Prologue: A Brief History in Anxiety
Redirect and direct it towards something that works in your favor.
Redirect and direct it towards something productive.
It’s the main fighting philosophy behind tai chi and aikido. It’s the primary behavioral guidance philosophy in the early education world:
Don’t meet the obstacle head-on. Don’t attempt to overpower it and bulldoze through.
Redirect. Redirect what’s coming at you and see if you can – using its own forward momentum – steer it towards something that works in your favor.
I spent the last decade enmeshed in some version of that philosophy. In some ways, I can’t believe it took me this long to use it towards something like fighting anxiety.
I know all the little tricks to stop or fight against a potential anxiety attack. All the little breathing techniques, like I could literally blow away the encroaching storm. The use of yoga and exercise and crafts and the great outdoors for taming the returning beast.
The tricks that always showed the most potential involved grounding in some way: label what you see, note what you hear, list off what you can touch, what you smell, what you can taste… But in the end, I still see them as fights against an impending attack. Sentries at the gate, attempting to ward off what’s coming with shields in hand, hoping the iron is strong enough.
The problem is, a coping device should not feel like a fighting off of what is encroaching. To curb and stop and deal – it’s exhausting. It’s unsustainable. There’s a reason why boxing matches only go for twelve rounds, MMA for three. There’s only so much fight you can offer before you simply want to tap. Call in the ref. Call it a day.
Do not fight the oncoming energy. Redirect it to your advantage. Redirect it in ways that play off your strengths.
The same way it took a while to find the connection between philosophies, it took a while before I recognized the connection between these grounding techniques and the art world.
Label the things you see, the things you hear – categorize the world around you. Illustrate a scene. Make a snapshot.
In essence, create a tableau.
Redirect. Redirect the grounding techniques away from sentries at the gate towards a portrait of scene and scenery. Make it beautiful. Stop treating it like a fight and start treating it like art. Let it just be – this awe-inspiring framework of the present moment, weightless and beautiful and surreal. Let the weight of the past and the future slip away, even for just a moment.
Let it be.
Redirect. Redirect what can be seen as suffering and make it art. That’s been the philosophy behind all varieties of art since time immemorial. The poets and the painters and the playwrights and the sculptors: take the dark and create a masterpiece from it.
Don’t fight the anxiety by attempting to find ground. Make a tableau out of the grounding.
A gritty street. Rain puddles. The smell of last night’s storm and humidity. On the top floor of an apartment building, a lady leans out onto the windowsill, speaking loudly and clearly in a language I don’t recognize. It appears she’s speaking out to someone, but there’s no one else on the streets and there is no indication that she is even attempting to talk to me.
An autumn afternoon in New Hampshire. Middle lane on a five-lane highway. The windows are down. The breeze is warm and interspersed with the car cabin air. “Hotel California” on the radio at an uncomfortable decibel, the Eagles telling me, “we are all just prisoners here of our own device.” A gust of wind is scattering leaves across the road, like confetti to celebrate the day. I drive directly through it. The leaves float up and away.
Yoga mat. Yoga studio. View of the ceiling. I follow the texture, the lines, tracing my way over to the lights. Fresh sunlight gently pouring in.
The feel of my mat, the way my back connects with the floor. My breath. I’m at the tale end of instructing a class. My voice has been likened to a lullaby on multiple occasions, and today is no different. I am soft and sing-songy as we wind down.
Some days my teaching schedule is tough, not because of the drain from darting around from studio to studio, but because yoga has a way of removing the surface level. Whether I am the student or the teacher is irrelevant here. Sometimes it’s surface level stress to reveal a more zen approach. Sometimes it’s surface level calm to reveal something considerably darker.
The feel of my mat, the ground. The sun shining. The look of the ceiling. Slow breath. A feeling like I’m burning alive.
In the middle of my gym. Cool textured mats beneath my feet. A lingering chill in the air. Outside, two men are sauntering across the street to the bar next door. There’s an ache in my muscles and exhaustion in my body. There’s ache and exhaustion on a considerably higher level that I dare not think about.
Starbucks just before noon. The shoulder where my purse strap hangs is aching. The baristas are darting around in a whirl of steamed milk and blenders. A young lady and I laugh self-consciously as we try to maneuver around each other, her going one way, me going the other.
Early sun through the trees. A morning mist rolling through. Hot coffee in my hands. My thumb rubbing over the smooth porcelain. My breath is heavy, but subdued. The birch trees in front of me look like they were painted on. The world is hazy and pink and surreal.
Outdoor subway platform, a descending chill. To my left, three officers are talking with a man slumped against a column. To my right, a group of college students are dressed in elaborate Mario Brothers costumes. The smell of soot and burnt clutch and kiosk food fill the air. The automated voice tells me over the loudspeakers that the next train doesn’t take passengers.
The view of the air from Seat A, Row 20. A darkened cabin, dotted with the flashes from monitors on the back of each seat. From this far back, it almost looks like an LED Christmas tree.
Below me are the scattered lights of scattered cities, before they eventually give way to the Atlantic Ocean. The skies are cloudless and a hearty full moon dances with its reflection off the water. I feel the pressure against my forehead as I rest my head against the glass. I feel the coldness of the glass against my skin. I feel like bursting into tears.
An early morning sun you can only experience in the warmer climates. Across from me in the restaurant is an old couple, not so much enjoying each other’s company as they are occupying space at the same table. Outside are palm trees and parked cars and a subtle haze. My waitress’s voice is peppy and familiar and welcoming. I shake out a maraca beat with my sugar packets as my brain settles on a new saying:
“Pain is not weakness leaving the body. Pain is the body attempting to be stronger than its environment.”
Laughter-filled kitchen. A white table with seven women sitting around it. There’s a subtle shift in the air from the ceiling fan in the other room. My back is completely against the wooden chair. The dog everyone keeps saying is mean comes up to me and puts both paws across my lap.
Muggy late night. Crickets nearly drown out the sound of traffic. The plastic of my flip-flops digging into the space between my big toe and index. The dull ache in my backside as I sit on the edge of the sidewalk, looking at the sky. Half moon exceptionally bright, its light accenting the street. Orion’s Belt in clear view, Venus shining brightly.
A shooting star passes directly underneath both. I hold my breath. My wish is wordless.
An unseasonably warm autumn afternoon. Wisps of clouds in the sky. The leaves scattered: half on the trees, half on the grass, collecting in random spots on the pavement. The breeze rustles what remains on the trees and moves what has already fallen to the ground. The sun is warm and the neighborhood is quiet.
A part of me is laughing: who gets an anxiety attack during a moment like this?
A downtown main street as dusk gives way to dark. The store fronts and street lamps and Christmas lights are all lit up. A half moon attempts to join in through the clouds. The air is crisp and I can tell I’m one deep exhale away from shivering.
I can hear my feet hit the ground amidst the people chatting. I’m doing my usual stride: two steps for each sidewalk square. A guy coming out of a bar and into the passenger side of a car does a double take at me before stepping into the blue sedan. I smile at the subtle validation. Forever balancing the internal war between the narcissist and the insecure little girl.
The kitchen table. A warm Sunday light is making its way down the hall, slowly meeting with the wall opposite the front door. Bachata music on the stereo and I’ve been procrastinating the chores I must do. I press my feet into the floor as I’m transported back to a time that is beautiful and tragic and naïve and overwhelming. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful outside. There’s a taste in my mouth that transcends words.
The middle of a hardware store. The pressure of my feet against the concrete through thin-soled shoes. High ceilings with pipes and beams and banners. A distinct lack of background music. Vibrant colors attempting to attract me to kiosk after kiosk.
Around me are people milling about. For a second, I am out of my head and into theirs. What are they thinking. What is going through their minds as they push shopping carts, browse table saws, gaze up at the ceiling?
Waiting room at a doctor’s office before a routine check-up. The feeling had been rumbling in the background all morning long, like tremors before the earthquake, and now it has erupted.
A waiting room with the trimmings of a living room. Comfy lounge chairs. Blue curtains with tassels along the edges. Complementing teal walls with white accents. Easy listening streaming through the ceiling speakers. A woman off to the side swiping across the screen of her phone.
“This won’t look good when they check my blood pressure,” I try to joke to myself. The joke doesn’t work.
An empty white leather chair sits across from me. I imagine this feeling — this anxious, vile, venomous, nervous feeling — sitting across from me. The throbbing in my chest and breath that refuses to even itself out is now an invisible person, sitting cross-legged, as indescribable in appearance as this feeling is in words.
I am literally sitting with and facing this feeling. Until the nurse calls for me, I have this staring contest, hoping eventually this feeling will lose steam, lose power. I can feel her eyes digging into the back of my neck as I get to up see my doctor. A smug victory for her as I slink away. Much to my surprise, my blood pressure turns out to be normal.
Yoga mat. Yoga studio. Eyes surreptitiously open. Around me are fellow workshop goers, all seated like me, eyes closed, breathing.
That sensation, like I’m burning alive. In yogic philosophy, this could be considered some variation of tapas – a burning of impurities. I hold on to that idea. The idea that things that had been needing to come to the surface have been brought to the surface and now they are incinerating.
In a way, it makes me feel like I’ve been reduced to ashes. But sometimes things need to be burned to the ground before they can be properly rebuilt.
These are the things I am thinking as I attempt to keep my breath steady. I also think about how much this affects how I teach these days. How so much has been accomplished downright because of feelings like this, not despite of it. How much good has, in some perverse way, come from it. Like anxiety has been something that doesn’t debilitate me so much as something that has been helping pave the way. That there is something beautiful in this moment – in all of these moments – as intense and painful as they may be. But what is life without intensity, whatever end of the spectrum it lands on. And the occasional forest fire is actually needed to keep a forest healthy. Reduce to ashes, rise like the Phoenix, let the remains scatter with the wind.
The breathing exercise is over. The workshop instructor asks how we feel. People gush about how serene they feel. I smirk sheepishly.