Saturday, August 18, 2012


I have been wrestling with anxiety this year. Not just the run of the mill, kind of low-level anxiety that is normal around parenting, or money. But clinical, overwhelming, nasty anxiety disorder of the kind that sinks its teeth into your insides and then churns around in there. It has become a physical manifestation by virtue of feeling like I have something caught in my throat much of the time, or tightness and pain in my chest. It expresses itself as irritability, and makes me feel like any sort of decision or clutter or activity that I have to complete is completely unreasonable and out of reach.

The reason I'm writing about it now is that my husband heard about this book, "Monkey Mind," on NPR. It's by  Daniel Smith, and I cannot put it down. Smith is able to discuss the horror of anxiety that is only offset by his brilliant sense of humor. I downloaded the book yesterday and am more than halfway through it. I feel like I am no longer adrift in a sea of people who don't understand what this sensation is like. I certainly don't feel like my therapist understands it. I'm not sure my spiritual director gets it. My kids certainly just want me to stop being irritable and irrational about weird things. My husband is patient but mostly I am just so, so tired of this level of free floating anxiety that cripples my ability to enjoy the things I used to love so very much. Going shopping, planning meals, organizing my home, gardening, arts festivals, exercising - all of the normal things that I need to do had become completely untenable.

While I was in seminary and working and homeschooling, I was entirely too busy to give in to this attack on my psyche. I pushed it down and aside, and took medication and watched bad TV and drank wine. But this summer, I had nothing to do, except be. Be at home, be with my family, hang out with friends, unpack from our move. I became completely unmoored. It wasn't until I came home from two weeks of vacation and started crying every day that my therapist suggested the meds weren't working, the exercise wasn't working, the talking wasn't working. My brain was biologically changed from trauma after trauma after trauma. Real trauma, real struggles, and way too many of them. My brain had taken what was probably a low-level anxiety that I was able to channel in mostly positive directions for many years, and sucked all the enjoyment out of my life.

Smith describes exactly how I felt last week, after meeting with my spiritual director, who had helpful advice, and then meeting with my therapist, who suggested different medications (which are miraculously working after a week of feeling like I was at death's door). I felt pissed. Smith says that I'd "reached the point that comes in the life of most anxiety sufferers when, fed up by the constant waking torture, dejected and buckled but not yet crushed, they at last turn to their anxiety, to themselves, and say, "Listen her: Fuck you. Fuck you! I am sick and fucking tired of this bullshit. I refuse to let you win. I am not going to take it anymore. You are ruining my fucking life and you MUST FUCKING DIE!"And this anger is good.

As Davis says, "the first time that you experience anxiety that has no obvious connection to a logical threat, in a situation in which the vast bulk of humanity would fail to respond with anxiety, you know it. It feels wrong. It feels off. it feels crazy. This is good. It means you still have a chance."And I've known it since it manifested itself and have fought back like crazy. But boy is it exhausting. And most people don't even realize how large a struggle each day can be during these times. It's like suicide, or feces, or Mitt Romney. People just don't want to talk about that crap in the course of their day.

Sing it brother. I mean I know that I am not going to rid myself of anxiety. I need to learn to re-channel it and accept it and love it into a new form, and manage it when it's out of control. But what I've learned this summer is that I have *always* had anxiety. It is often an ironic gift in ministry, when we must be the non-anxious presence in the room. My own anxiety allows me to be highly attuned to others' anxiety and stress, and to react to that in a loving and compassionate way. Now if I could only learn to do that for myself (which is actually what my spiritual director wisely suggested).

Davis talks about anxiety (on it's good days) as something that "doesn't dull the senses; it sharpens them. It telescopes the vision sot hat you can concentrate on whatever the emergency demands, or on getting out of the way whatever tasks and obligations you have to get out of the way so that you can get back to the emergency. It's like Ritalin. It's like magic."

Anxiety in its best, most focused moments is like that for me, and it's what makes me a strong leader and a focused listener, and oddly enough, a non-anxious presence. It also leads people to describe me as "edgy" and "type-A" and "highly driven." It's a two-edged sword, especially if it gets the upper hand.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with insomnia, and began thinking about this book, Monkey Mind and the genesis of my anxiety. Not just the trauma-induced anxiety of 18 months of the life of Job, where I was still able to find little pieces of joy to keep me going (counter-anxiety, apparently), but the place where it all began. I could get all Freudian, I suppose, but I realized that I grew up in a house with an ill father and a mother who was trying to keep it together. It was an environment filled with anxiety. I mean, this sounds like a no-brainer, right, but for me, this middle of the night epiphany was profound. I can look back and remember feeling profound anxiety as an adolescent, which I won't go into here, but then I remember a time in my 20s when I had young children, my first husband and I were happy, we bought a house I adored, I loved my work and my mothering.

Those are the moments - that decade - that I can point to and say that anxiety was not a leading force in my life. Then my marriage fell apart, and I have spent the last decade wrestling with all of the normal things that life throws your way, and I realize that I have spent that last decade wrestling with anxiety to some extent that whole time. Until it finally rose up and smacked me down, and I finally reached that point that Davis talks about where I got pissed. That was just last week.

Later in the book, Davis talks about Kierkegaard's writings (The Concept of Anxiety) on anxiety (oddly enough, my 13 yo is named Soren, after Kierkegaard). He talked about freedom. How the freedom to choose causes anxiety. Davis says he "compared it to the dizziness that afflicts a person when he peers down into an abyss - there is always something specific behind the feeling. That something specific is the popping up of an option - a crossroads."

Davis says that because we are human and we have to choose, we want both things but can't have both "deciding always means being altered; and because alteration, however desirable, is always violent. Anxiety is the state a person has to pass through on his way to creating himself." My God! Isn't that what doing ministry is all about? Creating anxiety, holding the space, growing, choosing...

When I first started spiritual direction, years ago, I said to the woman, "I am so tired. I see how much more I have to change, to grow. When is it enough? I have been through years of therapy, school, growth. And yet there is so much more to do!"

Now I mostly relish in that growth and opportunity, but when my anxiety reaches its peak and it sees the freedom I have to choose and grow, it acts as a stifling force. It turns into a kind of imposed depression. But Kierkegaard also says that there are two types of peple - those who push through the anxiety and those who are beaten back by it. Davis says that "men look. They own up to ambiguity and conflict. They own up to reality." Again, learning to be a minister is about embracing ambiguity. About getting comfortable with it. I am beginning to feel that my husband was divinely led to suggest this book to me. (or maybe my ego is just out of control ). 

Davis talks about there being two kinds of sufferers of anxiety. Stiflers and chaotics. And he says that "chaotics are merely stiflers with weak grips." Ha! I would love to be a stifler, but I think on my best days I have a kind of controlled chaos. But on my worst, the chaos IN the world is too much for me, and sends me retreating. It is interesting to note that when I've been working, actively engaged in ministry, my ability to compartmentalize actually helps me to process and organize my anxiety into high functioning and a generally positive attribute. But this summer off - wow. Chaos would be a good word for it. I'm ready to go back to work. David experienced a high state of anxiety during his summers off from college as well. He thought it was the idleness, which does seem to exacerbate anxiety, but it was being home. And I think that's true for me as well. I have less control and more choices to make here in my home than in any other place in the world. The responsibility is never-ending and sometimes oppressive.

Another interesting thing is what Davis says about religion. He was brought up in a Jewish family, went to a Jewish college, but they were mostly non-practicing. What he said about his brother's response to anxiety stemming from their religion was something I could identify with as a Unitarian Universalist.

"We're surrounded by people who came into this world with these portable little bundles of certainty, these neat foundational texts. They don't have to go rooting around for comforting words. They were handed to them at birth - pre-edited, pre-legitimized, pre-authorized. There are almost seven billion people on the planet and ninety percent have scriptures. And what do we have? What did we get? Nothing. We're at sea. We've always been at sea."

So I'm rowing back to shore. And it's good.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

Kelly, I wish I had words as eloquent as yours. You have had much trauma in your life and the anxiety would seem normal to any who looked at your life. What they would also see is this strong, bull headed woman who always (in the years I have known you) risen up out of the ashes (sometimes literally).

I know of this anxiety you speak of as I have suffered to the point of complete incapacitation from it over the years. Yet I am not sure my life from the outside looking in would justify the kind of debilitating anxiety I struggle with. It is unexplainable and makes you feel as though you are suffocating or drowning.

You are a fighter and lyrics from a recent song come to my mind:
"Until the referee rings the bell
Until both your eyes start to swell
Until the crowd goes home
What we gonna do ya'll?

Give em hell, turn their heads
Gonna live life 'til we're dead.
Give me scars, give me pain
Then they'll say to me, say to me, say to me
There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter
Here comes the fighter
That's what they'll say to me, say to me, say to me,
This one's a fighter"

As always I am in awe of you. Your vulnerability, your perseverance, your weakness and your strength.