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The weird lessons of anxiety

I have been writing about my anxiety for about five years now. I make my living by writing about my life in order to make other people feel better-—I’m just like you, or so my agent says. I’m just like you because I struggle with a lot of things, like bills and taxes and grocery shopping and men and most of all, an anxiety that makes me feel like I am drowning.

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As a writer, I often reference the metaphorical feeling of drowning, and boy, is it an apt descriptor for panic attacks. The easiest way I can describe it? I am underwater. I cannot breathe. The only thing I think about is the surface. My panic attacks have been with me for five years, and in that time, I’ve written two books that mention them, I’ve written countless blog posts about them, and I’ve assured every reader that stumbles across my writing at 3am that the anxiety will one day go away. Hopeful writers love making big promises. It makes them feel better about life and their own purpose and the world in general, in all its cardboard ugliness. I was one of those hopeful writers. I promised that bad moments are just one big tunnel you have to walk through, that your life was just a big rollercoaster of ups and downs, and that if you harness it well enough, you never had to surrender to your own brain and all the nasty things it does to you. Everything can be one big pile of motivational posters, sometimes, but here’s my real truth: in five years, I’ve barely made any progress in fixing my own anxiety. Is there a Hang In There poster that shows the kitten falling off the branch? But after all these years, I keep talking about my anxiety like it just might go away. It hasn’t. I am not one of those hopeful writers anymore. If you have panic attacks and anxiety, I imagine you get very tired of talking about them. When a friend brings them up, casually, as a way of catching up (how’s your mother, how’s work, how are you…feeling?), it can feel exhausting. I don’t know, we all want to say. Today it’s manageable. Just yesterday, my whole body felt like a pool noodle. Would you like a list of unusual things that frighten me or would you like to order another whiskey first? I know you might be as frustrated as I am that you can’t report back to friends and family as though anxiety is something that you experienced a few years ago, like nose rings or sleeping with girls in bands. I had my first panic attack at 22. At 22, I was a mess in many other, noticeable ways. I had enormously awful taste in men and clothing, and I barely ate produce. All my plants were dead. To me, panic attacks were the end of me—proof that I couldn’t handle anything, including my own thoughts. I’ve grown since then. I have three succulents in my house, and as far as I can tell, they are thriving. I have thrown out all my tights that have holes in them. I buy real garbage bags instead of plastic bags from supermarkets. And still, I wake up at 2:30 am and feel like an animal in a cage—biting and thrashing and howling into the night while my brain betrays me, once again. Why won’t it go away? Why, when I face the beast face first, when I write about it and talk it out, does it not get any better?

After five years, I have realized a few things: losing hope doesn’t mean you don’t have any left. Life isn’t a big hurdle to overcome. It’s not as easy as light overcoming dark. It is full of greys, moments without any stars to guide, and explosions of sunset. Without the flowery language: I am not a perfect success story. I don’t have to be. I do not know if I will ever stop having panic attacks. I suspect I probably will not. With this in mind, I’m not a hopeful writer anymore. I’m realistic, and instead of finding that reality barren and empty, I remind myself that it is full. It is full of people who know what I am going through. It is full of people who want to talk about it. It is not just a metaphorical tunnel. To call my life just a series of moments I have to get through is an insult to me, and to you, too. I’m a writer who talks about her panic attacks because I like the idea of “me, too”, of someone replying to my post saying “me, too.” It makes me feel like I am doing something right, like I am reaching out and people are reaching back. I can know that I am not alone in it. I get better in some ways, but better doesn’t mean perfect. It means I can handle it. That I can take what comes on. That I may feel like I am drowning in little ways, but by talking about it: I am not alone. I am in control. I can do this. And every time I write about it, whether I am feeling pain or relief, I know there is someone out there thinking, “me, too.”

When I first started talking about my panic attacks, I felt that familiar, warm feeling, a reason why I became a writer in the first place: camaraderie. Understanding. A room full of people who knew what I was going through. It was a mutually beneficial relationship—I would write well-constructed sentences that would encapsulate what they were feeling, and they would let me know they heard me, that I wasn’t alone in all of it. We were all there, on the same ship. The older I got, the more I felt like I was repeating myself. That eerie feeling of déjà vu when you try to explain how awful a panic attack felt, or how nervous and hopeless I felt leaving the house. It was repetition with barely any growth, no matter how many living plants I had. It was tiresome. Whenever I write something about my fear and a young girl sends me an email like I am the wise one, I do not feel great. I want to write all over every piece I’ve ever written. Big x’s. In red. I don’t know how to fix this. I am not better. I can’t help anyone. As a writer, it makes me sometimes feel like a failure. As a person, it makes me feel the same way. It can make a person lose hope. I did, but I got over it.

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