On Super Bowl Sunday, while I lay on a yoga mat in my writing workshop, instead of overeating and watching a blowout on TV, I breathed in and out deeply as instructed during guided meditation. And yet, my heart was pounding from nervousness at getting meditation wrong somehow.
I have anxiety in situations like this when anxiety is supposed to be furthest from my mind, like sometimes when I get a massage and my face is in that little squishy doughnut, or when I used to leave a yoga class and get in my car to drive away from the peaceful space ten years ago. It’s in my DNA. I am constantly fighting the battle against genetics, and mostly losing. I hate it. I often find myself thinking, Why can’t I just be normal?
This is my lot in life. I was born anxious, my stomach tight in a little ball, my mom says. Loud noises would set me into hysterics as a child, as did getting shots, or even sustaining the most minor skinned knee.
My anxiety has always been pervasive, overshadowing everything I do; albeit, it’s mostly manageable to the outside world. But I live in fear. Fear of failure. Fear of love. Fear of not being loved. Fear of car accidents. Fear of what people might be thinking of me. Fear of putting words on a page. Fear of not putting any words on a page. Fear for no reason when I awaken in the morning, trying to figure out what day it is and what I did the night before and what I have to do now. Fear of death. Fear of fear.
I come from a line of anxious people. My dad passes out at the sight of blood or when a doctor sticks a needle in his arm. My mom is claustrophobic. My grandma never leaves the safe confines of her antique-packed house, except to swiftly hustle to the grocery store and back. She never had a job, and hasn’t spent the night away from home in more than 40 years, except for in the hospital or a nursing home after angrily balking at every turn. My cousins agree that our one goal in life is to not end up like her, even though we sometimes see her in ourselves, so we fight it like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.
When I was in high school, a therapist told me to breathe into a paper bag when I was having a panic attack at school. She also told me to sing in the car with the radio because no one ever hyperventilates while she’s singing, right? Another younger therapist stared at me quietly, waiting for me to tell her some deep dark childhood secret that didn’t exist. I had nothing to tell her, other than my physiology was messing with my head. My anxiety is literally for no reason. She didn’t believe me. Her facial expression told me so. In my early 30s, a male therapist suggested I ask my boyfriend to marry me, instead of waiting in fear for him to do it. (He did it.) My marriage lasted six months. To this day, I’m leery of therapists.
I have minor reprieves. Xanax is tiny oval magic. I treat it like gold. When I take a Xanax, twenty minutes later I start to feel like what it must be like for most people on a regular basis: normal, relaxed, not worried about every-fucking-thing. When I take Xanax, I feel joy for a brief time, maybe four hours or so. I rarely feel joy otherwise. I haven’t felt true, unabashed joy in years, save for a few memorable occasions. The happy little pill gives me confidence I don’t otherwise have. But I don’t take Xanax all that often because I am not one to rely on drugs. I just want to be normal without them.
“Exercise,” people say. I do. Often. I run, walk, or ride the cross trainer about three times a week, or I can’t even sleep at night. But it doesn’t curb my anxiety for long. It just gives me time and space for my brain to find more things to worry about while I’m listening to music, trying to enjoy the sunset and the ocean view around me.
When it comes to my lifelong anxiety, I’m at a loss. It has had something to do with every major decision—or lack of a decision—that I’ve ever made. It’s the beast that sits on my shoulder, directing my every move—or lack of a move. I keep smacking the beast with the back of my hand, and smiling so people don’t know it’s there. I fight it and fight it, but it never really leaves my shoulder. It’s my Mini Me, and it’s not going anywhere. I’m not sure what I would do without it because it’s part of who I am, but I still want it to go away so I can have a shot of surviving without it.