I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid who or what I really am. Trying not to see, feel, or be the turmoil inside of myself. I’ve spent my whole life covering for the anxiety simmering and seething within. Trying to keep it contained, to maintain “normalcy”, to be like everyone else–to smile. I’ve spent my whole life with people who think it is as simple as “there’s no reason to be nervous” or “that is so irrational, you’re too smart for that” or “just have some fun.” Wondering if anyone really understands what it is like to live one life, confined by the walls of anxiety, knowing that a better alternative is out there, just unavailable to me. I’ve spent my whole life keenly aware of the toll my selfish anxious world takes on my friends and family. Wondering why they continue to tolerate my nonsense. I’ve spent my whole life in an effort not to be my own worst enemy. Striving to become louder than the anxiety enriched voice of doubt within.
Lonely and isolating, anxiety stalked my brain at all hours, preying on my weakness and jealously seeking my companionship. It sabotaged my thought process with constant reminders of what I absolutely could not do and all of the germy places and things I should avoid. It made ridiculous rituals and paths seem intelligent and even clever…after all, I didn’t want to get sick.
When it sensed my strength rising and my thoughts clearing, anxiety charged panic with the takedown. Panic was a tougher opponent—subtle at first, as it crept surreptitiously from some dark corner of my mind. Unnoticed. I had no way of protecting myself, of establishing a means of defense. The struggle to survive panic’s attack felt intense and like a losing battle. Shaking from head to toe, sick and breathless, I would try to fight back, to overcome the internal siege with reason and rational thought, but panic was louder than I could hope to be and for a while I just had to wait it out—retreating to some internal nook or cranny until it was safe to exit.
My parents called me “the clam” because, well, I just didn’t really talk about how I was feeling most of the time. They and others, my husband included, have tried to understand and have tried to help. They’ve listened to what I was willing to share when I was willing to share it, but I withheld so much. I’m 41 years old and I still don’t really talk about it with any specificity. This piece of writing is the most I have said about this part of my life and the details of it still remain carefully veiled. I’ve spent the past 32 years working this out—fighting back with skills and strategies that even now sometimes feel vague and unequipped to handle the weight of the work, but I put them to use anyway. Panic doesn’t visit as frequently as he used to—my understanding of his elusive and insidious ways have stripped some of his power and brought me into greater control. But it is hard work. Everyday. Hard work.
And then there are the moments when I look into the eyes of my own child or into the eyes of a student and witness a mirror image of my own struggle—and my heart sinks to my toes. I cannot make it better for them. I cannot remove their burden. Only they can do the work. But, I can let them know they are not alone. That in some way I understand. Community, in the midst of the isolation and doubt, can be a sort of salvation. I can offer that.
John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down offered me that community, imbuing me with the confidence to write this today. In his character Aza, I saw myself. My struggles never truly paralleled the magnitude of Aza’s. I was lucky in that way, I suppose. But the emotion tied to her anxious, compulsive moments, the honesty and truth of her character, the way her fight within herself impacted her family and friends—all of it—overwhelmed me as a reader. I had never seen this side of myself, my high school self especially, so clearly expressed on the page. I found myself having to put the book to the side from time to time because, well, I had to take a break…from myself. It was as though someone had extracted the deepest secrets I owned and shared them with the world. I have spent so much time in the last few decades denying myself, that to see a portrait so clearly painted terrified me. And at the same time made me realize, once again, that community can be salvation—and that words can offer a way out.
My interaction with Turtles All the Way Down proved to me again, in the most personal way, why we offer our students diverse books and choice when it comes to their reading. They need these moments. They need to see themselves on the page and to know that whoever they are, whatever they are going through the world of print doesn’t deny their existence…that the world doesn’t deny their worth. Jane Eyre was a great book and I loved every second of reading it, but access to a character dealing with anxiety the way Green portrays Aza would’ve helped my sophomore self far more. I might have understood myself and what was happening on the inside a bit better and I might not have been so afraid of it all, knowing that I was not alone.
But our kids also need to see the lives, joys and struggles of those people whose worlds and experiences do not reflect their own. Growing to understand and care for a character can lead our students, and all readers, to a retraction of judgment and to an extension of empathy. It can take time, practice, nudging and conscientious reflection for our students to acknowledge their own bias and to build these bridges. However, in a world so darkened by judgment and the need to be right, in a world so taken with the simplicity of the single story, it would seem offering the chance for kids to find themselves in a book as well as empathy for others is the least we can do.
This week, I’ve opted to share Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” (you’ll have to scroll through the article to find the poem-but it is worth it). I realize, of course that neither of these poems are about anxiety directly, yet somehow the imagery takes me there as well as to the places intended by the poet. And on top of that, they are both simply beautiful pieces of poetry and emotion on the page.