The worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing.
At the first faculty meeting preceding the new academic year this fall, our university president, Elizabeth Davis, about to start her second year, spoke in part about focusing on the Furman experience instead of always reducing one year of college or college entirely to what comes next. As I listened I thought about talking with my students about the Furman Moment.
This call for appreciating the moment resonates with me because I have no capacity for it. As someone who has always struggled under the weight of intense anxiety, I am forever plagued by what comes next, and I am captive to an overactive brain that not only perpetually cycles through what comes next, but also manufactures always the worst case scenarios for what comes next.
For those of us who wrestle with this irrational anxiety, worrying, and senseless anticipation of doom, we develop outward appearances of stoicism to mask our frantic brains and simultaneously tightening and exploding chests (one of several bodily torture spots where anxiety nests—including shoulders, necks, hips, and hands).
We also are prone to self-medicate, seeking ways to dial us back toward normal. For the anxious, relaxation, even briefly, even if a delusion, is a cherished holiday, a relief. Let us step just for a moment off the merry-go-round, feet firmly on the ground, and we are forever grateful.
And for me, along with the rare oasis of pausing the relentlessness of anxiety and the incessant internal monologue of my Self talking to my Self, the Holy Grail is to be with another person (usually only one for those of us who are also introverts) who has some either shared understanding or graceful empathy for this anxiousness that is irrational and ultimately embarrassing.
Yes, the worst thing about anxiety is that everything about being anxious is the worst thing, but the very worst thing about anxiety is explaining it every time you have to confess to it because you cannot view the world as most others do, because what is pleasure for many people is torture for you.
We learn to confess because naming a demon helps slay a demon, or at least hold that demon at bay.
But we anxious have a language that others do not understand, cannot understand.
And so we are often drawn to the wordless (a tragic paradox for the anxious who are writers)—a hand taken without comment, a hug or cuddling just to, these simple intimacies between two people who know each other, who know that sometimes everything is just beyond words. No expectations, no caveats, but the moment.
The great irony here, of course, is we anxious may dread physical contact or even being close to people virtually 99% of the time—the stress of casual proximity; the torture of ritualistic touching—handshakes, hugs—close talking, and crowds at social events. Let’s not even trudge into formal gatherings.
Anxiety, you see, is being overfull as a human too aware of everything. I mean Every Thing.
So full of recognition and sensation that we are spontaneous criers—more embarrassment—so we clench our entire bodies to try to hold everything in that is near to bursting through our eyes.
It is exhausting.
So as a late teen and young adult, I was immediately drawn to existentialism’s claim that our passions are our suffering, to the yin-yang concept of the impossibility of separating the light from the dark.
This was well before I recognized the anxiety, but I was quite aware that caring deeply was inseparable from feeling deeply anxious.
Relationships—marriage, a child—intensified these responses to the world exponentially, and then as I was more and more unable to manage all that overload of feeling this world, another response was to detach.
The hardest was my daughter’s teen and then young adult years when I had to set aside the urge to carry her around in my arms 24 hours a day. This is a universal issue for parenting, but for the anxious, it is the iceberg that sank the Titanic—others witness only the tip.
So now I am just a little over a year into being reminded of those wonderful and teeth-clenching years of parenting my daughter because she has gifted me a granddaughter.
A granddaughter just beginning her second year is a mostly wordless wonderment who when I am holding her in my arms while she naps is the most precious gift of relaxation an anxious human can enjoy.
A toddler, you see, often shuffles up next to you, a glorious proximity of closeness, raising her arms, longing to be picked up and held. These wonderful and precious years before she will quite literally beg to be left alone.
In the moment, she is wordless and affectionate with all the possibilities a child embodies.
There is more than a little guilt because of my need from this tiny child, to sit there and not worry in the moment because it is easy to believe everything is all right when a child is sleeping on your chest—a chest that is most of the day an artificial shield between the world and all the anxieties expanding there below the breastbone.
For me, my granddaughter sleeping on my chest is the moment I can live in, the evidence that for my students I must make the plea that they work on the very human skill of enjoying the moment instead of being always captive to the past or the unknowable future.
What I owe this granddaughter, what I owe my students—these are the things that make me whole because holding her and that wonderful time teaching, each is the moment that gives me pause and rebalances all the world.
The worst part of anxiety is believing that you are not good enough, believing that you are a fraud and that at any moment other people will discover your secret, at any moment you will be unmasked and all that you care about will be taken away—because that is the dirty little secret about anxiety that is the everything about anxiety that is the worst thing.