Well, my friends, what I learned these past couple of weeks is that anxiety is a hostage situation. I’ve often written about anxiety on this site, partly for the people who pass by here who suffer from it too, and partly for people who are lucky enough never to have experienced it (and who might quietly think that it’s a big old fuss about nothing). I’ll tell you what it’s like. Imagine that you are waking up one morning in your own bed. In the first dawning of consciousness, all is well, but then some almost imperceptible doubt creeps in; something feels different, unaccountable. The hair on the back of your neck rises, a shiver runs down your spine. You turn over and there, beside you, is an intruder, masked in black, pointing a gun against your head.
That’s how anxiety feels at its higher levels: as if you were actually in mortal danger. And because the lizard brain shouts long and loud and doesn’t much care if it’s wrong or not, it can be very hard to convince yourself that actually all is well, even if frustratingly, you are perfectly aware that there are no real threats in close proximity at all.
I used to dream about the gun man a great deal. He’d pop up in any old dream and turn it suddenly into a nightmare. But over the years, what was interesting was the way he gradually posed less of a threat. I reached the point where I’d have postmodern dreams, running the ending over and over in my mind, until the gun man was out of the house, or I remembered not to open the door, or I was in a place of safety or even, sometimes, until the point where I’d try to disarm him. My therapist at the time believed that the gunman represented my ability to force myself to do just about anything. Most people, he said, had a pretty fierce internal drive to self-preservation, where they would quickly stop doing anything they didn’t enjoy or found too taxing or that took too much time and energy out of their lives. Not me! Funnily enough, it was quite true that I didn’t have that instinct for most of my adult life, or was able to override it. It was useful. I got a lot done that way, and did all sorts of things I was afraid of, hoping that feeling the fear and doing it anyway would work for me. I have to confess that it never did, though. I just felt more afraid the next time I had to do it and I daresay those emotions accumulated and ganged together to mug me, as emotions will.
These days, of course, my life has changed completely. There is very little that I make myself do and I give myself a great deal more permission to say no. And of course, with typical contrariness, what does fate do? My son and my university career entered my life at almost the same time – I’d been a month into my PhD when he was born. Now, they are both leaving it, almost simultaneously. Rather than having far too much to do, and too many roles to juggle, I’ve suddenly got whistling wide open spaces. No university any more (and I still need to clear my room), and my son is impatient, as is only right and correct, to be free to start his own life. I used to feel too responsible, too important, and now I’m feeling oddly irrelevant.
Don’t think for a moment that I don’t realise what a great opportunity this is for me to try new things and redefine myself. I’ve been looking forward to it, and the time will come when I enjoy it. BUT. And it’s a big, big but, there can be no moving forward without some mourning, some processing of what has been lost. We concentrate far too much in our society on being happy all the time. I believe that the very insistence on skipping lightly and neatly over every negative is what keeps us persistently and quietly miserable. I can hardly say that I’ve enjoyed being anxious, but that anxiety took me by the scruff of the neck and reminded me that I’m in transition here, and there will be no skipping until a darn sight more processing has been done. Well, okay then!
So, the best news from all this is that I am finally feeling better enough to start reading again. It took me all week to get through a Lee Child thriller, that’s how bad it’s been. But I think I finally have my reading mojo back, and so I hope to be around next week with some proper reviews.