Worry has always been an unwelcome companion of mine, one which I’ve never quite known how to treat. It has ridden my shoulder like a cartoon devil and whispered imagined calamitous possibilities in my ear. My penchant for worrying has been the butt of many jokes, usually those I inflict upon myself, and laughter always follows. After all, worrying to the excessive degree that I do is quite funny.
Well, it is until it’s not.
On a hot mid-September day in 2013, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). I received the news with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, knowing that doctors had a name for what I’d been experiencing for most of my life was comforting. On top of the usual undercurrent of worry which runs constantly in the background of my thoughts, I’d been experiencing panic attacks which had increased in both frequency and intensity over the past eighteen months. The last one I’d had was the reason I’d broken down and sought help in the first place. After a near-sleepless night filled with nightmares and an irrational fear that I was dying, I’d hyperventilated and nearly blacked out on my morning commute, prompting me to call 911. Finding oneself parked on a grassy, litter-covered shoulder, surrounded by flashing lights and being hooked up to a portable EKG monitor at six o’clock in the morning is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy.
On the other hand, the diagnosis meant I was mentally ill. That’s not something anyone wants to hear. Especially not a self-proclaimed control freak like myself. I’m the kid who voluntarily did all the work for every group project I was forced to participate in, from elementary school up through college. If someone else got a higher test score than I did, I became depressed. When I miss the perfect move in a game of Tetris, I quit and start over. Okay, maybe these examples just serve as more evidence that I’m mentally ill, but you understand what I’m saying, right? The inability to exert control over one’s own body is a tough pill to swallow for someone who craves control as I do.
Since that mid-September day, I have spent more time than I care to admit hating my anxiety. When it is front and center, my anxiety robs me of joy as it forces my attention away from whatever I’m doing and shines a spotlight on everything that could possibly go wrong:
When my husband is running a little late on his way home from work, I picture him cold and lifeless in a ditch, his motorcycle a twisted heap of burning metal beside him.
When I’m in our apartment alone, I picture myself falling down a flight of stairs, of breaking my neck and slowly fading away because there’s no one there to hear me.
When I don’t hear from a friend for a while, I imagine they have grown to despise me and obsess over what I have done to make them feel that way.
All. The. Time.
These thoughts never really go away. I’ve just learned how to ignore them. Or, when ignoring doesn’t work, to examine them logically and poke fun at their obvious flaws until they dissipate. If you’re into Harry Potter, think of it as my own personal anti-anxiety charm.
But that’s not always enough to quell the panic.
Last summer, I poured myself into writing what became my first novel, The Partition of Africa. I gave the main character GAD, hoping that would give me the outlet I needed to express the thoughts building inside my head. While having Hattie share my illness did lessen my burden, I was surprised to discover the process of writing itself was what helped me the most. The structure, the discipline, the self-imposed deadline – they all fitted together to form a mechanism which unexpectedly held me together. When I didn’t feel like writing, I pushed through because I didn’t want to risk losing this balance I’d somehow managed to obtain. When I wanted to give up, my anxiety – the very thing I hated – would not let me.
I don’t think my constant companion will ever part ways with me, at least not permanently, and I think I’m finally okay with that. I’m not grateful for being an anxious person, but I am grateful for what I’ve learned in my endeavors to control that aspect of my personality. I’ve learned that having a weakness doesn’t necessarily make me weak. I’ve learned that when I lack courage, anxiety can propel me forward in its stead. I’ve learned that, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no thought can make me anxious without my consent. And I’ve learned – or perhaps simply rediscovered – that I am more than just my problem.