The State of My Mind: April 19, 2018

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San Juan, WA | April 2018

My anxiety hits me like a sack of bricks coming down hard. It’s unannounced and unplanned and sometimes makes it hard to think about anything else. There are times when the anxiety is meek, just the flutter of it stirring in my chest. Then there are the times when it takes all my courage to continue to get up and move about my day.

I’ve never considered myself to be someone who has mental health issues. I’ve always considered my mind strong and healthy, because for the most part it is. I work hard to tell myself every day that it will all be okay, that everything will work out as it’s meant to. I don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition from a health professional. I don’t take medication for a mental health illness. I don’t self-medicate (not strictly speaking at least). My mental health is not so bad that I feel it necessary to be in therapy. It’s never been so bad as to cause me panic attacks. Rarely have I ever felt like my mental health is degrading to a point of needing some type of intervention.

For the most part, I manage my mental health pretty well. I know what I need to do to ease my mind. Throughout school, my distraction from my deeper issues were classes, friends, activities, trips, and the like. I excelled in academics throughout high school and college, despite intense struggles in math that required a tutor and being placed in a remedial reading comprehension class in fourth grade. Unbeknownst to fourth grade me, reading and writing would become one of my greatest strengths.

Growing up, I never allowed myself to stop and sit for a minute to really ponder what I felt. At least not for any length of time or over anything meaningful. When issues flared up, the emotion was fleeting and eventually forgotten altogether. My mental energy was instead consumed by writing that 4,000-word essay on A Clockwork Orange for the full IB diploma, learning the intricacies of the fall of communism in IB classes, reading Lolita during that one semester studying Nabokov, figuring out those complicated equations in a calc class freshman year of college, researching Aboriginals for a short story, designing a children’s book for a nonprofit as a complete and utter novice, being the secretary for an organization I only half cared about . . . . These projects (and more) kept my mind active in a way that helped me cope and suppress my anxiety. My mind almost never had time to just sit still, because there was always some task to be done.

When you go on pretending for so long that everything is peachy, it’s hard to admit that maybe you actually do need help.

Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that I have a lot on my plate. While in school, it was easy to rationalize that that was because I aimed for good grades, to make my degree and time in a foreign state worthwhile. I was told (or maybe society impressed upon me) that to achieve your goals, you should say yes more often than you should say no. Say yes even to the experiences that seem marginally beneficial, because you’ll never know what will come from it. (This has become something like a life philosophy for me, even outside of a school environment. Take my employment at the local climbing gym. Completely on a whim, I applied for a counter staff position on a day where I felt like I needed more to do–not because I truly needed a second job. This move turned out to be a good one for many reasons, but still. What was I thinking!?)

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that even outside of school, I still make drastic attempts to occupy my free time because I don’t want to confront those emotions that linger in the depths. When they start to creep out during moments where I am sitting still, I attempt to push them back in with project after project.

I think the psychological term for this is repression. Whereas Freud first used this term to describe the act of preventing “disturbing or threatening” thoughts to the conscious, I think it can be applied more broadly when talking about myself or others, especially since our understanding of defense mechanisms has developed over the years. My thoughts aren’t disturbing or threatening; they simply tap into a part of my history that I’m not yet emotionally ready to confront. As this website notes: “This is not a very successful defense in the long term since it involves forcing . . . wishes, ideas or memories into the unconscious, where, although hidden, they will create anxiety.” Yeah, no kidding.

There is some serious self-psycoanalysis at work here. I can’t help myself. Thinking about these questions fascinates me, even though I can’t seem to quell the anxiety.

But that’s the thing. I’m aware of these issues. They don’t go unchecked–not exactly. Awareness is the first step in getting better, tackling those fears. Then comes acceptance, which I suppose is what I’m aiming to do by writing and sharing this. You could argue that the two go hand-in-hand.

So, what am I to do? When do I know I’ve become emotionally ready to confront what’s holding me back? Is there some cataclysmic moment that will cause me to muster the motivation and courage to address those deeper issues?

When you go on pretending for so long that everything is peachy, it’s hard to admit that maybe you actually do need help.

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Since I know I suffer from a mild form of anxiety, there are things that I do (and have been doing unknowingly over the years) to help my brain settle down a bit. When my mind starts spiraling out of control thinking about all the what-ifs, these little things help get me through that moment:

  1. A cup of coffee–always.
  2. Facing the sun and relishing in the natural light.
  3. Taking deep breaths, a few at a time.
  4. Michicant by Bon Iver. I can’t understate how much this song has helped my anxiety lessen in the moment over the years. During freshman year of college, I’d listen to this song on repeat until I’d drift off to sleep because it’s so calming to me. Still today I listen to this song when I know I need to relax.
  5. A dark room, candle lit, notebook open, pencil in hand. Mix in some deep breathing and I’m set.
  6. Open spaces, particularly of the forested variety.
  7. Turning my cell phone face down–cutting out trivial distractions.
  8. Reading poetry. Specifically: This poem. This poem. And this poem.
  9. Making weird noises. I did this a lot toward the end of college and one of my good friends in Wilmington can attest to the fact that sometimes I just really had to let out my emotions in the form of weird noises. She didn’t judge, and I love her for that.
  10. Being on the water, overlooking the water, dipping my toes in the water, breathing in the saltiness of the water, hearing the waves of the water. Water soothes me like nothing else quite can.

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It’s hard to share all this, admit it to the world. It’s even harder to write about it and admit to myself that there is a deeper issue. I write because it leads to healing. I share because the act of telling the world makes it real. If I can admit that I have anxiety to you, a perfect stranger, then I can come closer to accepting it.

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