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A few years ago now, my wife and I joined another couple from our hometown for a meal. Our dinner conversations eased their way into a discussion about mental illness. I remember my friend asking if I’d be willing to explain anxiety. What does it feel like? What does it mean?
I gawked at the question. “What do you mean you don’t know what anxiety is?” He said that he had never experienced anxiety and didn’t know what it actually was. If I am honest, I can’t remember a time that I have been more covetous of another person’s life.
It is difficult to read my own introduction: “A few years ago now...” Giving voice to the passing time reels the truth in. Has it been that long?
In truth, it’s been longer. I can trace the worst of it back to 2011/2012. I remember fear-filled seasons before that, as well, but those are the years that I associate with the onset of the worst of it.
In the past year or two, it has become crippling. It constricts my body. It feels like paralysis. Like life plateauing.
The mornings grew more difficult to wake up to. I grew to dread them for the way they’d allow for a few seconds’ worth of stillness—like heaven—before my body realized I’d woken up, and the air itself manifested hands that pushed down so hard into my chest that I thought I’d fold in two.
Work became almost impossible, like burnout combined with a complete lack of confidence that I watched walk away with no control over. Anger became my default emotion. I was so quick to it—irritability or resentful retreat—my two options for interacting with the ones I love most.
This is the clearest I have (or have been able to) articulate it yet. I’ve found resonance with the words of those I’ve sought out to try to understand what got me here. Descriptions like “a vague inner feeling of discontent” and “a generalized melancholy” hit so close to the mark that I read them out of someone else’s book and thought that I wrote them myself.
Most people, I think, are quicker to extend grace to others than they are willing to embrace it, themselves. I can’t number the amount of people I’ve encouraged to seek help—counseling, medication, whatever they need.
Whatever you need.
Whatever it takes.
It’s not weakness, it’s life. We’re made for one another.
And yet—for fear or for pride—it took me years to seek the healing I wanted to give to others, and as the adage goes: you can only extend a helping hand to drowning men if you’re not drowning, yourself.
I was drowning. And I use the past-tense not because the water has completely receded (it hasn’t), but because I think that I have, at the very least, started to cough it out of my lungs. Thanks be to the month of January and guest bedrooms at friends houses and God and my wife and travel, life finally forced me into a psychologist's office and a medical clinic and counselor’s chair, and none of it has been easy, but it’s all been CPR or the Heimlich and I’m breathing on the deck above the water and the undertow.
I wrote “Anxiety” at the start of this, thinking of my friend and hoping that it could be an explanation extended to those like him, wondering what the word means. Or perhaps it could resonate with others like me—an attempt at empathy that gives breath to suffocating lungs. Like the way that—even if it is in seasons of despair—knowing we’re not alone in them somehow breeds hope and resuscitates us.
One of the things that my anxiety has told me is that my story is too self-pitying or self-aggrandizing to share. Too cliché to waste everyone’s time on. And yet I know that through all of this, it has been in reading—to borrow a regular TWLOHA analogy—“words like friends” that articulate the struggle where I have found the most healing.
I read a prayer recently that I’ve repeated over these words:
“Make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy... Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.”
My friends, you are not alone, and your story matters. I will say it over and over until it becomes trite and cliché as the lies tell me my story is, and then I will say it again.
“You are not floating alone in this awful void.” And neither will the void last forever.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share these words with a community of people who have consistently exemplified consolation, understanding and love for so many people, for so many years, including me.
May these words be an extension of their care. May they be a salve.
and knowing how i’d shake sometimes,
he asked if i could help explain his wife’s anxiety,
saying every time he tried to be her sounding board,
he – in his lack of understanding –
became more an object of envy
while simultaneously reflecting her own disdain for
the stranger she found herself exchanged for in his chest like a mirror where –
for some reason –
the love behind it beat at regular intervals and normal patterns,
and only skipped when, and i quote, “she’d beat electric fists into me,
like defibrillating a healthy heart while she was under arrest.”
and she begged him to understand but – and i quote – “i can’t”
and knowing how she’d shake sometimes,
and try to communicate through stutters when the cogs in her mind jammed
and caught the wheel of another thought vying for her attention,
i – oh almighty i –
became more a silver lining
combined with a witch available to burn depending upon the outcome,
like maybe my tongue could breed magic that douses the fires,
and i quote, “staked between us.
they are high.”
(and i surmised, “and getting higher.”)
maybe i’ll light the match myself.
i thought of my own wife and wondered if either of them knew
what they’d gotten themselves into
when they got into it
"the shame compounds upon itself when all that i’ve begun to call ‘god’s platitudes’ don’t help and the shaking has given way to anger i can’t maintain, or a panic I can’t suppress as a fuse (whose length you can probably guess) constantly rubbing up against "strike anywhere matches," otherwise known as people.
flint so nonconsensual in the flame created by the iron i like to think of myself as that they find themselves at a complete loss for how they ever got so tangled up in the tinder i actually am.
the ones in closest and most consistent proximity light the fastest and burn the hottest and as long as i continue to describe them as the spark that is always setting fire to my rope then i can remain the victim.
alternatively, you will never cease to hear my omnipotence positioned in the phrase:
'oh, so it’s my fault, again?'
and in this way, i can make certain i am the first and the last, the beginning and the end,
so omniscient in every conversation that i can feel myself slipping away while i speak,
insisting that i am in my right mind.
is this making sense so far?
we don’t know who we are in here.
i understand that history only celebrates martyrdom for the ones
who didn’t make a spectacle of lighting themselves on fire.
she doesn’t want your sentiments.
we do not enjoy personifying the void any more than you want to be swallowed up by us
as black holes absorbing all of the light that you fell in love with when our stars were still exploding.
of course we envy the calm that emanates from the way you are able to choose which candy bar you’d like to purchase at the gas station.
of course we’re angry when you ask, “i don’t know, what would you like to share?”
as if we have any idea.
and if i’m already shaking because i can’t make a decision
between Reese’s Pieces
then how am i ever supposed to go fearless into our future
with every infinite possibility
lingering with chalkboard nails inside my head?
just pick a candy bar.”
if i could just get it out we might set one another free,
still – for some reason completely unbeknownst to me – firm in my belief
that the greatest gifts have been
beadlets of empathy sweat out as
pores drained of their blood
when the time has come to kiss in this garden,
and whether it is for passion or betrayal or both
beneath the dichotomy between words separated by and
“you are not floating alone in this awful void”
seems to retain its standing as the surefire echo of
i couldn’t get out a whisper.
the only thing i managed to do was shake,
but somehow, i think it was enough.
instead of burning the witch,
he looked at me as if to say, “i’ve seen that paralysis before."
mouth open as an echo chamber,
i guess that i was just empty enough for him to hear it.