And the many people who, impatient of the perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, give us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself.
—Montaigne, “Of Fear”
I don't know where my anxiety comes from, but too often I feel the onset of it when my heart races and my throat tightens. Even witnessing anxiety firsthand in others does nothing to reassure me that this condition is in any way natural or normal, as it seems just as bizarre in others as it does in myself. The physical signs are universal, ranging from sweating palms to rapid heartbeat to hyperventilation. However, it’s the mental prison anxiety forms that frightens me. That prison breeds avoidance and irrational thought, telling me to walk by my classroom after a twenty-minute bus ride on top of a fifteen-minute car ride, even though I made it all the way to the door with the day’s homework neatly tucked away in my backpack. In those moments, it doesn’t matter that I’ve dropped out of college a handful of times due to the same pattern of avoidance. I simply turn around and walk away, phone in hand as my mind sorts through my contacts to see who I should report my failure to first.
Anxiety knows me best, after all. It knows what poison to slip into my thoughts and when to do so. Anxiety forms in the mind at a young age, but at that age, it was simply monsters under the bed or in the closet. It was pulling the covers of my bed up over my neck and body despite sweltering heat to make sure the vampires didn’t bite me.
However, it was also worrying that my mother would see through my lies and telling on myself anyways just to relieve myself of the anxious thoughts. It was worrying over what Christmas presents were under the tree and if I’d received everything on my list. It was making snowmen with cotton balls, construction paper, and glue while wondering if mine was as well-made as the other children’s. It was racing bikes with friends and wondering if I would be the winner when we were just moments from crossing our imaginary finish line.
The anxieties of childhood take root, but their effect is not always known until further on in life. As a child, an anxiety can seem sudden. There’s not as much awareness surrounding the anxiety to properly process the anxiety, or to feel it to its full extent. The more childish anxieties such as those surrounding the monsters, the fibs, and the greed, are world-ending, yet suddenly vanish. Then everything is fine, and anxiety is forgotten.
But worrying was never quite like that. It sat like a little goblin on your shoulder and whispered.
—Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam
Then there are the anxieties of adulthood. An adult has the ability to process anxiety and find the root cause of it. An adult can receive help for it in the form of prescriptions or therapy, or run from it in the arms of whatever person or illicit drug can soothe them for a moment. This freedom breeds new, stronger anxieties. For if we can process the anxiety, we can know it better. In looking into its eyes, we gaze at a demon that can devour us as easily as we can tame it.
So standing at that classroom door, I looked my anxiety in the eyes, and it glared back at me with all of the ideas that I feared the most. I always dropped out, so there was no point in walking through the door, though I have loved all of my courses and have thoroughly enjoyed participating. I would probably fail anyways, though I’d never failed a class before. As it threw attack after attack, the old fear returned. The fear of school in general, of the people that would be inside of that room, gripped me. My anxiety took hold of my weakness, reminding me of the social disaster that I was, that there was nothing charming or endearing about the bluntness and awkwardness born out of my autism.
Perhaps social anxiety is the most damaging of the anxieties. It is often accompanied by fears of rejection and loss, often born in childhood and existing in the mind for a lifetime. There were instances I could link to certain anxieties, like the fear of public speaking that took root during a Kindergarten play where I’d been a very charismatic Cinderella who earned a nice laugh from the audience for something cute, but I’d mistaken it for laughter at a mistake. Then there is social anxiety, where I can never pinpoint the root because I’d been a very social child, though awkward and often considered annoying by my peers.
Anxiety itself must be the trickiest of feelings. Unlike fear, which is often a temporary condition, anxiety can persist daily. It can worsen and bleed into fear, anger, attachment, detachment, and sadness. It can evolve into feelings such as panic. Panic itself is fairly similar to anxiety, but it lacks anxiety’s subtlety. If anxiety is a whisper in the ears, then panic is a scream. This is where the body suddenly freezes, attempts to escape, or blocks stimulus. This is where I would sit in a hallway for half an hour, unable to bring myself to move or do anything productive. Or maybe it is where I would hyperventilate and try to take in the words of someone attempting to remind me to breathe.
Paranoia, panic’s twin, is yet another direct evolution of anxiety. Paranoia is a whisper, so quiet that I think it is my own voice in my mind. In those moments, I assure myself that they are not my thoughts. The neighbors are not laughing at me this time, the new dog will definitely work out despite her own high anxiety, that one essay or test is going to turn out just fine.
If left unchecked, paranoia and panic can evolve to create a new form of anxiety, the phobia. The phobia has no rules. It has no polite whispers, no gaping jaws to devour me. It has nothingness, a void ready to freeze me in a place where I am beyond fear. Anxiety, left unchecked, has led many to the doors of the phobia, and it has swallowed them all without any form of delight or remorse in such an act. It does not want me to fail like the other anxieties wish for. It wants me to hide and scream myself to sleep.
My own phobia has dubious origins. My fascinations with parasitic creatures began at an early age, and there had never been any inkling of fear watching the TV specials on various worms or parasitic insects. There was slight irrational anxiety that formed, the simple idea that what if walking around barefoot led to an infestation in my own body? What if I ever wanted to try sushi and wound up with a monstrous tapeworm? What if I took a dip in a river and wound up with brain-eating amoebas? Then there were dreams of things beneath my skin, and suddenly the idea terrified me. The sight of a kissing bug in my home recently left me paralyzed in fear until my fiancé could kill it for me. For weeks afterward the dreams had returned and the idea of going into our backyard at night was impossible.
Surely anxiety began as a product of the survival instinct. There are natural anxieties like the anxiety over debts and sickness. These things are more rational and realistic than the fears of entering a benign classroom or parasites crawling under skin. Somehow, anxiety morphed into bizarre and sometimes dangerous fascinations with a person’s own thoughts and the unreal. It consumes every hope of reasoning with it. Humanity has developed many methods of dealing with anxiety outside of therapy and drugs to attempt to combat this beast, but there is only so much that deep breathing, yoga, herbal remedies, long walks, listening to music, a healthy diet, enough sleep, and journaling can do.
Others continue to assure me that this healthy level of anxiety does exist, that there is a place where it would urge me to try harder, where its hands can’t crush my throat or inhibit my movement, but I’ve yet to meet it. The methods I use to tame my anxiety numb it at times, and I am still alive, so that must say something about how well they work. If anxiety was truly as unnatural as it seems, it is doubtful that there would be anyone left to write of it.
Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it—just as we have learned to live with storms.
—Paulo Coelho, Manuscrito Encontrado em Accra
Keily Blair is a creative writing student at UT Chattanooga, where her nonfiction won the Creative Writing Nonfiction Award. Her fiction has appeared in Nth Degree and is upcoming in Night to Dawn and Five on the Fifth. She is currently at work on a fantasy novel and a collection of essays about being a person with bipolar disorder.