Why is it always so difficult to do what is good for yourself during the times when you need it most? As the new semester approaches, I can feel the overwhelm sinking in. I have yet to step foot back on campus, but I am already intimidated by my classes, the few syllabi I have access to, and my entire life as I see it playing out throughout this semester. It is so easy for completely natural anxiety about something new to snowball into a comatose hibernation. Why is that?
I think a big part of falling into the abyss of catastrophic anxiety stems from an inability to stay in the now. Whether we like to admit it or not, we have no control over the past or the future. Rather, all we can control is the moment we are in.
If I were to allow this wave of anxiety to go unchecked, it could drown me. I could be too anxious to do my homework, which would make me afraid to go to class, tanking my grades and tearing down my confidence. Depression would set in, keeping me from going out or spending time with friends, thus worsening my mental state until I fall apart. Then, 15 weeks from now, I would be a wreck. I would have to drop out, move to another city, grow a beard and rename myself Cindy so I could start a new life as a cocktail waitress with a mysterious past.
This is the narrative my Anxiety Monster is fond of telling me, something psychology likes to call catastrophic thinking. It’s the worst case scenario your brain goes to when anxiety starts to rear its ugly head in earnest. But what starts with a simple and reasonable worry about doing well in a new semester snowballs into the end of life as I know it. And suddenly, even though these predictions play out literal months from this moment, they have become the truth and nothing but the truth within the confines of my psyche. In some ways, preparing for the worst is a safety plan – its your mind trying to protect you from anything that might go wrong by focusing obsessively on everything that could go wrong. But in reality, it simply cripples you from wanting to do anything for fear that whatever you choose might be the wrong choice, ending in disaster.
However, this isn’t the only future narrative that can occur. Some days, Miss Perfectionism likes to take over, helping us plan out every second from now until death so that she and I can be in precise control of every part of our lives. There is safety in certainty, and Perfectionism wants to provide that for us. Unfortunately, life is unpredictable, and as soon as things don’t go according to plan we are struck with yet another bout of anxiety and feel compelled to obsessively re-plan out this perfect future in order to regain our sense of control. And on it goes, an obsessive cycle of attempting to make order out of the chaos of reality. And even if life doesn’t knock us off track, the sheer pressure of trying to live perfectly and do every little thing according to plan is enough to give you an ulcer (or at the very least, an eating disorder).
This is the danger of living in a fictional future, as anxiety likes to do. Trying to plan out everything that will happen, whether catastrophically or with perfection, is a recipe for insanity. But it feels so safe! Sadly, this safety is a facade, just like when ED tries to rope us in and hook us with his promises. Because no matter how much we plan, we have no control over anything except our thoughts and our actions in this precise moment. Not the one that just passed. Not the one that is about to happen. Only this one.
Man, does that suck. The worst thing to tell someone who is constantly struggling is that there is no way for them to regain control, no way for them to guarantee a future without pain. But that is the truth. We can’t protect ourselves from uncertainty or pain, not absolutely. And trying to avoid it or mask it or control it won’t make that fact go away.
The only way to deal is to accept it. To accept that we don’t have the control we crave, and we never will. Accept that pain is a part of existence, and that nothing can protect us from it forever. That life is inherently uncertain, and we will never know exactly what is coming next. We will never be perfectly prepared.
In reality though, who would want to be? A year ago I could literally have never imagined what life would be like now. What I would be capable of feeling and experiencing. What I would be able to handle and tolerate. The (positive!) beliefs I could hold about myself and my body and the world. The hope I could feel in my heart, and the happiness I could get to experience from time to time. The relationships I would have, not as a facade but as the real, authentic me that I have come to appreciate and love. The dreams and aspirations I would hold. The support I have received from my family and friends, and even strangers. The pain I have felt, and overcome, and learned, and grown from. The pain that is still to come, that I feel ready for. That I know I can get through because of what I have already done.
I never in my life could have imagined even one of these things. If I had had complete control, the absolute ability to predict and plan my future, my life would be miserable. What I thought I wanted and needed when I was sick was so so small in comparison to what I have now, let alone what my life will grow to in the future. I would be trapped in ED’s sick vision of an ideal future, in which I was cornered and broken and literally starving for life.
Who would want to confine themselves to the limited vision of their “safety goggles” when in distress. Of the future our sickness tells us will be perfect. The uncertainty of life is a gift, not a death sentence. It allows for everyday to be a clean slate. Everyday we can choose to be who we are, act how we choose, and follow whatever path we feel drawn to. Yes, this means that everyday we have the potential to get worse. To take steps towards sickness, or unhappiness, or pain. To stray from our dreams and our values. To push away others and console in ED. But it also means that everyday we have the option to choose life. To choose to love ourselves and pursue our dreams and bake cakes and pet puppies and to read and paint and sing. That is the nature of uncertainty. And that is power. Realizing that we don’t have to control every variable of life. We just have to be in this moment, take the next step, and make the next choice.
Sometimes choosing what is good for us is hard. In fact, I dare to say MOST of the time it is hard. It is easier to fall into the momentum of what is around you than it is to push yourself in your own direction, particularly when life just won’t stop throwing curveballs your way and you are struggling to breath let alone to define your path. But the fact of the matter is, everyday we get to choose. And push. And fight. And try. And that is all we can do.
My dad always used to tell me this, and it would piss me off to no end. When he would tell me I get to choose, all I would hear is that I had chosen that which had happened to me. That I had chosen my eating disorder, my mental illness, all the trauma that has happened in my life. That I was somehow responsible for all the pain I had ever encountered. That it was my fault. But after literal years of therapy (and family therapy) and a lot of reflection on my part, I have come to understand his meaning.
He told me I have a choice not because he was putting the blame on me for what life had thrown at me. But rather, he as highlighting the fact that I wasn’t just helpless to the shitty whims of reality. That I had a choice in how I reacted. In how I lived my life, the actions I chose to do, the thoughts and narratives I chose to subscribe to, the people I chose to include in my world, and the path that I chose to aim for. Not that any of this could prevent life from dealing me a hard hand, or keep me from ever feeling pain. But that I had power. He was showing me that even if the hand was shit, I held all the cards. And I got to decide how to play them.
Now-a-days I try to remember this when I feel helpless, as Anxiety Monster and ED both like to make me feel. That doesn’t mean I am always up to the task of choosing, or that I always see the options to choose from. But to remember that I have an inherent power over myself and this moment that no one, and no circumstance, can take away from me is – well, empowering.
I have spent the last four or five days letting the pull of the ocean of anxiety and depression move me where it may. I felt paralyzed, unable to alter my path. I couldn’t use any of my oh-so-well planned skills because I didn’t have the energy or capacity to implement them. It’s as though I’ve had boulders tied to my waist and ankles, pulling me down slow and steady into the cold dark abyss. I still feel like I am fighting for air. I am terrified of my classes, of not being good enough or not being able to do enough or not being enough or… The snowball threatens to turn into an avalanche and bury me in it.
All I can do is try to stay in this moment. Try to remember what moments like this have felt like in the past, and how they have panned out (a useful way to use the past to influence the present to keep from freaking out about the future). I think about how I often feel this sense of paralyzing overwhelm and not good enough at the beginning of the semester, or really any new thing. I try to remember how those other semesters panned out okay, even though I felt this way early on. But, you are doing so much MORE now, my Anxiety Monster screams. There is no WAY you are good enough for that! I breath. Remind myself that I can’t predict the future, that I don’t know how this will pan out. That all I can do is try my best. But if you don’t DO good enough, you won’t be able to get into grad school! How can you ever change the world if you can’t even get into school! ‘All I can do is my best, and that will lead me where I am supposed to go,’ I tell my monster. ‘And anyways, grad school is still a ways away. Can’t we wait until then to have a panic attack?’ BUT…
This is what the fight looks like sometimes. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all we can do is pop an anti-anxiety pill and try to sleep it off. To reset in the night, and try again the next day. Sometimes we try something else to help, like a hot bath or a good meal. And sometimes, yes, we plan. Sometimes we make, or write, or read. And sometimes this helps.This is what the fight looks like sometimes. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all we can do is pop an anti-anxiety and try to sleep it off, reset in the night, and try again the next day. Sometimes we try something else to help, like a hot bath or a good meal. And sometimes, yes, we plan. Sometimes we make, or write, or read. And sometimes this helps. But the truth is, there are no guarantees. There are no automatic wins, foolproof do-this-and-you-will-never-be-anxious-again-s. There is no certainty. We just have to keep trying, and try to remember why we’re doing it.
I fight because I deserve to live. So tomorrow, I will try. And the next day. And the next. Because when it comes down to it, there just isn’t any other option. I choose to live.