Earlier this year I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I’m still wrapping my brain around it. I never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person; sure, there were a lot of things that I had an outsized reaction against, but I always thought that was tied up with self-esteem issues or concentration trouble. It never occurred to me that my anxiety response was a significant piece of the puzzle — until I went to a group therapy class about it and learned how GAD works.
The therapist leading the class told us that our emotions are like the warning lights on our cars — they’re general indications that we should pay attention to something. If we get angry, it more than likely means our sense of order about the world is being upended and we should probably react to that. If we get sad, it means that we’ve lost something or must pay attention to something’s absence. And if we get anxious, usually it means that there is something coming towards us with stakes that we care about — our survival, our success, or our happiness.
You know how sometimes our low-pressure tire gauge comes on even though the air pressure is fine? Our how we can’t rely on our gas indicator because it comes on way too late to do anything about it? A lot of mental illnesses can be related to our car’s warning systems going out of whack in some way. In this case, my anxiety light is really sensitive and this can cause me to over-react to certain issues in ways that don’t really help me to deal with it.
At work, this manifested as a resistance to doing more technical work for years. I was convinced that I didn’t have the attention to detail necessary to be good at that job, and if I did something wrong I could royally screw up a customer’s system. Other, better support people would have to come in and save the situation and it would be all my fault. What if I did something that couldn’t be fixed? What if I never actually learned how to work with the command line? What if I disappointed friends I worked with, or troubles at the job followed me into my personal relationships? It would be better if I never touched the command line and left it to people who were inclined towards such things.
In my personal life, that anxiety kept me from writing. I could never finish anything because I wasn’t sure how endings were actually supposed to go. I tended to write from the hip, and the endings I loved most were the ones that felt like the only possible one for the story. You could see how each bit of the track in a story lead to this inevitable place that was both surprising and satisfying. I wanted to do that, and I wasn’t sure I could; when I tried to outline my work, I would often end up surprised by what a character did. They would tell me that they simply didn’t work that way, or would do something that caught me completely by surprise. Often when I’m writing a story, the characters “grow legs” and start wandering all over the place. Control over these guys is an illusion; an outline is a joke. I’m not the kind of writer who can plan meticulously.
So what does that mean for my work? Will anything I write just never be as good as I want it to be? If I don’t have the ability to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, what’s the point of writing in the first place? If I can’t get behind my writing, then who will? What if I put something out there and it’s so bad, people realize that I’m nowhere near as smart or wise or thoughtful as they might think? What if my own writing exposes me as the fraud I feel like?
When I stepped back to think about it, most of the anxiety I feel comes from a singular place: the realization that people will realize I don’t have the control it seems I do. That I’m all too often lost and frightened and that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The command line scares me because it’s a binary — either the command you put in works or it doesn’t. Putting my writing out there scares me because in many ways it’s something I can’t take back — it either succeeds in what I’m trying to do or it doesn’t; either the audience reacts positively towards it, or it doesn’t. It either connects me to my audience through shared or expanded values, or it divides us.
I learned that I tend to “catastrophize” a lot. Possible mistakes I could make taking a course of action will have consequences far greater than the mistake warrants. If I can’t be perfect doing something that I’ve set out to do, then I would rather not do it at all. It was the main reason I could never push myself into doing something different, something more. Thinking about stumbling outside of my comfort zone gave me the worst feeling, and my immediate reaction was to retreat somewhere safe.
Realizing just what GAD is and how to deal with it is a process I’m still learning. Over the past year I’ve learned how to be comfortable with discomfort, and to even see it as a blessing — being unmoored with an activity is actually a sign that you’re stretching yourself and trying something new, and that’s one of the best things to do in life. Dealing with a situation not completely inside your control is just the price you pay for stretching yourself and learning new things.
Still, progress is slow. My tolerance for the new and different is rising, but it’s still lower than most. I still catch myself retreating to the familiar and the easy far more often than I should. But that’s a part of the process, too. We’re never going to get it right the first time we try something new; making mistakes are a part of the refinement and learning portions of building a new habit.
I’m still quite frightened about working with the command line at work. And I’m still nervous about posting up the stories that I’ve written online. I’m still worried about the endings of short stories I haven’t even begun to write. And I’m still learning how to deal with all of that. For now, it’s enough to recognize the anxiety is there, take a few deep breaths, and move through the discomfort to push myself anyway.