My year of anxiety: How my worries took control, and how I’m taking it back

My story is fairly mundane, and primarily a case of imbalanced chemicals. Today’s discussions about mental health and personal trauma make my college years of trading high school horror stories in metered rhyme (because I studied poetry, of course) sound absolutely trivial. I was born with a brain that likes to run around in circles and chew its own tail, an obsessive-compulsive sponge that retreated into superstitions and rituals at a very young age. And what would clinical OCD be without depression and anxiety? Lonely, maybe.

I was diagnosed in the days before Prozac. I was absolutely sure I was the only 9-year-old in therapy, never mind that it was the middle school principal who firmly suggested a therapist by name to my parents. My parents were worried when the doctor first suggested Imipramine, a pretty old-school tricyclic antidepressant I’ve since left in the dust, but I can’t remember any such reservations. I can only imagine that I felt the same way then as I do on occasion now, like when my brain is tricking me with bone-aching depression in the deep of winter: that I will take anything a doctor gives me if it brings relief.

Over the years, I’ve tried many different medications, in various combinations. A few made me nauseated or nervous, others made me dizzy or sleepy, and some worked until suddenly one day they didn’t, at which point I’d have to start all over again. I am certain I would not be a functioning human being without therapy and medication, no matter how scattershot the results can be.

This isn’t necessarily something I keep secret, but it feels safest to discuss with other people who have had similar experiences. If it were so fucking easy to pull ourselves out of depressive episodes or anxiety spin-outs or OCD twitches simply with willpower, don’t you think we would? Going to the gym or yoga helps, of course it does, but the times when we’re feeling anxious or depressed are also the times when it’s most difficult to do it. (Even writing this, I can hear a chorus of voices in my head telling me that it’s difficult but not impossible, and if I really wanted to, I could or would.)

These are things my most trusted companions and I discuss amongst ourselves, over brunch or cocktails or late at night, via text or IM or email. We remind each other to be kind to ourselves, because the world isn’t that kind and our brains are constantly working against us. And even though therapy and mental illness and psychopharmaceuticals are so openly discussed these days — more than I’d ever thought possible as a kid — I still feel defensive. It’s hard to differentiate between interrogation and curiosity when your internal monologue is delivered by a self-flagellating priest in a hair shirt.

Over the years, I’ve come up with various tricks and tips to manage the ebb and flow of serotonin. I deal with my brain a lot like a parent of a toddler would when planning for a long trip. Distraction is key: books, e-books, music, soothing sounds, podcasts, even a notebook and a pen can be handy if I can’t get up and walk around. (The notes I scribble during movie screenings are a good indicator of how tweaked out I felt by the movie. One of my favorite movies from 2013, “Short Term 12,” is heavy, stirring, and lovely, and the press notes for it are covered in curlicues and wavy lines and increasingly frenetic doodles. The press notes for “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” another incredibly stressful movie I loved, were similarly decorated.) Let’s not forget better living through chemistry, along with meditation, acupuncture and other forms of self-care as needed, such as skipping a night out if I’m feeling like I have no skin to protect me from the outside world. It’s also important not to isolate myself, and to have people who will call me out if I try to bail on plans at the last minute.

My poor terrified parents assured me over and over again that I wasn’t alone, that every family has their own secrets, even — especially — the ones who seem most normal, but it’s taken me decades to fully understand it. 

When I was a little kid, I thought my brain was doing completely fucked-up things that it made up just to torment me. Giving it a name gave me power over it, or at least a sense of relief that it was nameable. I read “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing His Hands” in fourth or fifth grade, and I tried to explain it to my best friend — I was so excited that not only was I not alone in my troubles, but that there were patterns to them. She thought it was weird and kind of gross. My “cool” friends in high school told me I acted “different” because I was on Prozac. (Different from what, exactly? The miserable child I’d been years before they ever met me? Twenty years later, I am still bitter.) And therapy… therapy was for the weak. Who could possibly talk to an adult about such serious high school matters? It was as embarrassing as not drinking or smoking cigarettes, as cringe-making as when they’d sing Adam Ant’s “Goody Two-Shoes” at me.

Eventually, I did rebel. I tried to kick a hole in the claustrophobic walls of my brain with boots and black clothes, cigarettes and coffee shops, and the freakiest movies and music my friends and I could dig up in suburban Texas. The idea of Freddy Krueger used to keep me up at night, but in high school I’d drive to Forbidden Books and Video with my friends to rent things like “Nekromantik” and “El Topo” and “Gift.” The store was dark and smelled like incense, and it sold T-shirts with serial killers on them, and esoteric, dangerous books and music. This was before you could order Current 93 CDs on Amazon. You really had to work to earn your bona fides, although it wasn’t hard to be weird. I stank of cigarettes, and I told the college counselor at my prep school that I wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence, and I did, despite a fear of flying. I’d always felt strange and out of place and maybe even slightly monstrous, so cutting up my tights and dying my hair and running off to New York felt like giving so many middle fingers to my real and imagined critics.

I armed myself with all the things that used to scare me, and I scared myself with them until they were mostly powerless. I felt like a freak, so I became a freak. As an adult, I’ve shed the cigarettes and the dyed black hair (though not my overall aesthetic and fondness for occult matters), but the fear has come back. I can’t watch horror movies much at all, something that I learned the hard way during a screening of “Evil Dead“ this summer. The crush of nightlife has more than lost its appeal; the idea of navigating a dance floor crowd the way I used to, with a drink in my hand and music thundering through my body, is downright scary. Who am I without those adventures?

Aging has been great in that respect, in learning to accept that I can still be an adult and an eccentric without trying so damn hard. I no longer have to dye white streaks in my hair; they’re growing in all on their own. Watching “Gilmore Girls” is a perfectly nice way to spend a lazy Friday night, and part of getting older is accepting that I don’t always need to do things just to do them.

I’ve made myself do things that frighten me, big weird things that might make for good short stories some day, and important life things that I thought would crush me with their gravity. But I still have to face the little normal things that have frightened me all along.

2013 was a nasty crucible in which I cracked just a bit. I know, I know, that’s where the light gets in — but when it starts getting dark at 4 in the afternoon, it’s hard not to want to just get back in bed. This past year made me feel like I was at the mercy of my brain’s whims, like I was spinning out into space, untethered and alone. But one thing that’s saving me is this. Writing this, right here, letting all the sunlight in as an antiseptic is an ultimately selfish act; I gain pleasure from putting words together, and there’s a sort of masochistic glee in exposing one’s sensitive underside.

At the same time, there’s always a hope that others will read this and realize that it’s okay to feel really fucking crazy and alone, and that you don’t need to be embarrassed about getting help. You don’t have to white-knuckle it alone. Sometimes when I’m freaking out on the subway, I look around at other peoples’ faces and wonder who would be empathetic if I started losing my shit. If we stopped underground for 20 minutes or, God forbid, an hour, whose hand could I hold? And I figure that among them, there’s probably someone who would understand.

Every year, people make resolutions about losing weight or drinking more water or doing yoga or finally writing those short stories that have been rattling around. Those are all my resolutions too, but the hardest will be reprogramming my brain — day by day, second by second, stopping each shitty thought in its tracks as if I were paper-training a recalcitrant puppy. I will always be sensitive to the slosh of chemicals, serotonin or estrogen or adrenaline, but 2014 is the year I stop telling myself the same story over and over again. It’s when I start filling these fissures with gold.