Every time I see that great Eleanor Roosevelt quote “Do something every day that scares you,” my first thought is always Simple enough. Everything scares me. Which isn’t precisely true. I went back to college at age 47. I am not afraid of wild animals, public speaking, split infinitives, or others’ judgments about my life choices.
but my fear list is lengthy. I quiver in elevators and crowds and while sitting on the rim of the upper deck. I fear I’ll choke on a strawberry when I’m alone and won’t remember the steps of that self-induced Heimlich maneuver. A leaky roof fills me with existential dread, as does the length of time it takes to recall someone’s name when I spot them in the cereal aisle. I am genuinely afraid of being trapped in conversations with boring people. I am scared of prison movies and the possibility of being falsely accused of a felony. I wish I had never heard the phrase “hysterical blindness.” I recently watched Season 2 of “This Is Us,” and am now afraid of crock-pots. I am actually a little afraid of Virginia Woolf, as well as tableside accordion music and getting fired.
Oh, and I hate to break it to you, young parents, but there is no sell-by date on fearfulness about something bad happening to your kids. To this we can never adjust, but adjust we must just the same.
So yes, I am pretty accustomed to fear and anxiety, and even so it was an immense bummer recently when I suddenly reconnected with a monster I thought I had long ago slayed, or at least rendered unconscious with a bite from my poison apple. God, I loved seeing him sleeping there in his glass casket, guarded by kindly dwarves.
But The Beast just suddenly arose one day and jumped into my car at the I-271/I-480 interchange. That’s a fancy way of saying that after a respite of many years, I started to have panic attacks while driving on certain stretches of highway. Like a nut case. And also like a normal person with an anxiety disorder.
Allow me to cut to the chase. Yes, I am still driving, and yes, I’m getting help. The upside of previous experience is that at least now I have the cavalry on speed dial.
Still, it’s a slog.
Perhaps this is familiar territory for you; about 18% of Americans experience anxiety disorders each year. But if this is foreign, let me briefly explain that a panic attack is the brain’s sudden attempt to protect you by convincing you that you are in mortal danger. It releases adrenaline and ignites a host of symptoms from rapid heartbeat and sweating to feeling weak-limbed and, my personal favorite, “de-personalization/de-realization,” a super-strange sensation of feeling separated from one’s body.
Doctors will tell you that none of this is actually dangerous, but that does not stop it from feeling like it will kill you. There’s a powerful genetic component to anxiety, and trauma also can be a factor in its emergence. If you are a fellow traveler, you have my sincere respect.
What non-anxious people struggle to understand is that this kind of fear is impervious to logic. The person who has panic attacks before going onstage knows the audience is unlikely to kill him, but his brain won’t shut up about the danger.
At play is a more convoluted mechanism in which, for complicated reasons, parts of the brain that regulate emotions grab the wheel and take the person on an extremely unpleasant ride. (For a more technical understanding of the brain science of anxiety, I highly recommend the book Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle.)
If you have ever suffered a single panic attack and managed not to develop a fear of having another, congratulations, because panic tends to feed on itself. It can almost literally reduce a person from badass to bedridden, although it certainly doesn’t have to go that far. Highly functioning anxious people are as common as clouds. We are all around.
Some years ago, my husband started having weird symptoms that turned out to be a heart-rhythm problem. It seemed so scary to us at the time — it was his heart, after all! But then the surgeon who installed his pacemaker mentioned how straightforward the cure was. He compared himself to a mechanic making a routine fix on a car. That certainly calmed me down.
Yet the brain is not the heart, is it? If the heart is an early Chevy, the brain is Jackson Pollock. When things go wrong with the brain, it’s a jumble of drips and spatters, and good luck sorting it out, although we cannot help but try.
And in the trying, we cannot help but want to understand its meaning. Why anxiety? What is its purpose? Where does it go when it leaves, and why does it return? In what way is this illness useful to me? How does it SERVE me?
Spoiler: It doesn’t.
A wise doctor once described phobic fears as operating almost at the level of poetry or metaphor. Decode the language (“what does the 480 bridge mean to you?”) and you’ll be a lot closer to understanding what’s really triggering the anxiety. Believe me, this idea has instant appeal to a writer, and I really tried to make it work. But my decoder ring never gave me an answer that felt true. And now, I am pretty sure anxiety is not sending me sonnets. On the other hand, that same doctor helped me put The Beast to sleep for a long while.
But I think that I arrived in the world with a brain that fakes it like a champ, absorbing news of melting ice caps and plague and genocide and the reality that pets eventually die. Then suddenly it’s on overload, and in comes The Beast.
Maybe it’s as foolish to search for poetry in panic as it is to search for meaning in a sprained ankle. The anxiety just IS, until we inject some symptom management. Then it still IS, but less annoyingly so.
Why am I telling you this? Not for the sympathy, I promise. You definitely have your own problems, plus I just reminded you about the pet thing. (Sorry.)
No, I’m telling you because anxiety is outrageously common, yet somehow it still manages to back its sufferers into a closet. Anxiety trains its victims not only to be fearful of their fears, but ashamed of them, too. The Beast thrives in a midcentury ethos that equates brain dysfunction with character flaws. People will talk. Doors will close.
Pffft, screw that.
You may never know anyone more frustrating than a pathologically fearful person—a person who cannot be talked, joked or threatened into calm. If you live with a person like this, you know that when it comes to certain situations, reason doesn’t get you very far. This is that person’s burden or challenge, but it is not their fault.
On the other hand, you may never know anyone more badass and brave than the one who gets up each day ready to try, once again, to defang The Beast. It takes so much more energy than you can imagine, so much grit, of a kind. And sometimes—often, actually—they win.
So let the defanging begin or continue, and let it be witnessed. And let us be brave and proud.