“It’s like…” I began to say, my eyes trailing over the outline of the closed door, my hands raised as if they would aid me in explaining what couldn’t quite be explained. I paused, considering my words and how hard it was to say how I felt. Finally, I tried, I was a writer, wasn’t I? Words were my specialty so surely I could define this. “It’s like it’s a monster, or a demon even. It’s this shadowy creature that sort of floats along behind me, just over my shoulder, and occasionally it attacks me. It possess me. It always seems to lodge in my chest and squeeze at my neck. Like, there’s a pressure there. Suddenly I have my reasonable mind that’s saying ‘this isn’t something to stress over‘ but this really, really loud part of my mind that’s going ‘no, panic! panic!‘ That’s what my anxiety sort of feels like.”
I dropped my hands to my lap and slowly, shyly, looked at my psychologist. I had never had a psychologist before, although I had many times in the past thought it would be beneficial, and now I was worried that she’d think I was insane. My anxiety had always been a minor issue through high school but it wasn’t until college when it began to twist into a mild depression. Upon graduating, I descended into a dark depression and when I found myself out of it and started my real adulting experiences, I suddenly was back to the anxiety of high school–but this time it was worse. This time it was all-encompassing and completely debilitating. Small ordeals became overwhelming and left me hyperventilating and in tears in my car. I found myself having full-blown anxiety attacks multiple times a week and then panic attacks began to occur not once in a blue moon, but weekly as well. Finally, with the urging of my boyfriend, I sought help.
“A lot of people describe anxiety like that,” my doctor offered. Whether or not she was telling the truth, I didn’t care, because I felt an instant sense of relief. I wasn’t alone in this, other people had similar experiences! “They compare anxiety to a monster of sorts. The key is to begin controlling that monster.”
So began months of therapy. At first I went twice a week, then I eventually settled into weekly appointments and finally, it was biweekly until my doctor and I agreed I had the necessary tools needed for handling the anxiety monster and keeping it at bay.
But to get to that point, I had to learn more about myself and the world around me, I had to find ways to deal with all that was coming at me so that I didn’t find myself overwhelmed and drowning. My therapist worked her way through an assortment of helpful advice and scratched off different options based on my replies. Was I religious? Not really. Did I find anything to be spiritual? The forest. Nature for sure. Preferably of the mountain, woodsy variety.
So much of my anxiety was triggered by the great “what if” and that was often the culprit of my anxiety attacks. I would be faced with an uncomfortable situation and my mind would get wound up with what the results could be. It’s always been my mindset, even as a kid. I’d tell myself the worst case scenario in order to prepare myself for disappointment. As an adult, I realize much of this was due to lack of opportunity in my small town and the lower class societal position my family was in. Persistence and hard work often paid off but not all the time, there was often disappointment, things don’t often work out for people who do not have a status within society or a ton of money. As an adult, that mentality got away from me when I had to face real life issues like the slow and awful death of my grandfather, the precancerous cells that formed in my cervix, or a narcissistic roommate. I knew I couldn’t continue living being frozen in place by overwhelming anxiety when faced with anything of discomfort, so I knew help was necessary.
Together we focused on the present, on what’s at hand, and the realization that no matter what happened there was an answer. But the presence of my mind, the ability to be mindful of the present, was completely key. I had spent years focusing on the possible outcomes of the future and was losing out on what was happening around me. I was allowing the worst thing to happen–for the life I was worried would be altered by bad things to be passed by because I was focused on possibilities.
But how could I be present? How could I focus? Go to the trees, my therapist urged, and it was within the trees that I was reminded of calmer times when I was a child or teen and would disappear into the thick woods of my home in New York. With dying apple trees from orchards long gone, prickly bushes that grew in pathways that were created by deer, I’d wander through the hilly woods of the Catskills and climb trees to sit and breathe. Often enough, I’d be there long enough for the woods to return to its natural state and animals to pass through underneath me, completely unsuspecting that I was watching and without a care in the world.
With practice, I carried that peace with me through the hectic life of DC government work; although on occasion I’d have to return to the woods to recenter myself. It worked, more or less, although I did find myself succumbing to anxiety on occasion when I felt particularly weak and without control. Recently, I’ve felt that lack of control again.
It’s triggered in the most sincere of ways, the biggest way to lose all sense of control. My grandmother, beloved by all her children and grandchildren, is fading from this world. There is no greater reminder of how little humans are in control than death. There is no way to prevent it, no control over the pain that will arrive, and I find myself being pressured by that monster of anxiety. It’s over my shoulder, leaning in, and I’m finding myself unable to focus.
For Labor Day weekend, I flew to Florida to see my grandmother. It hadn’t been a long-planned trip but one quickly put together a few weeks before we arrived. Her health wasn’t the best and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to see her in time. I booked a flight as quickly as I could and focused entirely on just getting from point a to b. We made it there, we saw her, we spent time with her, we conversed with her and made more memories, but it was still hard. I felt myself being pulled down, the anxiety monster taking cold, and was forgetting all I had learned from my doctor.
Then there seemed to be a simple, small, sign. I went out with my aunt and cousin and found Mantra Bands at a store. I had seen these before but no message ever truly called out to me. As I waited for my cousin, I flipped through the mantra band options until I came across one that punched the anxiety monster square in the face: be present. I had only been in Florida for a day and I had already become so obsessed with the possibilities of the future that I was missing the present. I wasn’t focused on the time spent with my family or the moments with my grandmother, I was looking at the painful possibility of the future.
I purchased the band, slipping it around my wrist and wearing it each day I remained in Florida. When I sat in my grandmother’s room I would play with it, tracing my fingers over the imprinted words. Be present, be present, be present.
Anxiety is a monster and something that is never quite killed. Sometimes, the mind can overpower the anxiety, other times medication helps, but every once in a while neither works. I know a silver band on my wrist won’t be a cure-all, but it can help to remind me of the power of my own mind and the necessity to see what is going on about me in the moment, to take charge of it, to commit it to memory.
There likely will not be a happy ending to the story of my grandmother and that pains me, but rather than obsess with the hows and the whens, I’ll look at the now. I’ll focus on where she is currently, what she’s doing currently, and how she was when I saw her a week ago and the kisses she gave me, quick and rapid against my temple like always, as I said goodbye to her.