When I was younger, I absolutely loved Little Women. As in, read it more than once a year, felt Jo’s anger and sadness every time Amy burned her book, cried every time Beth died, felt joy every time one of the sisters found their partner. It remains to this day one of my favorites.
I remember so clearly wanting to be Beth: kind, compassionate, full of empathy, always using my talents in service of others. And I remember, too, the day I realized I was like Jo: quick-tempered, impatient, proud, and stubborn. Like me, she struggles to accept these parts of herself that she sees as flaws. I cried for a week.
But here’s the thing. This whole journey with anxiety has made me see Jo – and myself – in a new light. She’s an incredibly complex character: full of struggles, yes, but she also shares so many of the qualities that I admire about Beth. Jo is unfailingly loyal, thoughtful, she has a good balance of boundaries and selflessness, and she is honest and genuine. As I’ve gotten older and gotten to know myself more, I’m learning that this mixture, this complexity, is really kind of amazing.
One of the things that’s the most helpful to Jo on her journey of self-acceptance is Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory that leads the reader on the path to righteousness. While I don’t really dig the whole religious side of this, what I do find interesting about this is the way it functions for Jo. It starts as a game that she and her sisters play to ward off the boredom of being stuck inside during a cold, hard winter. They all eventually discard it, but later, as Jo is struggling with her temper, she comes back to it and uses it as a way to be introspective about herself.
It was this idea of having something to work through that got me thinking. All of the things that I use/have used to help me have been awesome. In particular, Brene Brown’s books and therapy have really helped me start to get a handle on myself and to start to identify triggers and the root of the anxiety. But I started thinking that maybe it would be cool to have something that worked for me the way Pilgrim’s Progress worked for Jo: a mapped out, progressive journey with a clear beginning and a clear – if highly individualized – ending. So, I did a little research, and I ordered the Panic Attacks Workbook by David Carbonell, who is the director of the Anxiety Management Center in Chicago.
I love therapy because it has all these wonderful unexpected twists and turns, and many times I end up reaching a conclusion because our conversation has gone through things that seem unrelated, but are. It took me a long time to learn to love that quality. I know that if I wanted to, my therapist would work with me to develop more of a plan, but I don’t want that. I like that I never really know where a session is going to end up. It makes me feel like no part of myself is off limits, no part of my life is wrong or bad or needs to be hidden. It normalizes everything: my successes, my fears, my anger, my joy.
The workbook is a nice counterpoint to that. In some ways, it’s a lot like therapy because it will stop and ask questions, just like my therapist does. But there’s something about putting it in writing, and about completing it in my own space. It increases the sense of ownership over my progress and it gives me a tangible sense of accomplishment. Sometimes it’s hard to see the progress until I have an attack; then I can really see how much all of the work I’ve been doing has paid off. In between attacks, though, especially if I go months without one, it can be hard to stay committed. Completing the workbook helps combat that feeling of being complacent and slacking off. It’s active. Preventative therapies are awesome, and they do a lot for me. This helps support them because I’m not as worried that I’ll convince myself that I don’t need it, stop doing it, and then suffer because I stopped. I know there’s a clear stopping point, and when I can get there, I can make the choice about if I want to get another workbook or not.
I’m only about a third of the way through, and most of the questions I’ve had to answer are ones that I’ve already discussed in therapy. There have been a couple of small moments of epiphany, though, and I’m looking forward to more. It’s fun to see the pieces start to fit together.
I promise to keep you updated on my progress, pilgrims.