The Anxiety Chronicles: Confession 1

Have you ever felt anxious? Right before giving a talk, or waiting on news that could be bad or good, or minutes before a first date?

Well, you don’t understand then; you don’t and probably can’t understand what suffering from anxiety is like because individual events of anxiousness or worry would be a relief to those of us who suffer the unwanted psychological cocktail of anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD (among others).

Colleen Flaherty has recently detailed the stigma of mental illness within the academy:

[Peter] Railton’s topic? His battle with depression, which he says he’s hidden for too long.

“As academics, we live in its midst,” Railton said, according to a draft of the John Dewey Lecture he delivered last week at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division in St. Louis. “We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are ‘educated’ about depression — we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”

In the same way that don’t ask, don’t tell policies implied that being gay was something shameful to be kept private, Railton said, the social codes surrounding mental illness prevent many who need help from seeking it. He encouraged those who have struggled with depression and related conditions, such as anxiety, to come out and share their experiences, rather than conceal them for fear of judgment.

October of 1999—my lifelong battle with anxiety (I’ll use that term for the cocktail noted above) became nearly debilitating. For almost 40 years, I had managed it, masked it so powerfully that when I was rendered unable to sleep due to some invisible force that gripped me every time I tried simply to lie down and then relented to visiting my doctor, he was completely unable to diagnose my condition.

A new partner in the medical group noted immediately that I was having panic attacks (although I reject the “attack” part in that it suggests incidences over the pervasive weight of anxiety).

Like Railton, I admit that possibly the greatest challenge with anxiety is that it becomes a vicious cycle of masking to hide the most embarrassing weakness of all: anxiety is completely irrational. In the rational world of academia, few things are worse to admit.

So my life within academia, higher education especially, is a constant but unenjoyable Merry-Go-Round of trying to explain the irrational to the rational.

“I don’t fly,” I explain calmly.

“You don’t fly?” the person always asks, as if this is unfathomable.

“I have flown,” I add, anticipating where the conversation is going. “And in part, that is why I don’t fly.”

“Just take something,” comes the next round.

“It is not the flying,” I continue diligently. “It is the entire concept, and thus, I would have to be medicated from the moment I knew I was going to fly and then until I returned.”

But virtually no one who ventures into this with me understands. Go back to the opening above.

There is nothing rational about a 54-year-old man with a doctorate and successful academic and scholarly career not flying but driving his car every day and cycling 9000-10,000 miles a year (and having been run over by cars twice during that 30-year hobby).

Nothing rational at all.

But if you are interested, I can detail that anxiety: I hate any sort of formal situation (generally they make we want to run to anywhere else), I hate not knowing (and this isn’t about control; it is genuinely about not knowing), and sleep is both the most wonderful thing ever in the human condition (during my collapse in 1999, I was on sleeping meds and cannot explain the joy I discovered at 38) and a constant struggle (I often wake in the night with one or both hands gripping the headboard, white knuckled).

And just as it took decades for me to recognize my anxiety, I have been forced lately to see that my daughter likely shares some of these challenges (although I had been fooled into thinking that she is quite unlike me) and that my granddaughter, fists always clenched and feet crossed and flexed, will soon carry on this unwelcome family tradition.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Other Stories

If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I’d say, “Clench your fist. Now hold that for 54 years and then get back to me.”

While that is entirely fair, it really isn’t helping for those who sincerely wonder what this anxiety is like. So as I mentioned above, my anxiety is a pervasive condition, a fact of life from which I basically never have any relief (except for the cycling, which appeases both my OCD tendencies and creates durations of pain that nearly shut off my mind).

It is a constant (and I mean constant) internal dialogue not of a split mind, but one singular mind that functions simultaneously in the irrational and rational worlds.

Exhausted yet just thinking about it? Sorry, but that is getting you close.

Michael J. Totten, writing about the popularity of zombie narratives, explains:

The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety”—and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.

And for me, The Walking Dead (graphic or TV series) is exactly that—a recreation of living under the weight of anxiety. Rick Grimes and his band are under the relentless fact of zombies, forced into an irrational world of the living dead.

With Season 5 and episode 12, the power of this TV series to portray anxiety is now in full view.

Safely behind the walls of Alexandria and apparently among new friends, the primary characters have a different challenge:

Much of the episode “Remember” deals with the group learning to live in a new place surrounded by strangers. Although everyone can have a new house, the survivors sleep together, play it safe. They have every reason to worry, every reason to find safety in numbers.

Living during the zombie apocalypse is never being allowed to live in the moment, existence dominated by the glaring light of the next moment.

Living during the zombie apocalypse colors everything, as Rick tries to explain:

Rick’s interview with Deanna is the most important. He keeps telling her—and everyone else—not to trust him. Not to trust anybody.

“You should keep your gates closed,” he tells Deanna. “Why?” she asks.

“Because it’s all about survival now, at any cost,” he replies. “People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live.”

“Are you telling me not to bring your people in, or are you already looking after this place?” she asks him, but he doesn’t answer.

And I think this is why so much of the TV series focuses on night, as viewers watch Rick, Michonne, and Daryl sitting awake or suddenly waking in this new safe haven.

Anxiety as a disorder is relentless as the zombie apocalypse; it fosters an irrational response to the world that feels completely rational while you are inside it.

Just a couple days before The Walking Dead episode above aired, I read “Sleep” by Haruki Murkami from his collection The Elephant Vanishes.

“This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep,” the narrator, a wife and mother, begins, adding: “I’m not talking about insomnia.”

Like The Walking Dead, this story can be read as a story of anxiety about a woman who admits, “It was literally true: I was going through life asleep.” Reminding me of Kafka (Samsa lives a bug’s life before the transformation into a bug), Murakami transforms metaphor into the literal.

The power of this story, I think, is the careful and gradual blurring of the narrator as rational and then irrational due to sleep deprivation, all the while maintaining the ability to narrate in a reasonably controlled tone (a narrative mask).

The main character also echoes Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger, who admits one can adjust to anything (prison or not prison is no difference): “Without noticing it, I had become accustomed in this way to a life without books.”

Murakami’s story details a woman who can no longer sleep but believes that condition allows her to live life more fully, although as readers we watch as she becomes more and more isolated from the world, notably her family:

No one noticed that I had changed—that I had given up sleeping entirely, that I was spending all my time reading, that my mind was someplace a hundred years—and hundreds of miles—from reality. No matter how mechanically I worked, no matter how little love or emotion I invested in my handling of reality, my husband and my son and my mother-in-law went on relating to me as they always had. If anything, they seemed more at ease with me than before.

“Sleep,” then, falls into an existential tradition of literature in which the human condition is portrayed as starkly alone: Samsa as bug in a human family, Meusault as heartless murderer and social pariah, and this sleepless woman who loathes the faces of her sleeping husband and son.

“In other words,” she explains, “people live in the prison cells of their own tendencies.”

And as inadequate as words may be, I have to confess that this captures well what anxiety is, the prison cells of our own tendencies.

But prison cells we did not choose, do not deserve, and like the haunting lyrics of the California rock of my teenage years, prison cells where we can check out, but never leave.

3 comments

  1. Jenna Fournel

    What a powerful piece Paul – you do an incredible job of helping me to see what it’s like in this space and this gives me a new appreciation for the gift of thought you offer us regularly in this blog.

  2. Audrey Kalman

    Thank you for this. Having come recently and late in life to anxiety, I find that sharing my experience is not always as easy as it seems in theory. Nor is it something that non-anxiety-sufferers can really appreciate. I surely didn’t before I had the experience myself. It’s one thing to understand on an intellectual level, even through excellent books such as Scott Stossel’s wonderful “My Age of Anxiety,” and quite another to have the emotional experience. I’ve always felt my head and heart to be somewhat at war; I wonder if people who experience this are more likely to suffer from anxiety? On the other hand, I am a big believer in the role of biology and chemistry.

    Your thoughts on The Walking Dead are fascinating. It’s one of my favorite shows, and now I’m beginning to see why that may be: it has such deep emotional resonance. The Haruki Murkami book is on my to-read list, too.

  3. Pingback: The Anxiety Chronicles: Confession 1 | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

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