Yes Anxiety—It may be the worst thing to happen at any stage of recovery. But somehow in later recovery anxiety feels worse because we feel like we should know better, or have worked this out. At least that’s what I think each time it hits me. Yes, that word “should” is there which should be a clue. But my pattern, when anxiety arrives, is the same: Resist, Insist, Deny, Distract and then Pray and Surrender.
This week it came again. Home from vacation. Lovely sun and sand and swimming in salt water. But an email from work and my head and heart tore away into worry and dread. And I am afraid. On the one hand I know this place; it’s a childhood mantra: “Diane is not wanted, not liked, not needed, a fool.”
But it’s that tumble-down, rolling-stone-picking-up-dirt, quality of anxiety that undoes me. It’s not just that I am not liked at work, it quickly becomes not liked at all, not by friends, not by students, and of course, eventually not by those who love me, whose love actually sustains me. And that delivers Anxiety’s Nasty Goal: I will be alone, left out, shuttered and shattered. That this happens in my head in less than 90 seconds, that it is fiction, and that in reality it already happened years ago and I survived--does not seem to dissuade my ever-creative mind. Anxiety whispers, “But this time it’s different…”
If you relate to this I bless you. I wouldn’t wish Anxiety on my worst enemy. If anxiety is not your thing come back tomorrow when I write about shoes or sugar or relationships. You won’t get this; you’ll think I’m talking about fear, which I’m not.
When Anxiety hits I do what I’ve learned to do: I pray, I read recovery literature, and words of faith and wisdom; I talk to someone who knows me well (I email my sponsor—anxiety always convinces me not to call her), and I write it out, with the hope of riding it out.
But really, is there anything as gross as Anxiety?
So this week I did pray and then kept on doing my day which included reading the book I brought for the plane: It’s called, “Still” and it’s a memoir written by Lauren F. Winner, and in there, in her book, the tiniest bit of hope appeared. I read her story of her divorce and how she questioned her faith, and I saw that she is an honest, self-revealing writer—much like Mary Karr or Anne Lamott, and she has Anxiety. Hoorah!
In fact, Winner is so much like Karr or Lamott because she is a smart, worldly woman, and a woman of faith like them who tells on herself over and over and by revealing the grossness of her feelings she invites others (Me!) to feel less lonely in their gross feelings. That, my friends, is generosity.
And I kept reading--in the car, in the airport and on the plane-while making deals with God hoping that my Anxiety has a purpose and some meaning but really just hoping it will Go Away Right Now.
But my prayers have been said and I turn the pages and here is Lauren Winner suddenly offering a chapter on anxiety. (Thank you Jesus!) and she writes about the crazy ways that hers manifests—a bunch of compulsive stuff—(brutally painful she says.) and she tells how she learned to count the “Ones”: One, one, one, one. ..and she explains some prayers that she has been taught to pray for her anxiety. (She is a professor at Duke, teaches in the Divinity School –Thank you Lauren for being a certified smart person and spiritual professional and still totally copping to Anxiety.)
Then she writes this: “Francis de Sales, a seventeenth-century priest and writer addressed anxiety in his “Introduction to the Devout Life”: “Unresting anxiety is the greatest evil which can happen to the soul, sin only accepted.”….Frances de Sales’s antidote to anxiety is two-fold, half positive, half negative: Do pray and do not do anything that might address the object of your anxiety (do not go online and check your bank balance: the action far from steadying you will just make you more frantic.) (Her words of course—de Sales probably said do not start counting your sheep)
This was great news: Frances de Sales says, “When you are conscious that you are growing anxious, commend yourself to God and resolve steadfastly not to take any steps whatever to obtain the result you desire, until your state of mind is altogether quieted.”
The relief for me in that is two-fold: He gives an actual recipe for what to do and what not to do, but also, by the very existence of his remedy, and of Winner needing to quote a great theologian, is proof that anxiety is a common, and an actual (if not normal) part of the human condition, and it is something that even brilliant, educated and esteemed professors, theologians, saints and writers also struggle with.
Hooray! I’m not alone—the very thing that Anxiety swears that I am.
The good thing that Anxiety does—caught by its own trick—is send me back to God. And maybe, though it doesn’t quite seem fair, God uses Anxiety to get me look back in his direction? I’m not sure how I feel about that.
But here is something else I thought about today: Why is it so hard to say, “I have anxiety today”? In talking with friends or coworkers we can say, “I’m sad today” or “I’m bummed” and I even hear people say, “I’m depressed.” But Anxiety has a bit of shame attached I think. Is it fear of contagion? Anxiety is fear attached to fear attached to fear.
Sometimes I think that people who get mad easily, or who are deeply put-upon and victimy or who nip at people with their sharp tongues have anxiety too. But those other states are just Anxiety in prettier dresses.