Here’s the dirty little secret about anxiety. It creates your fears and then pretends to keep you safe from them. Like an abusive partner, anxiety says you are a loser, that no one really likes you or loves you, that nobody’s really your friend, that everyone is using you, pretending to like you. Everyone, of course, except your anxiety. Anxiety says it will protect you because it is the only one who really knows you, cares for you, loves you.
At first you try not to believe your anxiety when it tells you to skip the party, cancel that lunch date, ignore that job opportunity because it will only end badly. So you go to the party but spend most of the time in the bathroom or standing in the corner intently scanning the books on the shelf and hoping no one will notice you. You apply for the job, but tell yourself you don’t really want it. You have lunch with your friend, but when she asks how things are going, you say everything is great and blather on about the weather, the food, that new TV show. It’s safer that way. People can’t hurt you if they can’t get close. But then, anxiety moves closer. It fills the void like carbon monoxide, tucks you in, lulls you to sleep, and then smothers you with the blanket. It’s banal until it’s deadly.
At least, that’s how it is for me. Sometimes I don’t leave the house for days. I cocoon myself in projects that justify my solitude. I clean and organize the kitchen cupboards, the bedroom closet, or my desk. In springtime, I consume myself with weeding and pruning the garden. I am desperate to be alone, just me and my anxiety that whispers, “I will protect you.” Even the prospect of making a simple phone call can send me fleeing to a pile of rubble in the back of the closet, which in my mind, must be organized right now. That phone call will have to wait.
When I was young, my favorite part of swimming lessons was learning to dive. Most of the kids were afraid to plunge into the water headfirst. They would stand at the edge of the diving board and balk at the last second, which often led to bellyflops, coughing, and flailing arms. I longed to break the water with my outstretched arms, to make way for my head to enter, and for water to fill up my ears. The indoor pool was so noisy. The echoing voices of parents and kids, instructors shouting in order to be heard, and the constant shrill blast of their whistles. All of it went away the moment I entered the water. I learned to dive so deep I would touch the bottom with the palms of my hands, right myself and then push off the floor with my feet to return to the surface. And every time I wondered how long could stay under without drowning? How long could I shut out the world? Would anyone notice if I failed to resurface? Would I want them to?
My anxiety has been on the verge of bubbling over for months now. I’ve used the spring cleaning and gardening tasks, real and imagined, as a means to stay safe from real human interaction including ones I’ve deliberately sought out. The result is that I am heading off to my annual writing retreat with no writing to share. Every time I sat down to work on my submission, anxiety told me it was safer to do the laundry or organize the bookshelves. The thing you have to know to understand the nonsensicalness of this is that this writing group is comprised of the kindest, most supportive and generous readers and human beings a writer could ask for. So who or what was my anxiety protecting me from? Where was it conjuring up this fear from? As I asked myself these questions, I found myself going back to a quote from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers:
A part of you is refusing to write, and if that part of you is so strong that it is calling the shots, you had better start listening to it. Find out why it refuses. That ‘it’ is you.
“That ‘it’ is you.” The kindness I know from these writers exposed my anxiety for the fraud it is. My anxiety was keeping me safe from myself, from the part of me that experienced past hurts and makes me fear future ones. My anxiety convinced me I not only had to hide from the world but also from myself. Deep down it’s not the sharing that keeps me from writing, but the opening up to myself about the hurt that is necessary for the writing to happen in the first place. My anxiety has been calling the shots for years, keeping me from family, friends, and myself. It’s the shadow surrogate of all who have injured me, pushing me deeper and deeper underwater, drowning me in the false security that I can out-swim the hurt with silence.
This is painful to write, but it’s the pain of sucking in air after rising up from the depths. The only alternative to the pain is death. Next week I will arrive at my retreat where the pool is not deep enough for diving and a porch full of friends watch over you while you swim. It is my chance to keep writing, keep breathing, and trusting that there are people who won’t let you drown.