It’s like an internal itch you can’t scratch. My shoulders are stapled to my ears as if bracing for an impact. My jaw clenches, breathing becomes erratic. Thoughts? Oh, the thoughts! Scads of scenarios and insecurities, worries, overthinking about situations that probably aren’t true and will never happen: the “What ifs.” Because I’m a lady kind of person, they used to call this “hysteria.” Now it is called anxiety. Anxiety and I are old friends. I’d like for you to say “Hello.”
My anxiety has a name; Abbie. A nervous Nelly, nail-biting type, who looks frazzled all the time and mainlines 100 espressos in an hour. Her hands shake when she talks like wild birds beating against cage doors. She paces a lot across my brain, constantly scanning the horizon for the next big disaster ahead. Abbie wears 10-hour support hose that gave up 11 hours before, and now drapes around her ankles like two summer sausages shedding their winter casings. She is “Piglet” in the Winnie the Pooh series. Sometimes she is a very smoll creature who is in dire need of a big bear of very little brain to huddle beneath, someone to protect her.
In her defense, Abbie has been through a lot in this lifetime alone. She might be jumpy and maniacal but even buried beneath her cork board of conspiracy theories, there were once real events, real traumas that she doesn’t always remember are in the past. She is part and parcel of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but this is another topic. Abbie is also roommates with my depression (which we will get into later). If she scans ahead like Captain Ahab looking for his white whale, she might be able to head off future danger, disappointment and rejection.
Lately, I’ve been having repeated anxiety attacks with obsessive thoughts that run for over 11 hours at a time.
But let’s give a little context. While anxiety Abbie and I have known each other my entire life, there are environmental circumstances that have raised the threat level extensively. For example: I’ve been without my wife for one year (due to military posting) during COVID, trying to keep a household together, dogs from falling apart medically, and a teenager who spends most of her time with her virtual community in her room. In February, we learned that the Navy loves my wife where she is soooo much, they are keeping her for an extra year.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to enjoy the present and to recognize calm when one is on the lookout for danger all the time. Abbie exhausts me.
My therapist mentioned that I might try to befriend my old friend anxiety, by trying to understand life from her perspective, how scary life has been through her experience, and to find ways to give her space without allowing her omnipotent control. This sounds like a horrible idea! Like giving a pyromaniac a box of matches for their birthday or giving a person addicted to tanning beds a gift card for 1,000 hours plus a vacation to Aruba. But I’m desperate.
Justified or not, Abbie is on high alert. I have tried reasoning with her, telling her it was “all in your head. You aren’t really being attacked, rejected and ignored. It just seems that way.” Abbie isn’t having it. I need to try to head off Abbie’s hysteria another way.
Abbie’s fears go from 0-90,000 in the blink of an eye, so it can be difficult to rein it in and utilize coping mechanisms when I seemed to have left those tools in a junk drawer that belongs to an apartment I rented in 1993. Still, I can’t go on this way.
So, we have a sit-down conversation. (Or try)
“Abbie, I would like to have a conversation with you.”
“What about?” She snaps, while pouring another cup of coffee, perching on the end of the sofa like a bird.
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“It’s about how much time you are spending worrying and obsessing over areas we can’t control…”
“Isn’t that just about everything nowadays? Can’t control your marital living situation, your teen’s grades, the dog’s pervasive lack of manners scooting on the carpet, the weather, chronic isolation, the price of gas, and didn’t your appendix almost try to kill you recently? What about that? ” and she’s off and running, ladies and gentlemen.
“Excellent points, all of them. You are right. We can’t control any of those things. We can’t even control who loves us or likes us. We can’t control how our body reacts and responds on the whole, although we can control our reactions to all of these things.”
Abbie picks up a pair of knitting needles from who knows where and starts knitting a worry sweater.
“My point is, we can begin to choose how we react and respond to all of this. I appreciate you letting me know that you see a red flag, whether it is in a relationship, or in my body or in a situation where I am not making healthy choices. You have been very valuable to me over the years.”
“I have?” Abbie asks in a child’s voice, stopping her knitting mid-pearl.
“Yes. I don’t always appreciate you and what you do for me. But I think you have been working too hard and need to take a moment to step back so we can see the big picture.”
“Which is?” Abbie looks concerned but intrigued by this concept.
“That we have life to live, and we can’t enjoy the present, who is there for us right now, the kindness of others, the beauty of nature and our blessings, if we are scanning ahead and projecting doom and failure and heartache. We can’t live in two places at once right?”
“I suppose” Abbie mumbles.
“We can only live in the present and respond to things currently happening. And we can build upon that, by allowing others into our lives, and exploring ways that make us happy.”
“I can’t promise I can do this present thing all the time.” Abbie says cautiously eyeing me. “What’s in it for me?”
“Well, you might get a break once in awhile. You are definitely overworked and in need of a vacation. Would you like a vacation?”
“I am overworked. I mean I’ve been at this job for 50 years and I’ve never taken a vacation before. I bet I’ve accrued some vacation time….” Abbie ponders, but then pauses wide-eyed with a new panic “What if HR doesn’t approve my request? What if I don’t like it? What if the boat sinks? What if they run out of rum and the shrimp cocktail makes me sick?”
“Why don’t you go see?” I assure her, handing her a cup of chamomile tea and a cookie.
“You’ll never know for sure unless you try.”
For once, Abbie allows her shoulders to lower. She gets very quiet, as if she is pondering the imponderables in an almost reflective way.
By Adaire Salome-Keating