Master of Anxiety

We can’t all be virtuosos, but I’d like to suggest that I have, in fact, reached the status of a master in at least one area.

It takes a lot of hard work to master something. Dedication. Focus. Consistency. Repetition—you can’t achieve master status without these things. 

Sometimes people are born with innate talents that lend themselves to mastery in one area or another. Think of some amazing musicians, athletes, or public figures like Beethoven, Venus Williams, or Oprah. But along with those inborn abilities, comes a strong sense of drive and a helluva lot of hard work. 

In my case, I was both born with and have spent many years honing my particular skill. It’s something that has taken many hours to master, although these hours of hard work have been complimented by my natural instincts and inclinations. 

Friends, what I’m talking about is my incredible gifts with anxiety.

Not to brag, but I’m confident that I fall into the category of the elite when it comes to overthinking,  second-guessing, and rumination. I can take any situation and infuse it with a level of anxiety so high that food loses all taste, music sounds completely bland, and just taking a breath becomes a challenge.

It’s incredible, isn’t it? I mean, I should be as famous as Oprah given my latent abilities. I seem to leave people wondering: “how does she do it?” Yup. I’m that good.

So what does it take to be an elite in the realm of anxiety?

Well, firstly you must possess a deep sense of worry and insecurity. You need to really feel like anything could go wrong at any moment and that you can in no way trust yourself. 

Second, you must experience trauma that undermines this already fragile sense of security and safety. This can come in the form of physical or emotional stress and can happen at any point in your life.

These two steps will guarantee success in becoming highly anxious. But wait! There’s a third step to truly reaching first-class anxiety and it is this: you must hold onto the first two steps indefinitely. In spite of counselling, moral support, life changes, or personal development, you have to cling to the comfort of your discomfort and allow it to seep into all parts of life, both good and bad.

I know I’m painting a picture that may be hard to see yourself in; it’s only the upper crust of the anxious who can really get to this level. But with hard work and a smattering of bad luck, you may one day find yourself sitting in the upper echelon of anxious people. 

Here are the signs to look for when determining your anxiety status:

  1. Having panic attacks
  2. Frequent rumination
  3. Physical ticks like lip-biting, skin-picking, tremors, or leg-tapping
  4. Exhaustion complimented by bursts of intense/manic energy
  5. A deep sense of unworthiness
  6. Hyper-vigilance
  7. Isolation
  8. Lack of appetite and/or voracious eating
  9. Constant second-guessing
  10. Catastrophizing
  11. Self-sabotage
  12. Pretending everything is fine while feeling exactly the opposite

I myself have mastered all of the 12 Signs of Being Severely Anxious. It’s truly been a lifelong effort, I have to say, but I don’t even have to try anymore—it’s just so easy at this point. 

Are you a member of the Anxious Elite? Have you mastered the 12 Signs? Don’t worry if you haven’t (easier said than done, I know). 

Not all of us can be Oprah, but we can all master something, even if that something is a bitch called anxiety.

xxJ   

Anxious AF


Fearing the End of the Story

It’s starting to feel like I’m hitting the denouement of my story. At least, it feels like I’m hitting it for this part of my story…

I’ve been living in the climax of a stressful, traumatic, gritty, exhausting story for the last four years or so. Unlike the climax in a short story, my life story climax plateaued and stayed climactic for a really long fucking time.

But I can feel myself progressing. I can see it and this week in particular, I’m having an upswing, which is a very welcome change after months and months of being depressed.

But it’s all starting to change and, to be honest, that scares me a little bit.

Okay, it scares me quite a bit. Because I harbour a deep sense of fear that healing means my past doesn’t matter or is no longer true.

I’m often scared that if I stop being an outright champion and reiterating the facts of my past loudly and consistently, then people will think (and I will feel) like they didn’t happen. That me growing and moving forward isn’t a positive thing; that it’s an obliteration of all that came before and as such, leaves no room for relapse, triggers, memories, or scars.

I’m scared of getting better, which sounds ridiculous, but letting go of the fierceness that’s kept me safe and strong is incredibly uncomfortable.

Why do I sabotage myself like this? Why stymie the progress in my life for the sake of holding onto a broken and battered story? Why not celebrate the fact that I’m safe and have moments of joy and can relax sometimes and have goals and achievements that I’ve accomplished as an individual? What the hell is wrong with me??

Well, we all know that the answer to that question—nothing at all, and a whole helluva lot.

I think I’m scared because I learned to not trust good things. I learned that setting expectations guarantees disappointment and that making goals or changes results in failure. These are some of the strongest lessons I carry with me from my past as a codependent and I resent them as much as I recognize them. I hate their potency as I begin to notice all the good shit that’s going on in my life again. I give space to my fear and allow it to bring me back to a state of helplessness, which on an intellectual level I recognize is bullshit, but on an emotional level, feels (strangely) comfortable and normal.

So how to avoid giving up? How to stop the self-sabotage? How to savour the good stuff and build my confidence while recognizing that moving forward absolutely does NOT mean that my past doesn’t matter?

My first instinct is to answer that with a “hell if I know!”, but I DO actually know! The answer lies in the capacity I developed during my trauma to survive…I can’t quit. I just don’t give up. I allow myself to feel my fear and to acknowledge it while also seeing the positive things that are happening at the same time. I get uncomfortable and then push through those feelings and keep trying. I embrace the upswing and the denouement; the falling action in the climactic journey I’ve had these last few years. I remember that every story remains for as long as we exist and that mine is still true even if I’m smiling and even if I move on.

I will always be a person with mental illness. I will always be an abuse survivor. But more importantly, I will always be myself. And being me is a nuanced, changing, shifting, growing, colourful experience; I can’t cling to one version or one time and say that it’s the only truth in my life!

I’m feeling ready to embrace more of who I am and give space to the things that come from this new acknowledgement. Maybe that sounds new-agey and super corny? Fuck it.

Yes, I’m still scared. I still worry (thanks anxiety) that I’ll fail at trying something new or that I’ll push myself too far and have to pull back from the goals I want to achieve. These are very real, very tangible fears that I’m not working at surpassing. I tell myself that being happier is something I deserve and that it’s possible, with love and support around me, to do more than just survive. It’s time to start thriving.

xxJ

The Proliferation of False Positivity

My biggest pet peeve is the proliferation of false positivity.

False positivity litters Instagram, Facebook, magazine pages (wait, does anyone still read actual magazines??), blogs, web sites, self-help books, and almost all other media and advertising. We seem to be living in an era where we are told that simply having the “right” attitude is what will fix all of our problems:

Okay, first of all, no one should be taking advice from a fictional character, ESPECIALLY not Jack Sparrow (or Johnny Depp…ew!). Secondly, I’ll buy that the way we think about things affects our experiences of them, but I refuse to promise myself or anyone else that just “changing my attitude” will solve all my problems. In fact, I see this kind of bullshit approach to managing mental health and personal well-being as reductive and limiting. It tells me that if I’m feeling shitty, it’s because I just don’t have the right attitude! As a survivor of abuse and a person with diagnosed mental health disorders, I’m offended by the suggestion that my attitude about these traumas and struggles is what’s affecting my ability to heal or feel well.

And this is the problem, I feel, with what I’m calling “false positivity”. False positivity reduces our legitimate struggles into memes and clichés that essentially instruct us to ignore or disassociate from our problems. OR they create a sense of shame and blame that we can’t just “attitude” our way out of them!

Look at this bullshit! I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting, but it feels like anything BUT uplifting to me! If only I could simply use my supernaturally powerful thoughts to think away the abuse I endured, the chemistry of my brain, and the long-term trauma that’s resulted from my struggles with these things! Wow! Either I’ve been handed a magic key to happiness (nope!), or I’m being blamed for the trauma I experienced (yep!).

And this! This actually makes me angry. Like, I want to go punch something right now, because it’s so wrong to suggest that betrayal by someone you trust and love is actually a blessing or a gift! It’s the same with suggesting that my anxiety is a gift in disguise. Or that emotional abuse was a blessing because now it’s fueled this blog and my writing.

My anxiety is a daily and lifelong struggle. It was exacerbated to the extreme by my abusive partners. I did not asked to be abused. I have not fully recovered from that abuse and likely never will. And most of all, it’s NOT MY FAULT that people took advantage of me. Telling me that I should just “think differently” or see my experience of abuse (or the aftermath of it) as anything other than trauma is exceptionally upsetting to me.

I found these and many, many more after spending only about 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. All of them create so much unease within me. I’m frustrated that people seem to think that comments like the ones in these screenshots are helpful, authentic, or reasonable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more damaging than anything. They offer, at best, a temporary sense of relief from whatever mental anguish is ailing us, but the consequence of that is, I believe, a perpetuation or deepening of the shame/fear/struggle/anger/issues that we are trying to cope with.

You can’t solve real problems with fake positivity.

So what is an alternative? How can we offer better support and cultivate hope for people who are struggling for any reason? Why do we continue to rely on cute memes and catchy Instagram posts instead of addressing our problems in more authentic and lasting ways?

I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are the key to managing these problems better. For example, my writing with head/strong is based on relating my first-hand experience and offering insights into how I *actually* manage (or don’t) based on the  knowledge I have right now. You don’t have to swear like a sailor to be authentic; you just have to be consistently honest and allow yourself to admit fault, to share struggles, and to relate the real experiences you have.

Therapy can be a great tool for cultivating self-awareness and authenticity. Good therapists don’t hand you answers (which is effectively what the images above are trying to do); they help you work through your struggles and co-develop the coping strategies that work best for you.

Unfortunately, therapy isn’t accessible to enough people. And it can be really hard, even IF you can afford and find therapy, to get a counsellor whom you work well with! Just because they’re qualified as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health worker, doesn’t mean that they’re able to support you in the ways that you need. My experience is that I have the most success in finding therapy when I reach out to referrals from trusted people in my life and then set up what are essentially interviews with these prospective therapists. If we don’t mesh in that interview, then I try someone else.

My first therapy experience was with someone who didn’t care to know me as an individual. We made progress in some regards, but the lasting impression from that experience is more trauma that I carry with me. I’ve learned how to speak up for myself so much more now that I’m not willing to accept people like that in my care team or in my life in general. (‘Bout fucking, time, eh?) It’s been decades of learning to get to this point though and I know how lucky I am that I can access exceptionally high quality counselling as I need it.

After learning so much in therapy, mental health programs, and lots of hard work, I can’t look at bullshit like what I see on Instagram and buy into it. I guess I can imagine, though, that some people feel good when they read something like this:

At least, they likely feel good for a moment or two…

But really, how practical is it to “walk like you are made of magic”? Like, how the hell do you even do that? What does this have to do with improving your mental health (the screenshot came from a mental health support post) and how effectively does its message of “walking with magic” reduce the legitimacy of mental health (or any) struggles?

My god, I wish I could feel like magic all the time! I can’t. No one can! And I don’t want to feel a sense of shame for “failing” to walk like magic when clearly that’s exactly what I should be doing to fix my life.

What do you think about false positivity? Do images like the ones in this post lift you up in authentic ways, or are you like me and view them cynically (and likely cringe) whenever they show up in your news feed or wherever?

I plan to continue avoiding and remaining skeptical of messages like the ones I screenshot for this blog post. And my goal with head/strong (and in general) is to continue being authentic and offering real, tangible ideas for how to manage as an abuse survivor and a person with mental health problems—we can do so much better than telling ourselves that our attitude is the problem, instead of the problem being the problem.

xxJ

My attitude towards false positivity (artist unknown, unfortunately)