I’ve been eating a lot of anxiety lately. Family members are in hospice. A friend is having some troubles. My child is getting ready for a big audition. The news says that the people in charge would like me to sit down and shut up and do what I’m told, and that compassion and empathy are character flaws in weak, elitist snowflakes like me.
Anxiety, like guilt, is one of those garbage emotions if not quickly followed by action. Sometimes that action is a mental one, like carrying your fears to the peak of possibility, playing the “what if” game. What if my daughter, despite all her efforts, doesn’t get into the orchestra? What if my friend’s family is ripped apart by a careless system? What if my country continues to drift further and further away from the things I value? What if religion is the law of the land, guns are diplomacy, and women are forced to be baby factories?
Sure, it sounds irrational, but that’s the point of playing what if. All that is required is an imagination and to be surrounded by blaring media outlets that suggest we are on the brink of civil war with our neighbors, literally and geopolitically. Anxiety is exhausting and demoralizing and sometimes we don’t even know how much of it we have until events resolve themselves.
I went to bed anxious about that raccoon climbing a building in St. Paul. The news, this morning, that she’d made it to the roof made me start crying. I’ve realized that I’ve been clenching my jaw all week, that I’ve been carrying this tension in my neck and shoulders.
I wrote a post about suicide over the weekend and it weighed on me to have it out there. I write freely these days, mostly unashamed and not embarrassed about my vulnerabilities and failings. But I wrote about my parents and that worried me. It’s hard to tell my story without revealing theirs. My mother eschews all technology and will likely never read most of what I write. She’s always been forthcoming about her own flaws – maybe that is where I learned it from.
It also made me think about how mercenary I am about my life these days. Have I reached the point where nothing is sacred, nothing is private? Have I relied on my weird little life to make me this kind of memoir-ish writer that will never be anything else?
At some point, when the cacophony of anxieties reaches an overwhelming level, I yell at myself enough already! I sit down and make a list of everything that worries me, from the monumental to the petty. There are pointless, irrational things like what if I die before I get published (um, I’ll be dead, it won’t matter) to big things like what will retirement look like? (the same, just me, a lot older).
Writing is all about giving the world some organization. I’m great at organization. Labels on boxes (though not on people) make me happy. When I write things down, I am emperor, strategic commander, philosopher, and tactician. Ephemeral ideas become these manageable, concrete things in ink. Anxieties become what they are – silly or issues on which I need to take action.
I am persistent about facing things now. I haven’t always been. Like a lot of people, I can use compulsive activities as bandage on the rawness of anxiety. At my age, though, and in my circumstances, they feel like tired reactions, done with an eye roll and a laugh of regret. Those few moments of relief after stuffing my face or making a compulsive purchase disappeared a few years back. Now it’s just reaction, habit, another problem to be fixed.
When I thought of being older, I imagined that I’d be this calm, wise, centered person who let things roll off her back – that my persistence and tortoise-like thought processes would serve me well. And yet here I am, preparing to make another list of things that keep me awake at night. I am still dealing with some of the same anxieties that I felt when I was 15 years old. 4,037 lists later.
There’s no great lesson in this, I suppose, except to say that there is value in persistence and that you use the skills at your disposal to make life manageable. The trick is to know what those skills are, when to rest, and when the only way forward is up.
This was a lazy stroll into “raccoon as metaphor” land. You’re welcome.