November 30, 2017

The Anxiety of Anxiety

Three and a half years ago, after getting into a car accident, I would've told you that I was struggling with anxiety for the first time in my life.

I'd always thought of myself as a depressed person, not an anxious one. I believed then—and still do—that I was born depressed.

Of course, the anxiety that began to eclipse my depression in 2014 was perfectly understandable from a circumstantial point of view: I'd lost a love and a job in the same month, and I'd been rear-ended a couple weeks later. I was financially destitute, with no prospects—professional or romantic.

I then rebounded into an incredibly toxic and anxiety-provoking relationship with someone who practically flaunted his infidelities and yet hypocritically insisted he be the only one for me.

The anxiety got so bad while I was with him that I'd begun clenching my leg muscles uncontrollably all day long, and even during the night while I slept. Despite how much they ached, I kept flexing those muscles in my legs.

But it was only in my legs, and not my arms or anywhere else—not even my jaw. Why my legs, and, in particular, my calves? I still don't know.

However, other parts of my body didn't escape the manifestation of anxiousness. For example, I literally peeled the skin off the surface of my nose.

I told myself I'd gotten too much sun, or that I was experiencing some dry patches, but the truth is that I could not stop digging into my pores and trying to eliminate what I thought were blackheads until I got rid of my illuminated, magnified mirror.

While I drove—which was particularly anxiety-provoking after getting whiplash in a collision—I'd begun picking at the holes in my pierced ears until I drew blood.

What was I digging for? I'm not sure. I thought I'd know when I found it.

Of course, as nothing in life is really permanent, I eventually got a job and licked my wounds. The chaos of my life subsided. My situation calmed down.

Yet, although I was no longer in crisis mode, I had a hard time shaking all of these tics I'd developed and, if you were to ask me, perfected.

Once I had the time to give it some thought, I realized that behaviors like those—even if not those exact ones—had been ingrained in me since very early in childhood. In fact, they'd become so second-nature to me that I'd kind of forgotten I did them.

The only difference? I hid it better back then. And when I got caught doing one thing, I'd shift to something else.

As a preschooler, I was a nailbiter. I could not leave my nails alone or keep my fingers out of my mouth. So, my parents put this special habit-breaking nail polish on me that's supposed to taste bad if it gets in your mouth.

And you know what? I was immediately cured—but not because of the flavor of the stuff. I was such a vain little girl that I loved the way my nails looked all pink and shiny.

Then, I figured out that I could bite my cuticles and the skin around my nails without destroying a manicure.

I also remember obsessively bouncing my leg up and down as a kid as young as, say, five or six. I could hide it at the dinner table, but when I did it in church, it infuriated my father so much that he'd drag me out into the vestibule and shake an angry finger in my face.

Of course that only made me feel worse, so I needed to do something to comfort myself. I passed out in church once as a flight response. By high school, I'd taken to rocking back and forth like what you might see a kid with autism do.

Up until the age of 10, I found myself playing an imaginary keyboard whenever I could find a flat surface. My parents thought it was cute that I was practicing my piano lessons. But I don't think that's what I was doing then—just like I don't think that's what I was doing when I obsessively repeated sign language finger-spelling to myself after having learned it for a high school production of The Miracle Worker.

I needed a lot of comfort as a kid, and all these things made me feel better. Whether it was the rush of dopamine, or the intermittent distraction from constant traumatization, having some repetitive motion I could rely on made me feel like everything was going to be OK.

In grade school, when the rush of pubescent hormones changed the texture of my hair, I couldn't stop touching it. I still struggle with that to this day.

The only thing that keeps me from going bald or peeling off my entire face is that same vanity that allowed my nails to grow long despite my desire to bite them.

But I can't be trusted with, say, an exfoliator or other advanced tools of beauty and hygiene. I would probably get overzealous if I had a home waxing kit. I've sent myself limping away from a home pedicure more recently than I care to admit.

I have no desire to harm myself—in fact, quite the opposite. All these things usually start with good intentions. Snip off the split end. Pluck the rogue eyebrow hair. Slough off the dead skin.

All these things can go horribly wrong with just a simple misstep. And, usually, any attempt to try to fix what's been done only makes it worse.

It's a terrifying thing to face—mostly because my mother was and is a nervous person, wracked with phobias of water, heights, bridges, germs, smells, dirt, driving, foreigners, leaving the house, letting strangers into the house, and so on and so forth.

Although, come to think of it, I think I got off pretty easy with just my irrational fear of bees and my completely rational distaste for heights and the dark.

When I'm home, I try to keep one hand occupied with the cat and the other clicking away on the keyboard or lifting a fork or a spoon to my mouth. But sometimes the cat walks away, and then I'm left to my own devices.

This type of behavior, of course, is also seen throughout the animal kingdom. An anxious cat might over-groom himself and, as a result, develop a hairball problem. An anxious parrot will pluck the feathers off of her own chest, sometimes so bad that she'll render herself bald. An anxious monkey might hit himself in the head repeatedly with his own fist, or he might hit it against a wall or a window.

When it comes to people, some smoke cigarettes one after the other. Others need a few shots of liquor before they can calm down.

Of course, they're doing the same thing I'm doing—they're just ravaging the invisible insides of their bodies.

I don't know if I became anxious because I am my mother's daughter genetically or because I was raised by an anxious mother. I don't know whether it was a destined anxiety because I've got some aberrant chemical make-up or if it was an evolutionary adaptation to endure the slings and arrows that modern life offered me.

Do I survive because I'm anxious? Or do I survive despite being anxious?

I may never know the answer. But I refuse to worry about it.

Related Posts:
The Anxiety of Separation
I Refuse to Worry
Avoiding Worry
A Case of the Unsecure
Living With the Terror

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