“The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.”― John Green, Turtles All the Way Down
I thought of probably 17 different ways that I could start this blog post, and none of them seemed to work as much – I've never related to a character in my life more than I related to Aza in John Green's book Turtles All The Way Down. This book felt like I accidentally intercepted John Green's pen and wrote myself as the main character. (No, I don't eat hand sanitizer, but we all have our hamartias).
As I read TATWD, I felt lucky and astounded at how much the book seemed to get it. Anxiety isn't something easily translated into language, but John Green has a way of saying pretty much everything in the perfect way.
“The worst part of being truly alone is you think about all the times you wished that everyone would just leave you be. Then they do, and you are left being, and you turn out to be terrible company.”
I read through the book and thought, "This girl is me," which was both incredible and incredibly sad at the same time. I can't pinpoint exactly the moment or the day when I started having problems with anxiety – I don't think most people could. But I do remember numerous occasions where I thought, "This is keeping me from being me."
I remember crying on the bus home from speech because I could feel the fabric of my clothing on every part of my body and the noise was overwhelming but my headphones weren't touching my ears the right way so I couldn't listen to music and it felt like my body wasn't my body anymore, it was just a shell that I was trapped in and couldn't quite break free of. I remember completely shutting down because a small list of tasks was too much for me to deal with. I remember feeling like I wasn't going to be able to make it through the next couple of weeks, because every event that was about to happen was too much for me to handle. I remember standing in a scalding shower, trying to make my body unfeel everything it was feeling. I remember trying to explain to people that my anxiety isn't just a bracelet I wear but can take off, its tattooed around my entire body and it's a bigger problem that you think it is.
“Actually, the problem is that I CAN'T lose my mind," I said. "It's inescapable.”
Unfortunately, even though it has been at the top of my Christmas list since the first time I read The Fault in Our Stars, I am not yet John Green. This means I'm not a world-renowned author who is strangely intelligent, and I can't quite explain things the way he does, even when I feel I know just as much about the subject area. If I tried to explain anxiety, as John Green did in Turtles All The Way Down, it would look a little bit like this:
Anxiety is the racist uncle that shows up to family Christmas despite having not been invited, but gives his two cents anyway. It's when your skate catches on the ice and you think you'll fall. It's when the hands on your clock stopped moving but you feel like years are still passing. It's when all of the radio stations are playing your least favorite song. It's when you see a spider in a movie and suddenly feel like they're crawling all over your skin. It's being handcuffed to your worst memories. It's rereading a book and praying for a different ending. It's getting a tattoo and then expecting it to rinse off in the shower the next day. It's broken fingernails and forgotten promises. It's the third friend on the sidewalk who hangs back but is still there. It's the one person who sings off key in a choir full of people on pitch. It's run-on sentences and forgotten semicolons. It's a spiral.
“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.”
As much as I'd like to pretend that my anxiety is something that has made me stronger and that I've grown from it, I haven't. Not yet anyway.
Anxiety is fitting for a blog about senior year because not only am I living with it this year, I'm living with it for my life. In a blog about me and my mom, anxiety is a regular guest. I feel like I'll never quite be able to explain to my friends and to others how it affects me and what exactly it is – but I revel in finding it as a connection with other people. Not because I'm glad someone else suffers from this kind of condition, but because it makes me feel a little less alone and a little more understood.
John Green handed little pieces of myself back to me in Aza, and I found hope in the realistic way he created her. Some characters will stay with you forever, tucked away in back pockets and hidden in boxes to save for later. Ava is one of my "saved-for-laters." Thank you, John Green, for allowing me to feel understood and hopeful, even if it was just for 304 pages.
“Your now is not your forever.” -JG
“There is no need to suffer,” which I’d argue is just a fundamental misunderstanding of the human predicament, but okay. -JG
Most of the time, writing this blog is so rewarding. Sure, I get sad with some of the topics, but in that my-heart-is-full-of-love-and-ready-to-burst way.
Which is the good kind of sad.
But this post…… it’s tricky. This post is about anxiety, and I get anxious just thinking about it.
1. Anxiety isn’t heartwarming.
2. It is certainly not fun to write about.
3. I have to decide how much I want you to know about me. How much is oversharing?
I would like to make it clear that I am not writing a medical research paper, here. I’m not telling you what the DSM-V says about anxiety, or what your doctor would say about anxiety. I’m not telling you what your anxiety is like, will be like, won’t be like. I’m telling you what my anxiety feels like, and my perception of my daughter’s anxiety.
Also, by the end of this post, I will have said “anxiety” so many times, it will sound like something Charlie Brown’s teacher says.
When my anxiety is truly anxiety, and not just stress or nervousness, there are physical sensations associated with it.
In fact, that is how I differentiate stress or nervousness from real anxiety—that physical sensation. I cannot control the hyperactivity in my nervous system—my body is suddenly not my own. Like I’m losing the ability to man the controls. Like the little green monkeys have grabbed the reigns in my brain, and they are working with the instruction manual from a previous operating system. Like I took medication that isn’t mine. Like I’m at an altitude I’m not used to.
My anxiety is 100 percent about fear. I hate to admit this. It attaches shame to anxiety. I know that part of coping is accepting and being present in the vulnerability that comes with anxiety. Soon, my fear of Abby going off on her own will become a real thing. I will have to find a way to deal with so many fears. But I will also just have to let myself feel them, to some extent. It is an appropriate response to the situation. Abby will be vulnerable. I will be vulnerable. But we will both also be ok.
Isn’t that so Brene Brown of me?
I'm not sure I totally believe it yet, but I'll get there. There is so much I want to say on the topic of anxiety and shame, but that becomes a post of its own.
Last night, I put myself to bed—just settled in for a long winter’s night, and all that. I was tired. Wearing my favorite pjs. Cozy. Got my pillow just right. My muscles relaxed. But then. One by one, the fluorescent lights of my brain switched on. Each one buzzing louder than the next.
“Hello! Hello!” The little green monkeys seem to say. “We are here! It is time to think! But not just think. OVERTHINK. You can do it—we will help you! We will stay lit so brightly that you can stare at the detail of something truly unimportant, and you will see it so well. And soon it will become something else. And you will fret. And you will become obsessed with the detail of said thing, and turn it around in your brain. You will have pretend conversations with it, imagining what you would say and should have said in every instance you can conjure. It will be great fun. And you just have to lay there and hand over the controls.”
So yes, I experience anxiety, and wish I could’ve passed something less debilitating on to my daughter. Like a Netflix addiction (oh, never mind, she has that). But Abby experiences anxiety, too.
I think at times, I have confused stress with anxiety in her. She is very conscientious and driven, so she takes on a lot with school and activities. It is natural that she would have some stress.
I see her anxiety play out when it is more a sensory issue. Certain types of noises will be more than she can bear. The feeling of her hair on her neck. Her sheets on her feet. She describes it so well above.
On the day she took the ACT at school, her superintendent called me. As soon as he said who it was, I thought, “Oh crap. Everyone else’s pencil scratching caused her to have a breakdown of sorts.” But he was just looking for volunteers for something. I overreacted.
Depression and anxiety often like to play together. I remember the first visit I had with a doctor about this. She told me that if they go untreated, they change the structure of your brain.
I’ll say it again.
Depression and anxiety change the structure of your brain.
W. T. F.
So cancer eats away at healthy parts of our body, and depression and anxiety eat away at functioning parts of our brain. Our brain. The control center. The computer. But people who do not believe in mental health think that you should just try harder. I can no more think away my anxiety than someone can think away cancer. Maybe we should tell that to people with cancer. Just try harder to not have cancer. Don’t be so lazy. Just stop thinking cancer-y thoughts. Stop bringing me down with how cancer-y you are. It’s so depressing. Except if it was just depression, it would be no big deal. Because you could just stop pouting. And you wouldn’t be anxious anymore either…..anyone else ever encounter someone like this? An employer maybe? <insert hard eye roll here>
But I digress….
Both Abby and I have talked to counselors to work on our anxiety, gain some coping skills. I think we will always have some anxious episodes. Life is a scary place. Especially if you live it inside your brain. We are lucky that our anxiety is not debilitating on a daily basis. I’ve lived with debilitating anxiety. I lost a job to it. It’s ok, it was a sucky job. But I didn’t realize how normal it was for me to feel completely shitty until one day, while walking my dog, I was thinking about what a great day it was, and how lucky I was, and how much I loved everybody. And then it occurred to me that I felt that way the day before. And the day before that. And then it occurred to me that I was happy. And that was just ridiculous. Happy? Content? As a new normal? Who did I think I was? Beyonce? And then I started to realize how far down the rabbit hole I had gone. And for how long.
Anxiety often starts with a rational fear. That’s why it can feel so justified.
Worrying is the correct worldview. Life is worrisome. -JG
But when I can’t talk myself down, and that fear gets a foothold in my wormy brain, it can get away from me.
The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely. -JG
As for Abby…
Adolescent sanity is so 20th century. -JG
(all quotes from John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down)