It’s not that I’m advocating turning your brain off or refusing to investigate life’s questions, but there comes a point in a healthy adult’s life where you have enough self-awareness to realize: I can’t turn off the words in my head.
I don’t necessarily want the words to be gone: words are my safe place and my solace. Words are my gift. But when I have to make a phone call to the cable company and I obsessively rehearse every possible dialogue that could crop up, insisting under my breath no, I will not and here’s my real issue, words don’t feel like a gift. They feel like a noose – and it’s uncomfortably tight.
It’s not just phone calls. It’s meeting friends for dinner, it’s driving to a place I’ve never been before, it’s a new project or a research paper, it’s travel plans, it’s an honest conversation (read: confrontation) with a co-worker. Every event calls forth an inundation of tightly-wound words which shape the coming apocalypse: what if my tire is flat, what if it starts raining and I can’t see, what if my phone dies and I don’t have the GPS, what if I’m heading to the wrong place entirely, what if. Each scenario requires another talk-through (like a walk-through, but taking place only in my head). It’s almost as if I think my life is a test and I’m perilously close to flunking.
For a long time, I thought I was simply better prepared than most everyone else. I laughingly called myself the anti-procrastinator. I was never late with a paper, I was never up the night before writing the last ten pages. On the contrary, I often turned in my papers early. I would hold off for a few days at least (I knew it was crazy), and then I would give it to my professor on the sly, after class, a week before it was due.
Do you know why? Because I just couldn’t not. If I forced myself to wait on doing the research, then my anxiety levels grew exponentially for every day I wasn’t jumping in. If I took my time in the library, then I felt inefficient. Nothing was worse for my mental well-being than having an assignment due. It hung over my head like the sword of Damocles.
A good friend who takes anti-anxiety medication recently told me that before the drugs he could never fully experience anything. He said, ‘Now I can stop it. Now it’s manageable. Now when I go pick up kid from daycare, my drive over hasn’t been filled with worst case scenarios. I can fully experience fatherhood.’
The full experience.
What was my college experience? I really love research, still to this day. I’ll get lost on the internet after innocently searching for a synonym for ‘elaborate.’ Daisy-chain one wiki article to the next. I loved writing research papers, loved being in the library, and obviously I love writing itself – the words, the language, the metaphors, the themes, the flow.
But there’s no doubt anxiety plays a role in my life. I visited some international friends in New York City during fall break, and thankfully, my friend knows exactly how to approach me. She informed me in February that she and her husband would be in the country, specifically in NYC, and then she asked me to come. She offered to split the airfare and she told me room and board were free. Back in February. For October.
Because she knows me. Because she deals with high-performing, anxious introverts quite often in her job. She laid out the plan and she offered solutions for eliminating obstacles without actually making it a fait accompli. I could think about it. I could think about it for a good long time, gear myself up, talk myself through it, explore every possibility, gird myself for NYC transit and NYC crowds.
It was a great trip. For one thing, I flew nonstop. My anxiety focused on getting to the airport with enough time to go through security even if there should be a hellacious line. Presenting my ID. Taking off my shoes. Walking into the big glass tube where I have to raise my hands in surrender and trust that the TSA officer hasn’t had a really shitty day.
Once I was on that flight, I was done. All my anxiety subsided into the low-level tide that keeps me motivated and self-aware and rational-thinking. Inspiration instead of perspiration.
In New York itself, my friends did all the orienteering. I’m crap with maps. I’m worse with cardinal directions. I get turned around just turning around. They led the way and showed me where to go and talked me through every plan we had for me venturing out on my own. We rode the subway exactly once and that was to allow us to walk the Brooklyn Bridge back into Manhattan. We averaged 100 blocks of walking a day. But we were above ground, out of the crush and schedule and – of course – out of the anxiety.
It was the best NYC experience of my life. My friends are smart, and they’re also rather take charge, and I sat back and enjoyed the full experience.
It really was the full NYC experience, as I hadn’t experienced it in the two times previous. And here’s the thing: I know this sounds neurotic. I know you don’t have this anxiety and you walk into the airport an hour before your flight and stand in that security line and you make your plane every time. I know it happens. I know there are other ways of living.
I know it sounds, to you, like my life is so small or narrow or faded. But the thing is – it’s not. I do a lot of things. Paris, Cleveland, Baltimore, NYC, San Francisco. Three novels. Another on its way. A group of international friends who encourage and strive and create some seriously amazing things. A constant questioning nature that keeps my spiritual life in flux. A family whose sarcasm is so sharp and en pointe that most of my days are filled with me laughing at myself. And even if this sounds like protesting too much, I know the anxiety doesn’t hold me back. But it’s the first time I’ve completely worked with it to allow myself to be in the moment.
I can’t turn my brain off. I can’t quiet the thinking. I won’t. It provides these words, and it adds a nuance and flavor to every experience that is somehow more.