What Anxiety Feels Like (For Me)

I went to therapy once. For exactly a year. I don't think it worked.
Publish date:
December 18, 2012
therapy, mental health, anxiety

Oh, this again.

Right now there’s a weird charging in my body and my limbs, like a weak current of electricity -- not enough to hurt, just enough to be uncomfortable, to skirt the edge of pain, to flirt with the threat such that I am restive. Like there is something crawling around inside my skin. I have to move. It’s not a common sensation, but it's not exceedingly unusual either. Sometimes this electricity keeps me up at night; sometimes it wakes me up at night. And yet when I am awake all it makes me want to do is sleep.

I get up and walk from one room to another room. I think that I should eat something, maybe that will help. So I go into the kitchen and stand there, helpless. Do I cook something? Do I make a sandwich? Can I even bear the effort to draw out a knife and cut up a piece of fruit? I can’t decide. There are things on the counter and dishes in the sink and it’s overwhelming. It all seems wildly complicated and time consuming and I have something else I need to be doing.

I leave the kitchen and go back to my desk. I sit and stare, repeating words in my head so quickly they resemble a magnetic hum: Think of something. Think of something. Think. Write. I fixate on some small item on my desk, become obsessed with the idea that I was supposed to put it somewhere. That I should put ALL this stuff somewhere. Go minimalist. Clean, flat surfaces everywhere, like when Eddie went through that phase on "Absolutely Fabulous." That will fix it.

I get up and go to the living room, stand in front of the couch. Look outside through the front windows. It’s overcast, edging on stormy. The ocean is thick grey murk; you can see the coldness of it, if coldness is a visible quality. Everything is monochromatic. The sky is grey. The sand is grey. The sea is grey. I realize my heart is pounding hard and fast as though I am being pursued.

Back to my desk. Think of something.

In the bathroom, even my face looks strange to me, like there’s a piece missing. All my features are there, yes, but something’s -- not right. Maybe it’s the lighting, maybe it’s the lack of mascara. I start to panic. What, exactly, is not right?

I lie on my bed and listen to the fan. Eventually, maybe, as a last resort, I will swallow a tiny solitary white pill, feeling guilty that it has come to this, that I could not manage it on my own.

I have problems admitting that I cannot do something, that I have run out of cope, that I am not OK.

I’ve always been pretty tightly wound; as a younger person I used to call it, in a vague hand-waving way, “stress,” albeit it was stress that even as a teenager was causing me bizarre physical symptoms, like when I spent my senior year of high school waking up every morning with my lower legs and the palms of my hands covered in livid red hives that would stay there until third period.

In other words, it wasn’t what most people meant when they said “stress.”

Some time ago, not long after I finished grad school, I went to therapy for a year -- exactly a year. I was motivated because I had developed a sort of anxiety trigger mechanism that went off anytime I was confronted with uniform patterns that had interruptions in them. Wait, I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. For example, if I saw a brick wall in which some of the bricks were broken or missing, I would internally freak out.

I say “internally” because you probably would have had no idea that I was freaking out, because I am superlative at keeping my freaking-out-ness under tight wraps. Anyway, I would see this brick wall -- or any interrupted uniform pattern -- and my skin would start crawling (this is the worst) and I would get flooded with that familiar fight-or-flight terror and all the while I’d be forcing my face into this “normal” placid expression so no one would know.

I realize this makes me sound incredibly crazy. “Interruptions in uniform patterns?” What the fuck is that, Lesley? Who cares about broken bricks? I did. I actually still do sometimes, although the caring is nowhere near as all encompassing as it once was. I came up with that admittedly clinical and detached description for it because it made it easier to describe to someone else -- better, anyway, than twitching and saying I HATE IT WHEN BRICKS ARE BROKEN.

I went to therapy because this was happening a lot, because I would find myself sitting at my office job unable to focus on anything other than not screaming and having a total meltdown right there at work. The thoughts had become, as they say in therapy circles, intrusive.

I had only been to therapy once before, as a child, following my parents’ divorce. Then, the therapist fervently insisted that I wanted my parents to get back together, no matter how patiently a small 7-year-old me explained that no, I really didn’t, because everything was calmer now. It left me frustrated and annoyed.

It didn’t leave me with the best impression of therapy.

My new adult therapist was a petite older lady with cropped grey hair and an office on the first floor of her historic row house in Boston’s South End. She also had a tiny elderly dog who was senile. I liked her; she was quiet and thoughtful and more interested in helping me to devise coping strategies and behavior modification than in unpacking my psychological underpinnings, which was just what I needed -- to learn that I deserved to set my own boundaries and have those boundaries respected.

This is not to say I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about things in the traditional therapy sense -- I did. My therapist grew fond of complimenting me on how well adjusted and functional I am, and on my skills at self-analysis. Which, I mean, I’m an introvert. That’s kind of what we do.

So for a year I went to her office and sat on a high-end futon with my back to the big bay windows that looked out over the street, and I would poke at the corner of one particular pillow with pompom trim, and talk about things. While I wouldn’t say she failed to help me entirely -- that’s not true, she did help -- in general I found therapy very boring. It felt like a performance, like I had to go in and express things and come up with points to talk about and ideas for improvement. I am a person who needs to think of things to talk about in advance even in social situations. Therapy was a chore.

In the end, at precisely one year after I’d started, I told my therapist I wanted to stop.

“Well, how about you come back next week, so we can talk about wrapping things up.”

“No. That’s OK. I’ll just stop.” Smiling, placidly. I liked the idea of ending it on that particular date. One year. Like a tidy circle. With a bow.

I only found out later that basically nobody just stops therapy; there’s usually a winding-down period. But I did. I was bored. I was tired of wracking my brain for things to complain about. I felt done. I had reflected, analyzed, pondered, ruminated, confronted, coped. All things that I had been doing for free, inside my own head, my whole life. Now I had done them out loud in the presence of a professional. For exactly a year. So that was taken care of.

Some would argue that I had the wrong therapist, that the right therapist will give you shit and try to push you around. Which might be true for many people. I don’t know if it would be for me. I don’t respond positively to that kind of authority.

Instead I practice my self-management. Most of the time it works well. I concoct and consume herbal teas and sit quietly concentrating on my breath and everything is okay. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so great.

Writing for a job makes it harder, sometimes, especially writing so many things that require me to be self-reflective, to dig deep for memories and ideas and to bring them to the surface in a way that other people can understand or relate to. To employ a metaphor, it is lovely to have a selection of gleaming scalpels, a fresh white coat, and an immaculate operating theatre. But some days I have a dark alley reeking faintly of piss, and my bare hands. Sometimes it's like using nothing but my fingers to perform a visceral surgery on myself, to dig in by force alone, and rummage around and rip out some chunk of flesh, which can be cleaned up enough to feed to an audience.

For the record, I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m just saying.

So I sit down at my desk and then I get up; I go into the kitchen to make tea but get distracted by wondering where I put a particular notebook last week, and then in half an hour I’ll be wondering what happened to the tea I meant to drink. I’ll tell myself, “This is an anxious phase for you, right now, because of circumstances beyond your control, but you will not feel this way every day for the rest of your life. Eventually one day you will feel better and then the next better still. And then at some point you’ll have another dark period again and it will all start over, but you must always remember that it never lasts forever.”

I go back to my desk, sit down, wonder how many of my bricks are broken right now.

I need to write something, but I have nothing to say.