Anxiety Speaks Softly and Carries a Big Stick


Unwelcome visitors have a tendency to pop in at the most inopportune and unexpected times. The telephone is just such an intruder, its shrill ring interrupting sacred downtime. Back when we were still tethered to landlines, sans caller ID, and Sarah’s was the voice on the other end of the line, I would sink into the adjacent chair dreading the next 45-minute interruption of whining and whaling.

My current unwelcome visitor is a virtual one and chooses to interrupt me at the most vulnerable times. Most frequently, it’s at first light, cockcrow time I’ve heard it called. She slips into my king-size bed and spoons with me, whispering softly in my barely awake ear.

I watched this totally weird television show for a short while. It was called Braindead (only lasting one season). Extraterrestrial insects invaded the brains of politicians in this satire, taking control of their lives and political views. Their point of entry was the ear.

My early a.m. visitor does the same thing to me. Like smoke, she wafts into my ear, and I begin coughing and choking from the doubt and judgment she imparts.

My companion spells her name A N X I E T Y. Anxiety is really non-gender specific, but I would feel a little unfaithful to my husband attributing male characteristics to my virtual visitor as she slips in bed with me in the wee hours of the morning.

I am accustomed to her periodic pop-ins, but my intruder’s relentless presence during the past year has propelled me into a dark place. It’s disconcerting because, residing in Florida, I live in the light. This darkness feels unfamiliar. I wonder if this is what it feels like to live near the Shetland Islands or a Nordic country close to the Arctic Circle. But I suspect what I’ve been feeling is not geographically induced.

A spate of injuries precipitated her persistent visits. After years of gel injections, cortisone shots, and lots of ibuprofen, I could not take the pain, the limping, and bowlegs any longer, so I signed up for knee replacement surgery.

Friends and acquaintances used expressions such as “life changing” and “new lease on life” to describe the aftermath of the surgery. I guess because the outcome is so good – the new knee recipient can miraculously squat like a toddler and hike the Inca Trail – people don’t really mention how much it HURTS! I also awoke with nerve damage causing foot drop or palsy. My flappy foot was a source of humility and anxiety.

Anxiety is kind of like a mean mother-in-law or insecure professor whose pessimism and judgment make you feel hopeless. “You know your foot drop is not going to improve. You’re going to have to wear that brace forever,” she would hiss into my barely awake ear.

Well, she was wrong. Following months of physical therapy and a few acupuncture treatments thrown in for good measure, I was able to return to my daily rituals and routines, including riding my beloved bicycle.

“Let’s ride our bikes to church,” I begged my husband one fateful Sunday morning. My kind husband finds it hard to say no to me (or possibly doesn’t want to endure my whining and pleading) so off we careened to Knowles Chapel. Careen is the operative word, as it turned out.

I had a particular route in mind, my husband another. The upshot? Our careening resulted in a collision where I served as the cushion for my husband’s fall. Our crash was like an episode of The Night Before Christmas story – “Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter neighbors sprang from their beds to see what was the matter.”

The matter turned out to be a fractured wrist and ankle (of course the same ankle as the drop foot) and road rash from skidding across the asphalt.

These injuries interrupted basic living routines and cherished activities. Bicycling was bygone for months; forget driving for weeks; blog posts and book edits curtailed (typing with one hand is too slow and distracting.) Adjusting to life with one hand and barely two feet was challenging.

My shirts sustained permanent stains from food dropped by the fumbling fork. Oh, and the indignities! Like fastening a bra. Pouring 67-year-old boobs into a bra in front of an audience! Humbling, to say the least.

Sponge baths were necessary in the early days following surgery. My husband lingered nearby, fearing I might fall and hurt myself, not an unreasonable assumption considering my past year. Ordinarily clothes and towels help to obscure flab and folds. Not during bath time standing under LED lights. (There really is a reason to stay married.)

Texting, my favorite mode of communication, proved difficult with only one thumb. I felt compelled to offer a disclaimer – “Please forgive the typos, I’m operating with just one hand.”

Anxiety took a Sabbath when my foot drop improved but took up full-time residence in the pit of my stomach following my bicycle accident. “You call yourself a writer?!” she snorted. “You can’t write with a wrecked wrist! You know it won’t ever be the same. Besides, you are undisciplined. You don’t sit your butt down in the chair and actually write for four hours at a time like proper writers do.”

Rather than whispering sweet nothings, Anxiety murmurs messages of fear and angst. “Are you sure your daughter is okay? Will she be able to keep her new job? Last one in, first one fired.” (Yet another factor contributing to the stress of the year: my 40-year-old daughter’s employment insecurities.)

The pandemic was not the only plague to visit us in 2020. Even if we were fortunate enough to avoid being visited by the virus, Anxiety was only too happy to nuzzle up in the middle of the night. “Your husband was coughing last night. I’ll bet he has the virus,” messages propelling panicked patients into the welcoming arms of local therapists.

The last time I felt this bad was around 9/11. On top of this national calamity, I (and the FBI) suspected my daughter of dating a Tunisian terrorist, and her brother was kicked out of school in Washington D.C. for smoking pot. (I actually had to buy Anxiety a pillow, she was spending so much time in my bed that fall.)

Anxiety does make appearances during daytime hours as well. She is really kind of glamorous, one of those femme fatale women of film noir fame – form-fitting scarlet red dress, charged up cherry nail polish, and red lipstick. Longish dark wavy hair. Alexander McQueen heels. But instead of being an Ava Gardner, she is more like Cruella de Vil.

So how do you rebuff this unsolicited and unwelcome visitor who does not even have the good manners to knock? She just barges in, uninvited.

Some obvious techniques are short-lived – wine, Xanax, exercise, wine. Actually, when the wine buzz wears off in the middle of the night, that’s another time you wake up and find her sitting at the end of your bed, dropping ashes and venom on your newly dry-cleaned duvet.

At 67, I’ve grown accustomed to her visits. The length varies, sometimes seemingly lasting forever, and sometimes just short drop-ins.

“Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.”

Shakespeare

Aside from wine and Xanax, how does one manage anxiety? Writing is a management technique that works for me (now that my hand and wrist are fully functional again). As Joan Didion said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

Writing penetrates my mental mosh pit and provides clarity. Even anthropomorphizing anxiety, giving it a name and personality, helps me step back and gain perspective.

I believe creative expression helps mitigate anxiety. New York Times reporter Laura Holson notes: “Our best selves are merely one doodle away. Where once drawing and other painterly pursuits were the province of starving artists or simply child’s play, unlocking one’s creativity has become the latest mantra of personal growth and healing.”

The Mayo Clinic recommends the health benefits of painting and ceramics. Ceramics is my preferred creative outlet. Clay comes from the ground and grounds those who touch it. Centering a bowl on the potter’s wheel helps me feel centered. Clay has a way of corralling my monkey-chattering brain and meditatively focusing it on creating something beautiful.

While these techniques are helpful, I still experience goose bumps when I hear the sheets rustle and feel her breath on the back of my neck in the early morning. What sardonic snippets will she spew this time, I wonder.

Usually, I don’t have to wait long to find out. She is always eager to share. After all these years, I’m grudgingly growing accustomed to her appearances. I just wish she’d choose a more convenient time to visit!

Is Anxiety an unwelcome visitor for you? How does she sneak up into your life? In what moments are your defenses weakest? What do you do to keep her away? Please share any tips you have for managing her.

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