Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental illness that can be difficult to talk about, mostly because it looks like one of those ‘special snowflake’ disorders that someone claims to have in order to justify certain behaviors. Even with an official diagnosis and some significant time in a group therapy class, it’s the aspect of my mental health that I understand the least but still has a huge effect on my ability to get things done from day to day. I’m not sure what to say about it, though, especially these days when it feels like everyone is on edge for very good reason. Still, I’m going to try to talk about my anxiety disorder — especially as it relates to my quest to develop a consistent and productive writing practice.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is, for me, a constant tension that travels with me every day, all day. It most often settles around performance anxiety — making sure that I send an email just right so the person I’m speaking to doesn’t get offended, or trying to tackle a case at work in a manner that’s quick and thorough, or replaying conversations back through my head to pick out possible indications that it didn’t go at all how I thought, or thinking about all of the things I should be doing, or all of the things I forgot to do, or an undiscovered asteroid that could plow into the planet, or being stopped by the police, or suddenly being fired, or the possibility that I could just lapse into depression or insanity, or something might happen to my husband, or….and so on. No matter what I’m doing, or how happy I might be otherwise, there is always some part of my brain that is screaming with worry.
Now that I know what it is, I know that I’ve had this since I was a teenager. I could never relax when I was a kid, because there was no place that felt safe to me. Even when I was alone, I worried about a home invasion, or a fire, or being abducted by aliens, or… There’s always something that needs to be done, or always a way something can be handled better. The constant pressure regularly becomes too much for me to handle, and I end up doing something mindless for hours because I can’t think about anything without freaking out.
This all happens under the hood. It’s difficult to put across how relentless worry can fray you, especially when you’ve been dealing with it for so long you’ve learned how to function through it.
However, without chemical help (like alcohol), it’s…impossible to relax. I’ve developed coping mechanisms over time, like zazen, ashwaghanda supplements, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but the disorder is still there — I just have an expanded toolset that allows me to deconstruct the underlying thoughts behind the worry, cope with stress, and forge ahead with whatever triggers performance anxiety a bit more easily.
This month I’ve been working hard to build a more consistent meditation and writing practice; I would love to bring more readers to The Writing Desk, have more folks sign up for my Patreon, and submit short stories to various publications. Doing that requires me to confront my anxiety about writing in a very real way. Every day is a battle against that screaming part of my brain that tells me I’ll never be good enough to do what I want to do; that whatever I publish will be mocked as both pretentious and pathetically deviant; that what interests me is not even interesting enough for other people to hate it.
I created my Patreon, for example, as a means to hold myself accountable for producing content on a deadline. For the most part, that’s been a failure. The first serial I wrote was scrapped after 14 or so “weekly” installments over the course of six months, and it’s been really hard to build any kind of momentum with it. The folks who have stuck with me over the past two years are saints of the highest order, and I appreciate them every day. But anxiety clearly has won out here so far. Because of it, there is no way that I can possibly write something “just for fun” — I really wish I could, but everything I put to paper eventually gets stuck in the weight of that self-imposed pressure.
So with the stuff that matters to me, the pressure can quickly reach the point of being unbearable. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to focus on ‘making friends’ with that discomfort, knowing that anything worth doing, anything that would help me to change and grow, would be uncomfortable. It’s a sign that I’m pushing myself to do something difficult. And that has helped, honestly. It’s allowed me to progress — but that progress is still very slow.
The best thing I’ve found to combat my anxiety is to focus on the story I’m telling, the characters that I’m working with, the setting, or structure, or feeling that I’d like to evoke. The more I think about the work itself instead of how it’s going to be received, the easier it gets to push that screaming aside until it fades into the background. At some point, you have to realize just how much about a situation is outside of your control; all you can do is make sure what’s under your control is handled as best as you can. It’s a really difficult lesson to learn, and I’m still in the middle of that process, but it’s worth learning for sure.
I’m still not sure what to do about this anxiety. I think I need to go back into therapy to deal with it and a number of other issues that are increasingly difficult to fight against. But for now, the march of progress goes ever on.