‘Anxiety is the Hand Maiden of Creativity’ – T.S. Eliot
Anxiety is America’s most common mental illness according to Scott Stossel’s excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly (excerpted from Stossel’s book ‘My Age of Anxiety’).
The condition of Anxiety is going public, and anxiety-sufferers are kicking loose that closet door.
What’s taken so long?
The answer is as simple as it is frustrating: anxiety-sufferers are ashamed to admit that we are, in essence, afraid. We’re afraid of specific objects or activities—cheese, flying, speaking in public—and we’re afraid of forces nebulous and mysterious that we only know by the dread that shimmies in our guts and awakens us at three in the morning.
Culturally we industrious Americans are trained to face our fears, to buck up and confront, to prove that we are better than the shadows dancing behind our eyes. To admit that we’re afraid is to open ourselves up to derision. We fear that our fear will make people fall out of love with us, that it will cost us our jobs, that we are in fact the weak simpering cowards we know ourselves to be.
The comedian Sarah Silverman told an illustrative story about how she had a full-blown panic attack while bombing on stage early in her career. What kept her from returning to the stage for a time (it may have been a year or longer) was her fear that she’d have another panic attack. In her words, she feared the fear.
And if I had only one phrase to sum up what the condition of Anxiety is, it is that: fearing the fear.
The symptoms of Anxiety and panic are so uncomfortable, so rife with the perceived potential to cause chaos and turmoil (although Anxiety rarely actually causes these things) that most of us would do anything to not be afraid. We construct whole schemas of neurotic behavior in order to stave of what at best is an array of distracting physical symptoms and at worst is a full-blown panic attack.
So here’s the punch-line of Stossel’s article: the drugs don’t work.
To be more precise, the drugs that many anxiety-sufferers take in order to ease symptoms and to cope do help in some circumstances or for a period of time, but they don’t cure the malady. One of the distressing and frustrating aspects of Anxiety is that it appears in force at times of relative calm.
An example: My wife was forced into bed rest 20 weeks into her pregnancy with our second child. This resulted in me taking care of her and our 3 year old while working a full-time job. At the same time my wife focused on keeping herself sane and maintaining a positive frame of mind, I was having side-line conversations with our doctor about what a premature birth at 25 weeks might look like. 26 weeks. 27. The money we had saved to use after the child was born burned itself up weeks before his birth. And then there was the exhausting recovery my wife could expect in the years after delivering.
When did I start having panic attacks? Not during the bed rest or even in the weeks after my son was born (at 31 weeks). I was too busy, too focused. But about a year afterward, the Anxiety I had believed vanquished in my early 30s came roaring back with a tsunami-like force.
I was disappointed in myself. Defeated is a better word for it.
Over these years, as our second child has thrived and my wife has slowly recovered from the effects of bed rest and delivery, I’ve consciously enforced a regimen of meditation, therapy and, yes, drugs. At certain times, I use beta-blockers to ease the symptoms. And, agreeing with Stossel here, no one of these strategies is effective as a ‘cure.’ Certainly not the drugs. They help, but they don’t stop the thoughts, and the fearful thoughts are what ultimately get you.
The fear is out there. Always. Ever-ready to attack and make any ‘normal’ situation a disaster.
Lest you think I’m trending negative here, I’m not. I see such hope in the coming out of anxiety-sufferers. Understating here - Stossel and Kinsman are courageous to put their professional selves on the line in order to put Anxiety into the public discourse and expose it for what it is – a condition, an illness, that many of us endure in desperation and solitude. But no longer, right?
For me, I accept that physiologically I’m wired for anxiety. Anxiety is my go-to. Fear is going to be my life-long companion. Knowing I’m not alone in this struggle eases much. But knowing that there is no cure is also strangely comforting. This condition isn’t a failing. It’s an aspect of myself that makes some events in my life difficult, but my fear also fuels my creativity, my artistic life. If I hadn’t suffered anxiety throughout my childhood and adolescence, I wouldn’t have written anything.
I don’t want to be any other way.
But I do want to know that when I feel the fear, when the Anxiety is tearing into me, I have others around me who understand. Stossel and Kinsman have gone a long way into making sure I know I’m not alone in this.