Lenny, or: my relationship with anxiety

As you guys know, I’ve been struggling with anxiety for decades now.

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Two! Two decades! Ah ah ah.

In the course of my journey with anxiety, I think pretty much every verb under the sun could have been used to describe my relationship to it. At one time or another, I have interacted with anxiety in the following ways(this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • ignored it
  • fought it
  • accepted it
  • denied it
  • been irritated with it
  • been devastated by it
  • welcomed it
  • been scared of it
  • hidden from it
  • talked to anyone and everyone about it
  • given it power
  • managed it
  • forgotten about it
  • been surprised by it
  • thought about it
  • cried about it
  • been angry with it
  • let it go
  • hated it with the fire of a thousand suns (shout out to those of you that caught the reference)

 

I’ve learned that it’s an ever-changing relationship. And it IS a relationship: while I haven’t chosen it the way I have chosen to be with the dude(and will continue to for all of time because let’s face it, he’s the best), I’m inextricably connected to anxiety. Outside of my relationships with my family, my relationship with anxiety is the longest I’ve had, and it’s like any other personal connection. There are good days and bad days. I think about it a lot. Sometimes it irritates the hell out of me. I have to work at it. It requires trust and vulnerability. And, even years in, there will still be surprises and things I didn’t know.

There are always going to be things about it that are unexpected. There are going to be things that are totally predictable. What worked one day may not work a month later. I may expect it, and find that it’s not there. It may blindside me. While I can mostly make an accurate guess as to when I’ll be feeling anxiety, what will have triggered it, and what might help, that is by no means a given.

I used to hate this part of anxiety. I’m honestly just never going to make friends with the semi-unpredictable nature of it. I’m never going to like that I carry this thing with me. That sometimes my brain hijacks my mind and makes me feel impotent. I’m always going to resent myself for not getting help sooner, in the same way that I’m going to be grateful for that very same thing, because it allowed me to see the depth of love that surrounds me and is headed my direction. My relationship with anxiety is like David’s relationship with his mental health in Legion: I simultaneously hate it and don’t know who I am without it. It’s a twisted, weird, co-dependent relationship that looks a lot healthier on some days than on others.

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FYI, I totally imagine my anxiety as Aubrey Plaza in Legion because, why not?

I’m never going to not think about it. It factors into almost every choice I make: I always want more coffee, but I never have more than two cups because I will flip the fuck out. I rarely make plans on weeknights because sleep and yoga have such an impact on my emotional state; if I go out, odd are I can’t practice and/or will get to bed late. Which is fine for most people, but for someone who gets up every day at 6am and for whom sleeping in is 7:30 – if I’m lucky – that’s kind of an issue. I keep meticulous records of my exercise and self-care so that I have concrete data and can look at it to help me identify why I struggled during a particular time or why it was so great. My work husband and his partner travel all the time – they went to Iceland for MLK weekend just because they could – but it’s really hard for me to do that. In theory, I would love to just up and go to Rome for a weekend and play Audrey to the dude’s Gregory Peck(if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to see Roman Holiday ASAP). In reality, I know that I would be running through my endless to do list when I’m supposed to be wandering around Roman ruins, worrying about returning to work with jet lag, worrying about sleeping/eating/being in a new place, worrying about packing, worrying about all of the things I’m responsible for that I didn’t get to resolve before I left, worrying about money, worrying what happens if, what if what if what if. I’m not saying I can’t handle that, because I can, but my chances of saying yes – to anything, big or small – go WAY up during the summer when I’m not teaching and/or when I can plan ahead of time. My schedule is, and has to be, so stupidly strict during the school year that even going home half an hour earlier than usual feels like a huge gift.

As frustrating and claustrophobic as such a regimented existence can be, it works for me. It helps me to be better at my job, because I’m organized and have to think through things in advance. It helps me be a better partner, because one of the things I track is if the dude and I have quality time together that day beyond our usual check ins when I get home and before bed. It helps me be a better friend; one of the things that’s been really difficult about this process is that I’ve lost a lot of friends. Not because they were judging me or thought something was wrong, but because I made a choice to make my mental health and that management of it a priority. This might mean that I don’t respond to texts quickly, or that it seems like I’m always saying no to invitations. The friends that have stayed in my life have – through explicit conversation or intuition – been able to make that shift with me. On one hand, that’s been great because I’ve stopped sacrificing sleep and yoga, and because I’ve been able to see that our relationship isn’t one sided. On the other, it makes me sad for the friendships that have ended. And I’m culpable in that; I can think of a couple of people who I love dearly and who deserved a conversation from me about what was going on with me and the changes I needed to make. I didn’t have that conversation. I fucked up. If I’d said something, I’m sure they could have accommodated me. It’s also a two way street, though, and there are friends who I would have expected to keep reaching out who didn’t. I can’t be mad at that, though. It’s hard to be friends with someone who rarely wants to go anywhere, especially if you love doing that.

As I said before, my strict schedule helps me manage anxiety because it ensures time for yoga and sleep. It also forces me to practice not only self-care, but forgiving myself, too. When this school year started, I was up to my eyeballs in work with no relief in sight. I tried so hard to maintain my schedule of yoga five days per week, and I did – for two weeks. For months after when I would set my weekly goals, I kept writing that I would do five days of yoga even though I knew I’d be lucky to get four. And for months I kept feeling disappointed in myself because I wasn’t meeting my goal. I kept setting it that high for a number of reasons: I was trying to ignore how insane teaching an AP class is; I’d planned a class from scratch before so I should be able to do it now, etc, etc. I kept holding myself to a standard I’d been able to meet when my life looked different, but my life had shifted. I didn’t move my standard to accommodate that and I ended up feeling like I was failing myself. A few months ago I decided to give myself a break and set my weekly yoga goal to four. And you know what? I’ve hit that almost every week since. By giving myself extra flexibility one afternoon per week, I’ve done so much for myself. I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve become better attuned to precisely how often and for how long I need to do yoga to maintain my equilibrium. I’m given myself some space to breathe and now I don’t feel as harried at work. That one tiny shift has given me what seems like so much more space, and I’m proud that I was able to recognize that I needed to make it and to put it into practice.

Sometimes I still really forget that I have anxiety. I can go for quiet a while without it intruding on my life, and I’m thankful for that. One of the things I’m relearning this year, which feels like a total DUH in hindsight, is that it is absolutely triggered by emotional stress. I think the reason I was having trouble seeing this before is that my emotional stress was tied up with other kinds of stress like travel or a time crunch. But this year I experienced anxiety when none of those things were happening: one of my classes has a couple of students who have extreme difficulty managing their emotions, and some days it’s all I can do to stay in the room. Outwardly, I’m able to stay calm and keep the rest of the students moving forward, but inside it’s like there’s a predator and I’m the prey. My heart starts beating faster, I start sweating, and a few weeks ago I even feel nauseous right before this class started.

It’s gotten better, and I don’t have a stress response when they come in anymore, but that was super rough and threw me into a spiral where I was questioning who I fundamentally am as a person and if I should keep teaching. I’ve never had person-specific anxiety happen before; I always feel kinda nervous on the first day of school, but never have I felt anxious about my students at this point in the year. I learned a lot from that. I learned that I’m more emotionally invested with my students than I think I am. I learned that anxiety pops up for me when there’s something I’m not dealing with (again, duh, but it takes longer to realize this stuff when you’re not in therapy). I learned that I shouldn’t hide from the dude; he came in to say goodnight to me one night and I was crying and, while I tried to calm myself down, I gasped a little too loudly. He ended up spending like 45 minutes listening to me spill my guts about what was happening at school and he gave me some awesome advice. And then he was like “I can’t believe you tried to hide it.”

And, honestly, I can’t either. I should know better at this point. But that’s the thing about anxiety: it wants you to keep it secret and keep it close. It wants to be your one friend who always convinces you to do something stupid and/or dangerous against your better judgement but somehow weasels out of it and leaves you to take the punishment all on your own. Anxiety wants to be your dirty little secret, because that will help it grow into your big dirty secret. It wants you to be scared of it. It wants you to try to avoid it instead of dealing with it so that you don’t see what it’s really up to. It wants to hide in the corners of your mind where you glimpse it in passing and aren’t sure it’s really there until it’s destroying part of your brain to the soundtrack of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good.” (I am so sorry to the people who don’t watch Legion because I’ve referenced that like four times. But it’s awesome and if you’re into weird tv shows, you’ll love it.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this year has reminded me that the relationship isn’t over. Anxiety and I are not in the stay-up-all-night-talking stage anymore, but believe me, by no means are we about to break up. And while sometimes I fervently wish that anxiety would decide that I’m not long-term commitment material and give me up for good, I’m also kind of glad it’s still around: it reminds me that I am resilient, that I am smart, that I am vulnerable and able to meet a challenge and loved. It reminds me that, most of the time, life is very very good. And if I have to feel pretty shitty sometimes to feel pretty great the rest of the time, sign me up.

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