On Anxiety

For the past month I’ve been attending Anxiety Club. I can’t tell you about it because like all important clubs it has those unbreakable first two rules (you don’t talk about it, yo!) I was skeptical about how much it would help.

Everyone has at some point felt that their problems are unfixable, so tangly not even a specially designed hairbrush can unfuck those knots. But what if your problems really are things which can’t be fixed, like illnesses without cures, friends and family getting sick and you adopting the role of mere bystander because there’s literally nothing you can do, friendships and relationships being inextricably…challenging? Are you meant to learn to live with the unsettling fear your body whirs with, which I can only describe as being made to watch nothing but Johnny Depp films post-2000 for the rest of your fucking life, or is there a way to calm the fuck down and exude positivity and find a way forward through the sick street mess your life is? 

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I used to be a strong person, if there is such a thing. Not that I think there are simple categories of weak and strong, a detectable level like a BMI of how much gumption you’ve got. But my mum raised me to never fucking give up which, for the most part, has served me well. Trouble is, this can also be an underwater weight pinning you to the sea floor if you can’t separate out the things it’s positive to never give up on from the things you really shouldn’t slog at if it’s at your own detriment. And this might sound terribly simple, like a times table you already have instilled in your brain, but for me this is an important measure. When is it time to give up on something? Is there ever a moment you’ve given everything you can? And are there moments you’re trying but shouldn’t? Can not giving up force you to stay in situations you absolutely shouldn’t stay in, purely because you don’t want to lose out on the Scout badge you’ve been incrementally working towards? These questions and more are totally tied to my anxiety.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 10.28.21I’ve become a bit obsessed with Cheryl Strayed, and not just because Reese Witherspoon going on a really long walk is up there with Whiplash as the best of the Oscar fare. Her other role, alongside being an impossibly brilliant woman of the ungiveupable variety, is as problem page writer for The Rumpus, Dear Sugar. A compilation of her columns is the first book I’ve read in 2 years (before you berate me for being a writer that doesn’t read books, you should learn the facts which are both medical and TV related), and the letters she answered were always helpful, whether I’d experienced the problem expressed by the letter writer or not. 

Along with anxiety, I’m a lifelong sufferer of guilt, which I can in part attribute to my upbringing at Catholic school, though that can’t be the complete story, as my brother and sister aren’t similarly afflicted even slightly. I must have been born pre-disposed to it, like so many of the other fucking devastatingly beautiful shitfests my life contains. But my guilt is as ever-present as my sarcasm, and to lose it completely would be to scrape off a layer of heart flesh, like knifing colourful mould from cheese so you can eat it. 

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Strayed addresses guilt head on, and her words might be mantras, because there’s nothing more revolutionary to me, in this moment, than her declarations. I guess I gravitated toward her right now because I’m in Anxiety Club, because I’ve got a complicated plate in front of me, because what was meant to be straightforward and obvious isn’t. Strayed is therapy alongside CBT and Mindfulness (and that’s a topic for another day, because I have far too many words on that particular trend).

“What if I forgave myself?” is one of my favourite sentences in Wild. “What if I forgave myself?” It seems so simple but, trust me, it’s not. And the brand of guilt I’m programmed with means my first response to any situation, whether I’m at fault or not, is guilt. But for the things I’m truly sorry, the things I shouldn’t have done, or are questionable, or I can’t change, what if I just forgave myself? What if forgiving myself was the only way forward from all of this? 

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Perhaps one of my problems, and one of the reasons I’m stuck in my unpliable brain right now, is that as a late-life atheist, I’ve been raised with a man in mind meant to save me and forgive me for any faults I make as long as I’m sorry, feel bad, repent and beg for another chance. But what if I’m only responsible to myself? Can’t I just forgive myself, and know that a part of my journey included this complicated-as-fuck period in which I had to join Anxiety Club in order to get some perspective? What if I forgave myself? No Prince Charming, Jesus, George Clooney, superhuman male figure ready to swoop and exonerate me. Only me, forgiving me. For everything.

Guilt’s not the only reason for joining Anxiety Club, and there are absolutely pieces of information I’ve taken home with me which I’m concurrently melding with American TV wisdom to form the tenets of my new brain structure. But guilt is an intrinsic part of who I am, for better or worse. As for anxiety itself, or stress or depression, even if it sounds like the worst thing you could ever do, go to those workshops or clubs, appointments or classes, even if they initially make you more uncomfortable or anxious than you were before. Eventually something will sink in: osmosis is inevitable. We’re too quick to blame ourselves, to get into a cycle of feeling like shit which we can’t get out of. But what if we chose to believe the opposite, put the work in, and believed we were better? That our histories didn’t have to be perfect, and every questionable or terrible thing we did, made us, and continues to make us.

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So I’m adding a rule to Anxiety Club, and it’s all Cheryl Strayed: “What if we just forgave ourselves?” It’s what I’m going to be working on, and never not working on, now.


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