The Anxiety Files: This Land is Mine and I Can Choose What to Let In

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For the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving at a velocity that frightens me.

Most of this activity has been necessary—work demands, groceries need restocking, and friends have birthdays that need celebration—which made it okay for a while. But then, this miniature season of vibrating stress started to feel more like a state of being, and all my protective walls began to draw themselves up.

At some point in the last few days the strong current of life-moving-a-little-too-fast intensified into a flood. I could feel it in my body. The stress took on a dangerous physicality. My heart beat had become a bang, even when I was still, and inside my rib cage, my lungs snagged on rib bones, sharp, painful breath. My fingers fluttered. A tight, heavy ache had set into my shoulders, and my pupils were constantly dilating. Stress had hijacked my body, and, to extend the metaphor, was about to hand the controls over to my illness.

Anxiety is a darkness that lives inside of me. It feeds on stress. It delights in my fraying. It is chemical and inhuman, and it is intent upon my undoing. I know this, because I’ve been undone by my anxiety, been ripped apart and left hollow by onrushing adrenaline and unchecked cortisol in my bloodstream. I’ve been left bared and scared and sobbing in a downtown transit station by the toxic chemical imbalances that do deadly things me.

When I was first diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I had no tools. I was given a vocabulary and a set of breathing exercises and a prescription for Zoloft. For a long time, that was enough. That was a compounding miracle, actually. That alone helped me. The medication steadied the neurological reactions that I still don’t fully understand. It allowed my body to become healthy again. It gave me the time to seek out the rescue I needed, and then, after I’d come back to the land of the living and the laughing, it gave me the safety to experiment with other weapons against my anxiety.

There are some tricks I’ve learned—apples and chamomile tea helps, as does deep pressure on the tops and sides of my shoulders—and some powerful coping mechanisms—deep breathing can reset the nervous system, and loud music distracts my thinking. There are a handful of other weapons I’ve gathered, that do more than just beat back the anxiety, but actually serve to feed my humanity. A phone call to a friend or to a parent can stop a panic attack in its tracks. And very little can stand up against Isaiah 43:2, because “when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

More than all of these things, though, I think I’m learning how important making choices—before I hit the point of panic—really are. I say “I think,” because this is such a new revelation (a baby of a thought), because maybe I’m totally full of shit. But maybe I’m not.

At least for me, panic and anxiety operate entirely outside of choice. If I slips into the really heart of anxiety or panic—that tenting of vague, oppressive, overwhelming fear and danger—I’m usually past the point of choice. I’m in survival mode, and I am hanging onto whatever edges of reality I can, hoping that when I emerge, the damage won’t be permanent. (I have to believe it never will be).

But that period beforehand—that time that I was in this week, where I could feel the flood of life intersecting dangerously with anxiety, but before I was caught up and swept away in it—I am still autonomous.

This life I have, this body that I’m in, this soul—they’re mine. They’re mine to be the gatekeepers for, and they’re mine to protect from the threats within and threats without.  (Those of you who are wiser, more experienced, less blind are saying what did you think they were, Torrie.)

This land is mine to let in and let out, and if I am healthy enough, cognizant enough, tuned-in enough, I can chose to pull up my walls against the external factors that trigger my internal illness. This weekend, I took Friday off. I sat in a coffee shop, and I read. I wrote. I edited my novel manuscript. I stared out the window at passing cars. I watched individual leaves shake and stir in the wind. I had lunch with my dad, and I drove with a friend on errands errands. I moved slowly, and I breathed deeply, and I weighed every decision by the questions what will this let in? and what will this keep out?

And you know what? I feel like a whole person again.

My fraying edges have been bound up, and the internal shaking has been stilled. My anxiety has been beat back down, and for a little while at least, it should stay there.

My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Rocky CoastIn the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me.

After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

Harsh Rocks

I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.
  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.
  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.
  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).
  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

Pebbles

For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.

Bookshelf: “She’s Come Undone”

I read. Incessantly, obsessively. I’ve turn the car around because I’ve left my book at home. I bring books to Target, to work, to friend’s homes, to parties. (I always bring a book to a party; it’s my shield against agoraphobia.)

As much as I love reading, though, I hate reviewing books. (Same with movies). The way that a piece of writing, or a particularly story, hits us is so subjective, so dictated by inherently subjective factors. At least it’s that way for me. Reading is intensely personal and intimate, which means that I love or hate a book, it has more to do with me than it does with the actual book. I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m sending out my “good-bad” judgments out into the online world.

All that to say this: I just read one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a long time, and I want to talk about it. (A recommendation isn’t a review, right? Or maybe it is, and I’m just contradictions and hypocrisy.)

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Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was published in 1992, and I think my mom read it pretty quickly afterwards. I was born that year, so I have spent most of my life knowing that this was one of her favorite books. The summer before I left for college, she bought me a copy of She’s Come Undone at a thrift shop, and told me that it’s a coming of age story about a fat girl, written in such a convincingly and authentically feminine voice that I won’t believe it was written by a man.

It took me five years, and four tries to finally read the book, and when I finally did, I loved it. (See what I mean about reading being highly subjective? I wasn’t in the right mood/frame of mind/attitude to read the book the other four times I tried, and thank God I didn’t read it then).

This book washed me clean. It’s all brokenness and hope. This searing portrait of redemption cut across a lifetime of ugly pain. I finished it this afternoon, and when I did every nerve was ringing out with the overwhelming, aching beauty that I found in this book.

It was this small story, stretched out over years and years of one person’s lifetime, about exactly what my mom had told me: An overweight girl fighting through all the demons and angels that life handed her. (My mom was also right in saying that Wally Lamb writes an incredible, real-as-day woman in a first person voice).

As a reader, I sunk into the story line, and could hear the voice of Dolores Price telling me to read another chapter, just another few pages, but this book impacted me as more as a writer. All 600 pages of my airport paperback copy, I felt like I was sitting underneath a fountain. There’s this double-sided thing that Lamb does, where he writes about the violent, ugly, and hateful with same intimate, emotional grace that he uses for the lovely, splendid, and poignant, and the effect is just magic. He writes with this power that stripped his characters bare, stripped his readers bare, and then somehow brought us all up together, more clothed and more human.

This book moved me, and it taught me, and it’s going to stay with me.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Stone House FlowersOne of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip.

Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don’t know if that’s true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she’d been one of my grandma’s primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was still at my grandparent’s townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in a fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard,
frothy green carrot tops and poppies,
my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease.
I joined her for a harvest,
Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body.
She closed her eyes and I
fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden,
and filling it with her last calla lilies,
I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises,
where I found her vase
tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips,
sweet as the ones she blessed herself.
Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand,
where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes
and now leave flowers in her broken vase.

Wildest Grace in February’s Gray: Fighting Back a Crippling Anxiety

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It’s nearly the end of February, and I think most people agree that February is better behind us than in front of us. Too far past the first snow fall, a white Christmas, and the novelty of winter, and too close to the snow melt, the return of birds and open water and roadside flowers. It’s a month of gray—February gray. The gray of a city, state, an entire region, blanketed in snow, spattered with slush, dyed dull by the wind, and kept ironclad by the weak sun.

It’s a smack-you-upside-the-head-and-make-you-wonder-why-you-left-your-mother’s-womb gray.

February scares me, and not because of the cold or the wind or Valentine’s Day (who honestly likes this holiday), but because February once tried to tear me apart.

Or, more accurately, anxiety once tried to tear me apart in February.

During the winter of my freshman year of college, the ‘10-’11 winter, the winter it snowed so wet and heavy that the Metrodome collapsed underneath the weight of it all, I got smacked down.

I spent the first five months of college feeling increasingly not-quite-right, but also not-quite-wrong—more reserved, less passionate, much crankier—and then, on February 1st, the bottom fell away. I got turned around and lost on a Twin Cities bus line, and when I was dropped off in downtown Minneapolis instead of the northwest corner of St. Paul, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop for nearly fourteen hours. I cried while I wrote papers, cried while I read, cried while I talked to my friend and new roommate (who didn’t know any better than me what was happening), and then, after a full day of tears, my parents picked me up from my dormitory to take me home—their house was the only place that felt safe.

I was eighteen years old, barely half-way through my first year of college, and I felt like I had already failed.

It seemed like all that college had taught me was that I was not the person who I thought I was. That I was much less of a person, a scared shell of the girl I wanted to be. In those dark days of early February, crippled by something I could neither name nor describe, I convinced myself that that was all that I was ever going to be.

Everything scared me, but it wasn’t a fear that I recognized. I was alienated from the outside world, crippled by my own distortions, living very much on the outside of people and on the inside of myself. My dormitory seemed foreign, campus, though I really loved my classes, was overwhelming in size and scope. I thought I was a burden and an inconvenience in the friendships I was making—thank God that the sweet girls and women who were befriending me never let me push them away. I anchored myself to bad TV, and thought that I was without value and consequence, nothing worthy within me. Better to atrophy than try to make empty look full.

Scared at how I was shrinking away from the world, my parents rallied around me like a two-man army, and helped me find help. I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a minor panic condition. The chemical messengers in my brain, designed to keep fear and adrenaline in check, were short circuiting somewhere along the line, allowing my blood and my brain to be charged with false fears and paralyzing insecurity.

The diagnosis gave me a name and a language to put to the yawning chasm within me, but it did not stop the hole from trying to swallow me. I spent the rest of February, the rest of that spring, clawing through darkness to get at the light.

People who loved me planted themselves, like trees, alongside me, and let me use them as touchstones and as footholds. My parents, though they were as confused and as afraid of what was happening to me as I was, pressed back against my distorted reality. My friends, these sapling friendships that hadn’t been given time to bud, rose up like an old-growth forest, and gave me shelter.

My recovery, my fight back to the surface, followed the seasons. Through the dull gray of February, when I felt dark and cold at deep, deep levels, into the ugly, melting renewal of March, until all of a sudden, I found myself awake and alive—and glad to be it—watching Seattle light herself up from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

By the grace of god, with the help of family and friends and doctors, my anxiety—generalized anxiety and panic disorder—has fallen back. Not gone (I don’t think it will ever be gone), but what once was a wrecking ball is now a tapping, a reminder of what I need to be healthy, but no longer a thief coming to destroy. It’s been four Februaries since my illness tried to beat me down, and every year above that darkness is celebration and triumph.

A wildest, February grace caught me in my free-fall, and lifted me back up.