I worry that people don't like me. I worry that I have no talent. I often think that I'm making bad decisions about parenting, where I live and just about everything else I do.
That's the self-doubt talking.
"Mental health," we say, when really what we mean is "I fucking hate the way I feel."
I suffer from anxiety almost all the time. On my best days, my anxiety is so light as to be unnoticeable. Other days, the damn thing rattles around my brain, telling me how stupid, how pointless, why bother because someone else will always be better than me. It creeps up on me at night and shakes me awake. I gasp for air for a few moments before realizing I'm not actually in danger.
Over time, I've begun to think of my anxiety as an evil pet. Or the voices of all the people from my past whispering mean things in my ear. Or the one I like best, my anxiety is a suit of armor that I never wanted but is with me nonetheless. It weighs me down, but at least I know it's not me. I know this, because sometimes I can take it off, set it down beside me and live my life with an incredible lightness. Each time, I marvel, "Is this how other people feel always?"
I've also learned to keep going, keep moving, keep doing in spite of it. I'm so good at managing my anxiety most of the time no one realizes.
Maybe. Or maybe I'm fooling myself.
Oh God, everyone knows. They can see right through me. They just don't want to deal with me, because it's just too exhausting. It's not worth it. I'm not worth it.
This is how my mind works. It spins itself into a frenzy, and before I know it I've tied myself in knots, turned myself inside out and whatever other metaphor you've got for the kind of mental gymnastics that happens.
I'm not alone in this, even though it feels I am, because I hear the same from so many others. Friends on Facebook, other writers, people I meet through my work. A fellow writer I know describes it perfectly when she says she "likes to visit the dark brambly bits in her head." I hear it from women who are so unbelievably fucking talented, no one would ever believe they doubt. I hear it from women who have had easy, charmed lives. And from women who have lived through things no one should ever have to know.
Different experiences. Different words. Different people speaking in different voices, and yet we're all wrestling this dark unknowable creature we call our own mental health — this stupid, monstrous thing gets in the way of everything. Of life. Of family. Of hanging out with friends. Of getting a good night's sleep.
It's hard to live life with that voice telling you things. You know the voice. The one that's set up tent inside your amygdala and keeps shouting things at you. You stupid ox, moron, worthless empty handbag of an excuse for a human being. Go drink yourself to death. You garbage human. Why bother? Or the voice warns us of impending doom. Oh my God, we're going to die! Everything is going to hell! It tells us someone is saying awful things about us and then supplies the horrible gossip for us to ruminate, chew, chew, chew. I'm sure they hate me. I'm not good enough. Why did I do that? I really should clean the kitchen. I need to lose weight. I don't eat well enough. I'm just not very good at anything, am I?
The voice echoes things others have said to us, too. From the parent who carelessly called you a moron to the client who e-mails you're not even human. You're a failure. To the guy on the street who threatens bodily harm because you didn't smile. Or the friend who offers the tidbit you're not normal. What's wrong with you?
If you're anything like me, you blame yourself.
"But wait," you want to say. That's not it at all. Please, let me explain. Understand that nothing you or I say will make a difference. People who cannot see us, will never see us as we want to be seen.
What can you do? Oh, what can you do?
These things have worked for me. Ultimately, you'll decide what helps you. You can trust your instinct to let you know what's best.
1. Stop. Take a deep breath.
Breathe out. Take another. Do yoga and meditate if that's your jam. Dance. Run. Move around. Let your body be so busy that it tires your mind from thinking.
2. Find a good therapist.
For talk or medication. Whichever works for you. While writing is a therapeutic process, it does not replace therapy. I know how daunting it can be taking the first steps to find a therapist. Do your best to make that first call. I know it's not easy.
3. Say no when you mean no.
No, I can't do that. No, I won't. Do not talk to me that way. No. Set firm boundaries with everyone. It would be a vast understatement to say that "No" isn't easy. Most people hate hearing no. They rail against it. They'll fight you. Eventually, the good people quiet down and respect you. The rest can kindly fuck off.
4. Get enough sleep.
I am a mess when I don't sleep, and unfortunately when I'm anxious, I don't sleep well. It's a vicious cycle. Do what you need to get enough sleep. Go to bed early. Take naps. One caveat: If you want to take meds, please talk to a doctor first. And please, please don't drink or take drugs so you can numb yourself enough to rest. That road leads to ugly places.
5. Take care of yourself.
Eat properly. Brush your teeth. Take a moment to rest when you're tired. Talk to yourself kindly. Do for yourself what you think a mother should do for her child.
6. Be angry when you're angry.
Too often, we're told to calm down, don't be angry. Why are you such an angry person? Shut that shit down. You are not a bitch. You are not shrill. You are not a harpy. You are expressing a normal human emotion. You have a right to be angry.
Since I'm a writer, it should come as no surprise that I write my way out of anxiety. You don't have to be one for it to work for you too.
Write in gratitude. I keep a gratitude journal in which I write only the things for which I am grateful. This isn't meant to say "Hey, look at the bright side." It's just that that sometimes I get caught in a vortex of negative thought that sucks me into a never-ending chain of horrible. My gratitude journal breaks that chain and shifts me to a brighter place.
Write your truth. Gather together those fragments of hurt and place them side by side to tell your story. You can do all the things in your fictions that feel impossible in real life. In your novels and short stories, you can shout, hit, blame, even fly or kill. Anything is possible, and the world is yours.
In your memoirs and essays, tear off the bandages and let people see everything inside.
Margaret Cho describes silence as the tool of the oppressor. When you're frightened, it's hard to speak. Fear forces you to believe a version of events that hurts you. Whether you're a sparkle brain with a bright red cane or the girl who grew up homeless or the sex worker who didn't fight back or any other number of people or identities, when you tell your story, you claim what is yours. When you express your reality, shape it to your will and force fact to behave for your benefit, then that other voice will listen when you tell it to shut up.
And finally, have patience with yourself. People love to throw around the cliche "You are your own worst enemy." That's just a shitty way to blame you for not being able to wade through your anxiety as easily as they'd like.
Forgive yourself for those moments of panic and fear. You are only human.
And I promise, with time and regular daily practice in quieting the voices, writing your words, and learning to put down your own heavy armor, one day you'll suddenly realize how light you feel. It probably won't last forever. So far it hasn't for me, but the lightness returns, sticks around a bit longer, and the more I see that, the more hope I have that when the anxiety returns, I can find a way to live without it.