor could take some time and lots of effort–days in some cases. And that was confusing.

The breakthrough I have made in recent years is to learn to identify the “hole” before I start slipping too far into it. That means a shorter “path” to walk back over to get to the origins of the most recent descent.

I know, I am mixing metaphors—anxiety as a path, anxiety as vapor, anxiety as a hole… But I have had to come up with a bunch of different linguistic handles to explain it to myself. So I think of each round of anxiety as having its own “foundation myth”—that event or experience that triggers a simple fear. Each series has its “force multipliers” the extra bad news that gets loaded onto a simple fear to make it seem doubly bad and dangerous. Each round has a “descent”—steep or less so—into some sort of dark space. And each has that thing, that “cataclysm,” waiting at the end that is always ill-defined but sure to be disastrous for me or someone I love.

(Quite frankly, I rarely experience that cataclysm as something that will happen to me; it is something that will happen to someone I love, and I know the pain of the loss will crush me.)

So, yeah, I have had to find my language to talk to myself about the whole process, and getting out has its word too—it is a “path.” It is a path I have walk back on—backtrack—to move past the “force multipliers” and discover that simple fear—that “foundation myth”—that always sits at the beginning, waiting for my return. And when I get there, I always feel the same: “So that’s what this is all about… are you kidding me?”

The “paths” have grown shorter in these past few years. Sometimes I don’t even get to the “descent” anymore, and I see fewer looming “cataclysms.” For that, I am thankful. I can “step outside“ more efficiently, and sometimes I see the “foundation myth” almost immediately, and that helps me get to my “rational place” so I can move out of my “hole” and face the challenges of another day.

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