Health

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Anxiety Disorder

I tried to figure out why I've been able to be creative and productive, even in my darkest times.

by So Sad Today
Jan 29 2017, 2:00pm

Illustrations by Joel Benjamin

There is a certain kind of bro who is always wearing a fedora, even if he isn't wearing a fedora. I can smell a fedora-bro from 10,000 miles away. I can detect him via email, internet comment, or even a particular avatar. It is what I call the aura of fedora: a distinct doucheyness that manifests on the metaphysical plane. It is not so much what the bro says, but the way he says it that beckons my intuition to cry: Watch out! You're in fedoratown!

Recently, I received an email from one such bro. The email read:

If you are so mentally ill how is it that you are still writing?

Obviously, I deleted the fedora fuckhead's email. But it also made me wonder how and why I've been able to be creative and productive, even in my darkest times. I decided to take a stab at answering this—not for the fedora fucker—but for anyone who might be thinking about the relationship between their own mental illness and creativity. Actually, I decided to take 13 stabs at answering the question, since the intersections between anxiety disorder, depression, and productivity are, in my experience, not a single crossroads.

1. The world is not enough for me. I have always wanted more out of life than life has to offer. I remember looking at friends of mine, the morning after a night of heavy drinking or drugs, and thinking, How are they so OK with returning to reality? Are they just going to go on living their lives again? Don't they want the high to go on forever? I didn't know then that I was medicating my anxious perception of reality. Of course, the medicine only lasted as long as it lasted, and then the anxiety returned, often in a worse way. Through writing, I now get to create an alternate universe that diffuses some of the tension of living in this dumb world by allowing me to live in a fantasy world. In that fantasy world, I can even partake, on the page, in what will ultimately destroy my life without actually destroying my life. Writing is one of the only ways of self-soothing that hasn't tried to kill me.

2. I wouldn't call myself brave. I would, however, call myself compulsive. Anxiety tells me that I am never going to produce anything again (it speaks in absolutes and worst-case scenarios, its native language), especially when depression has me wanting to do nothing but sleep. In some ways, I am powered by anxiety, a fear of never being enough. And it's often this anxiety that compels me to write, so as to avoid the terror of becoming nothing.

3. The question of "what's the point?" comes up for me a lot in life: as a symptom of depression, a symptom of existence really, an underlying cause of anxiety regarding my place in the world, and what the world even is. The act of writing provides a framework of meaning: not in an active or conscious way (like OK! this is why I'm here! I'm going to stay alive to write!), but because when I get in the flow of it, I stop asking that question quite so often.

4. Writing is a way of validating my own bizarre worldview. Like, let's face it, I think it's fucking weird that we exist. I don't understand how everyone at Quiznos isn't just dropping their sandwich and being like, What the hell is all this? Feeling this way can be lonely. But through writing, I have companionship in my worldview—my own companionship. There becomes two of me. I get to make the weirdness of the world—the way I see it, the way it is.

5. There isn't much else I know how to do. I don't play piano, I can't cook for shit, and anxiety makes it hard for me to sit still and watch a movie. I seem to always go to writing organically, and it seems to always be there. So the question is more, "How do I not write?"

6. Often I do act out so as to self-regulate my feelings of anxiety and depression, i.e. I'll fuck someone I don't know very well. This is a great thing for other people—I think everyone should be out fucking if they want—but, for me, it gets complicated the following day. The potential of a new sexual experience will lift me temporarily out of a depression. It will give me a reason to go on living. What's more, it provides a tangible place for me to project my anxiety—alleviating, temporarily, the existential nature of it. But once the experience is over, I sometimes feel more depressed because the sex wasn't great. Or, if the sex is magic, I am propelled to a whole new intensified realm of anxiety while waiting to hear from that person the following day (or week). I might give that person more power than they really have, or perceive them in a heightened, romanticized way, because I have used them as a drug for my anxiety. And once you have a drug, you just want more of the drug.

I don't understand how everyone at Quiznos isn't just dropping their sandwich and being like, "What the hell is all this?"

The antidote to this isn't necessarily to stop fucking randos. I've continued to make the same mistakes over and over throughout my life, and while I didn't get different results, I did write a lot of poems. Writing is where I have put my longing and channeled my emotions over the things that I used (erroneously) to self-regulate. And now that I'm currently in a phase of not fucking randos (which I'm sure will end, as all things must pass), my writing provides me with a place to fuck whomever I want, on the page, with no repercussions.

7. For me, writing means reading and reading means the discovery of kindred spirits. Let's face it: What is called "mental illness" is nothing new among writers and other creative people. There have been times in my life when I only felt understood by fellow sufferers I'd never met like Janet Frame, William Styron, or Emily Dickinson. There is nothing like discovering someone else's experience and having it resonate with your own to make you feel less alone. And for me, the feeling that I am not the only one quells the anxiety that tells me I am more doomed than anyone. Having said that, all human beings are different, and it would be ableist of me to say that something worked for me so it should work for you. I can only share my own experience. If it resonates, amazing.

8. In times when I felt like I could not live in the world, writing gave me a framework or schema with which to put things in context. When I was going through it with my psych med changes, I decided to report on the horror, and this made me feel somehow less stuck in it. I also feel this way about cognitive behavioral therapy and its focus on worksheets, journaling, and charts. CBT helps me to feel like I am working on a project in which I am a casual observer rather than a terrified person constantly taking my own temperature.

9. I'm not at peace unless I'm torturing myself. My writing is always there for me as something I can torture myself over.

10. One element of anxiety disorder is the desire to control everything around us: especially shit beyond our control. What's nice is that we can't control shit beyond our control, because that would be really exhausting if we could. What's hard is remembering that this is an impossible feat. But I find writing to be a nice place to practice no control (the mystery of poetry, the journey of it, and the not knowing what you know until it's over) and also a realm where one can have total control over an entire universe (as is the case with fiction). So in this way, it sates that desire.

11. When my internal world is at its most frightening—when I go through a period of panic attacks that feel like they are never going to abate, and every day am forced to walk through a multitude of new deaths—writing lends me the ability to be the hero of the story, rather than the victim. In spite of my long-term relationships with therapy, psych meds, and meditation, the act of writing is still sometimes the only thing that allows me to direct what otherwise feels like an uncontrollable narrative.

12. Writing is like a palliative for the present moment. I know that we are supposed to "embrace" the present moment, or whatev, but I find the present moment to be annoying. I have far too much anxiety to want to stay in my body for any prolonged period of time. But writing is like a little treadmill within the present moment (in the same way that the Dog Whisperer will put dogs on a treadmill when they have too much energy at a given time). I need it to burn shit out of me that is hard to just sit with.

13. If I'm calling myself "a poet" in the 21st century, there has to be something wrong with me.

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.

Buy So Sad Today: Personal Essays on Amazon , and follow her on Twitter .

Tagged:
mental illness
mental health
depression
anxiety
Creativity
SST
writing