Hello, I Have Anxiety, How Are You?


May is Mental Health Awareness month.

It is now May.

So, hello, mental health. I am aware of you.

I am aware of you because my mental health is on the whole plenty good, until it’s not. And when it’s not, it’s like my brain and my heart are Thelma & Louiseing it off a cliff — driving the car right off the edge. Zoom. Crunch. Explode. What happens when this happens is I suffer rather intense anxiety. My anxiety is a many-flavored thing, though usually it focuses on DEATH and HEALTH and IMMEDIATE SOUL-SHITTING PANIC. Like, I’ll be chugging along, and things will be good? And then I’ll think I’m inexplicably dying, or that everything I have is going to go away, or my very existence is a mote of dust in the eye of a God and holy crap what if God blinks and — gaaaaasp, then I can’t breathe, and it feels like I’m trapped, and maybe I have cancer, and maybe my heart is exploding, and what if my son dies, and what if my house burns down, and couldn’t someone in the middle of the night just fucking murder me and my whole family, and —

The cascading emotions run roughshod over me: fear, panic, existential terror. It’s like an amusement park ride: once you’re strapped in, it’s taking you where it wants to go.

I do better with it now than I used to. Growing up was this, every hour. Daily. Nightly. These days my anxiety is a dull roar in the background, a psychological tinnitus that only once in a while chooses to spike into shrill, noxious signal. Mostly, I control it rather than letting it control me. Mostly. And that’s a mental luxury that a lot of people can’t afford for various reasons.

Why am I telling you all this? I talk a little bit about it here and there, but last week I acknowledged it more boldly on Twitter and also noted that generally I don’t care to speak about it, because for me, speaking about it gives it a little power. Depression lies, as they say, and so does anxiety, and one of those lies for me is that it’s an accepted (note I didn’t say “acceptable”) part of who I am — an ally, if you will, the Louise to my Thelma. Anxiety at the time you feel it tends to seem perfectly normal, at least inside my head. It feels like it’s part of the fabric, part of the Tapestry of Chuck, like the panic it creates is totally justifiable, dude, even though it’s the furthest thing from it. It’s a slippery slope, lubricated with fearsweat — THIS PLANE IS TOTALLY GOING TO CRASH, I’LL GO TO THE BATHROOM BUT WAIT WHAT IF THE PLANE STARTS TO CRASH WHILE I’M IN THE BATHROOM AND ALSO THE BATHROOM IS PROBABLY SHELLACKED WITH MRSA AND I’LL CATCH MRSA IN ONE OF THESE HANGNAILS I HAVE ‘CAUSE I CAN’T STOP BITING MY STUPID NAILS SO IF THE PLANE CRASH DOESN’T KILL ME THEN MRSA WILL AND IF THAT DOESN’T KILL ME THEY’LL STILL HAVE TO CUT OFF MY ARMS AND THEN I WON’T BE ABLE TO WRITE ANYMORE AND THAT’S FINE BECAUSE MY CAREER IS PROBABLY ONE OR TWO BOOKS AWAY FROM BEING TOTALLY OVER AND

It sounds absurd, right? But my brain will do those kinds of meth-fueled psychological calisthenics, bounding around like if the Cat in the Hat were covered in a colony of bitey fire ants. And frequently it takes just one step onto the path of anxiety to go shoop down the chute and into cuckoo-town. It’s like how if you pee you “break the seal” and now you gotta pee like, every four minutes. Except here instead of “pee,” it’s “invite a Panic Monster to nestle into your heart where she can start laying eggs.” So, mostly, I don’t talk about it. I don’t even look in its direction because I recognize it to be the lying liar-pantsed liar that it is, and I don’t feel like it’s worth it to let it have the mic. That is not something everyone can manage, mind you, and further, others are strengthened by talking about it. Me, I do better ruminating on all the things that aren’t anxiety, and that seems to serve me okay.

So again, why am I telling you this now?

Because some folks said it would be helpful to know. To know that you can do it — you can have this problem and live with it. You never really conquer it, but you can lock it away, or at least do a country line-dance on its head. I’m not ashamed of what goes on in my head, though I damn sure don’t like it. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it, either. Mental health issues are incredibly common, and I suspect even moreso amongst artists and writers and other creative types. I know that it’s always going to be a part of me even as I can stand here with my Wizard Staff, reminding the Panic Monster that YOU SHALL NOT PASS. I banish it to the dark, then I get to fucking work.

I thought, too, that I’d offer up some of the techniques that I use to manage this. I’m not on medication and I don’t do therapy — which is maybe a bad idea, I don’t know? (I’m also not suggesting you should get by the same way I do. Everybody has their own way forward here, and there is nothing wrong with meds or therapy or whatever gets it done.) I manage okay without those things and have developed coping skills outside that particular prescription.

Here are some of my coping skills:

I run. Running has done a lot for my mental health. It is a thing I am very bad at, as much as you can be bad at such a seemingly simple thing — I mean, I can put one foot in front of the other, but I do so as gracefully as a legless gazelle kicked around an ice-skating rink. Just the same, running feels like control. It is me, the asphalt, the pain, the clarity, the blood pumping. While running, I’m still alone with my thoughts, but there exists the very distinct feeling that I can outrun all the bad thoughts and keep with me all the good ones. At the end, it’s like fleeing the cops in Grand Theft Auto — eventually the bad thoughts lose their way and I’m scot-free, baby.

I avoid news whenever possible. This one’s tough, because sometimes my job is helped by looking at the news. But if I’m feeling panic settle in, I’ll turn away from news because the news is rarely good, and it’s very easy to feel a sense of distinct hopelessness. The news shows a world that is an ever-deepening sinkhole, and rarely does the news report on the things that buoy us as a society. So, for the most part, fuck the news.

I find interesting news instead. Just this morning I saw this: GIANT HIMALAYAN BEES PRODUCE HALLUCINOGENIC HONEY and I’m like, yes, fuck yeah, this is news. No presidential election will ever matter to the universe as much as hallucinogenic bees. Bonus fun: did you know gorillas make up little songs when they eat food? Finding stories like that, that show how amazing the world is? It helps. My life and my death will be insignificant when compared against the wonder of gorilla food-songs and trip-tastic honeybees.

I curate my social media with angry laser-beam eyes. I like to obsessively prune my social media feeds because I consider it my living room — admittedly, a very loud living room — and as soon as someone becomes more noise to be instead of signal, I have to shut them out. It may not even be their fault, but I gotta practice self-care online because if I don’t, looking into the dark heart of social media is like having Sauron’s eye fixed on you. It’s not drinking from a firehouse so much as it is standing underneath Niagara Falls and opening your mouth. So, I unfollow, mute and block on a hair trigger. Sometimes that’s not your fault, it’s just a thing I gotta do.

I write. This seems obvious, and it’s not always the thing that helps everybody, but for me, writing is purgative — the creative act of sucking out venom. I suck it out, then spit it on the page. Not just as anger, but as everything: it’s a way for me to address the the wasp nest that lives inside my skull. All the ideas, all the fears, all the questions. I squirt them onto the page, then fingerpaint with all the bad stuff and see what stories I can tell. I’ve got Invasive coming soon and the protagonist is a futurist who consults with the FBI. Hannah Stander is the daughter of doomsday preppers, and she’s a character who walks the line between hoping to have optimism about the future and trying not to fall into the chasm of fear about the future we’re creating — climate change, antibiotic resistance, artificial intelligence. She’s not me, but she has that part of me. Her struggle gets to be my struggle, a little bit. It helps me deal. Miriam Black from Blackbirds is like this, too — she helped me come to terms with death and the helplessness we experience around it. She was such a vital character to help me dissect fatality.

I write horror. More to the point, I write horror. Most of my books are horror, even though none of my books are labeled as horror. (A curiosity of the industry.)

I meditate. Meditation for me isn’t meditation for you, necessarily — like, I don’t sit in a space and clear my head, but I do go out into nature and take pictures, or I walk, or I read escapist fiction, or I go to the movies. Anywhere to get out of my own head.

I am the Zodiac Killer. Just kidding. Seeing if you were still paying attention. Besides, we all know that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.

I actively think of good things. Sometimes, my mind needs to be forced — a square peg hammered through a circle hole until its sharp corners are sheared clean off. That means I have to will myself to think of good things. In my life, in your life, in all the world.

I practice empathy. My anxiety is a very selfish liar and it is very solipsistic and would like me to think about ME ME ME and that’s a good way to center panic in your heart. Instead, I look beyond myself at other people and — I mean, in a way empathy is selfish, too, but moving beyond my own margins tends to put my anxiety off-center. Put more plainly, thinking about other people helps you stop thinking about yourself. It robs power from my anxiety.

That’s it, I guess? That’s what I got.

I have anxiety.

And it’s okay.

You’re okay, too.

No shame, no stigma, we are who we are.

Go forth and be awesome. More importantly, go forth and know you’re not alone.


115 responses to “Hello, I Have Anxiety, How Are You?”

  1. Thanks for this–I’m in kind of a brainhole (depression being my flavor, though I do get the occasional anxiety garnish), and it’s played happy fucking havoc with my output. But it’s nice to see somebody at their top of their game saying, no, not just you.

  2. I hear you, brother. That’s why I always I wince when I hear the common advice about confronting your fears which asks the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Because, hoo boy, can I come up with some pretty horrific answers to the most innocuous starting premise…

  3. After I found myself huddled under my desk for the upteenth time at work, heart pounding, scared that something BAD was going to happen and that it was all my fault, and why did I say this or forget that, and would I ever be a success, clearly no because I am waste of space and time…I saw my doctor and accepted medication. It isn’t my favorite answer, but it has been a help.

  4. Here here, anxiety is my co-pilot as well! An insane, crawling monster of a co-pilot who sometimes grabs control of the wheel, but mostly pokes at me with sharp sticks to remind me of the things I don’t need to worry about. Yay! And I totally relate with thinking that bringing it up gives it more power, so good for you for shoving past that particular anxiety!

  5. You also write humor, Chuck, or humorously. And while that may not help you deal with your anxiety, your humor helps me deal with mine. I feel more comfortable knowing for sure who the Zodiac Killer is.

  6. Awesome post, Chuck. It’s clear that humour is also one of your wonderful skills, tools, life rafts, etc. I had never really considered that anxiety is especially helpful (when it’s not debilitating, of course) in a horror writer, as you have that ability to think of these terrifying, unbelievable scenarios, yet somehow make them seem possible. Terrible in life, yes, but great in fiction.

  7. Thank you for sharing. I deal with crippling anxiety and panic attack as well. Love your tips. Especially about the running. Running does indeed help get rid of all that damned cortisol and adrenaline caused by anxiety.

  8. Thank you, Chuck, for putting into words how I feel most of the time. Like… the façade of ‘I’m perfectly normal’ is as thin as rice paper and I’m terrified that one little rip will start a tidal wave of crazy. So far, so good 🙂 I have that Dory mantra on auto-play in my head.
    I especially like your methods of coping. I’ve found a few tricks that work for me, but I’ll occasionally dip into a prescriptive to help me through the rougher parts.
    I’ve often wonder if we creative types are more prone to mental health issues because we have to dig so deep to tap the emotion necessary to resonate with our audience OR because we exist in that ‘dug-deep’ place and writing is our way of coping.

  9. I know what you mean. I have periods of the “Woe is me and everything is wrong in the world” based on absolutely nothing. Then Suddenly, it turns off as if flipping a switch. I work at a library and the other day, the door that separates the desk from the office was closed and my mind immediately jumped to the worse conclusion possible. “They are talking about and you are about to get fired.” Despite the fact that my new boss loves me and there would be zero grounds for any sort of anxiety. Fortunatly, i caught it in the next second and was able to calm down.

  10. I have it too (most writers do, I think), and while I was able to manage it mostly fine, a combination of upcoming book release, my husband losing his job (meaning I’m supporting us on writing income holy hell), and the chance we might also be moving to a new city was just WAY too much for me to deal with. Constant panic attacks. A lot of lying in bed, staring at the wall and thoughts spiraling into abject terror. It was bad.

    So now I’m back on anti-depressants and beta blockers, to keep me feeling more cosy until life settles back down again. I’m glad I’m at a point where I know when I need to reach out for some help rather than suffering in silence. Talking about it can give it power, but it can also be very comforting to hear others have the same weird thought processes, and it’s okay. Thanks for blogging about it.

  11. <3

    I feel you. I have far more anxiety than people would guess. I also get (all to often) into this whole "nobody likes me, and they'll never like me" thing, too. :/

  12. Thank you both for this post, and for actually remembering the movie Thelma and Louise, since I’m starting to feel super-old because I remember movies like T& L and most people I interact with look at me like I’m crazy when I mention them…

  13. Thanks for this one Chuck. This is among the many reasons that I’m a big fan of yours. You’re not afraid to tell the STD ridden truths of life. Anxiety and depression are a complete and total cum flinging A-bomb for me. That stuff just gets everywhere and gums up the works. You, sir, inspire my own badassery to beat it back like a whipped mule. You’re the hallucinogenic bee’s knees.

  14. This has been one of the most helpful and ultimately loving things I have ever seen shared in this wacky hive mind of internet buzzing. You just gave every one some piece of Wendig mind that speaks the very horror of what most of us are experiencing. We are normal. Wendig said so. I am free.
    Deepest Thanks.

  15. Lovely post! We share some tricks: writing, exercising (for some reason step class does it for me – very 80s, I know) and getting outside myself. Since we’re baring souls today and this month, here’s another go-to anxiety reliever of mine: I type “baby animal pictures” into a search engine. It’s hard to think of the apocalypse when you see a little chimp picking his nose.

  16. I really enjoy your blogs. Of course, you don’t need or require my “liking”. We agree on so much and your insight helps me frame some of my own thoughts. I don’t enjoy your political insertions because that is where we diverge. I would fight to the death to protect your right to disagree with me. This is just me taking advantage of your invitation to “Speak my mind.” I have had these thoughts after the last two blogs of yours that I have read. Hey! Keep blogging. I will continue to keep reading…I know how to deal with things I don’t agree with. I certainly don’t seek to shut them down.

  17. Anxiety can shut anyone down. Unlike most people’s fears, some of my most monstrous ones have became realized. After having cancer, I knew I was at much higher risk for recurrence. See what I did there? Put it in past tense. Yep.
    The mind has to be exercised just like muscle. I face my greatest fears and write down why I will conquer them. Right now, I’m doing sets of “why I’ll be successful as a writer” at least ten times a day. Exercise and repetition is a powerful tool. It works!

  18. Thanks for the blurb, Chuck. I am diagnosed as bi-popar and that includes my moments of heart imploding anxiety. I find thinking of others is also a way to get out one’s own head. Exercise is also a huge help. Again, thanks for sharing and keep keeping on. I look forward to your next addition.

  19. Ooh, I’m the same with the news thing. I refuse the watch, and I wonder how that will affect my writing. Nasty online people have to be ignored or silenced, too. I lean towards escapism as well. I also don’t like to talk about it as it tends to bring it out of hiding. Medical things can send me over the edge. Tend to avoid taking care of medical issues. Anxiety is a suckface for sure!

  20. Anxiety is a hard one because I think we’re currently at a place where depression is getting more airtime, and they’re enough alike and so often paired that it gets muddled–“Sure, I can’t sleep because if I’m not working on something that makes money Right This Minute the nameless bad thing will get me, but I don’t have any problem getting out of bed in the morning, so there must not be anything wrong with me.” So I wouldn’t get help until the anxiety became so crushing that it led to hysterical crying jags, because that was close enough to the symptoms of depression that I could recognize it as something wrong.

    It took a lot of stupid before I realized that my problem wasn’t depression, it was anxiety, and that I am lucky enough in my brain chemistry that it can get easily sorted out with meds. And then life got so much EASIER. Lord.

  21. Thank you for sharing this. When people I admire share about issues I struggle with, it helps me realize I’m not the only one and that my coping mechanisms aren’t silly. It also gives me hope that I’ll succeed despite them. I can understand the feeling that talking about it gives it strength, though, so I appreciate all the more what it took for you to share this.

  22. I have anxiety too. Thankfully relatively rarely now. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. The upside is when an episode is over I feel, (and the downside is that it never feels like it will ever end – it always feels like “yep, this time it’s permanent”) I feel totally amazingly good – relative to the horror show that just came before. Thank you for sharing. It really helps.

  23. Thank you for sharing Chuck. I understand why you feel talking about Anxiety somehow gives it power.

    I’ve recently come out to my family about how Anxiety cripples me. They don’t fully get it, but why would they? But putting the issue out there has made me feel less ashamed and weak.
    I’ve been eyeball to eyeball with Anxiety today. Did you ever see the movie ‘Forbidden Planet’?
    My Anxiety is brother to that monster.
    The guys who got killed in ‘Forbidden Planet’ died because the monster was invisible. They had to light it up to fight it. That’s why we have to talk about it. You take care and so will I.

  24. Chuck… ya. What you said. Got it. You give voice to it so well so it can have it’s moment to be killed off… In the friggin’ light of day. Your methods resonate with mine. Nice to know I’m not alone. Spot on about creatives spiraling through this more often… writing breeds rumination. This summer I had to laugh at myself trying to break through the roller coaster and incessant rumination by spelling backwards. I don’t look at this as a mental health thing… it’s just part of the continuum of human existence and small glitch of the meaning making machine… My question is how successful are folks at heading it off at the pass before, and during life’s larger transitions when you need to be more present? Thank you.

  25. Thanks for this post. I posted on the same tpoic today. You must be searing info out of my brain! I have more diagnoses than i care to type but anxiety is among them. Worst case scenarios make great writing fodder, don’t they? I am full of them. Glad you are coping well. I seem to do well these days myself, but haven’t divulged my secrets…yet. Maybe you will sear those out of my brain, too.

  26. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this, Chuck. It’s nice to see an encouraging voice outside of the “take meds and shut up” camp. Not that meds can’t help certain people, I just think they’re overprescribed.

    It’s nice to see someone else has a million activities that help them outrun the Existential Dread Monster. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, Tai Chi, writing fiction, writing in a journal and reading horror for when things get really stressful. (Heh, maybe that’s the true purpose of existential dread, to make us more productive.)

    Funny you’d mention horror. There’s something infinitely soothing and counterintuitive about reading/writing horror when you feel like crap. It makes you face those inner demons and see them for the fictional, metaphorical and absurd monsters they are.

  27. It’s great that you shared this. I think among writers, the angsty are legion. I too have suffered horrible anxiety my whole life, and for a while full-on panic attacks. I suffer that same cycling through periods of thinking I’m going to die or my partner will or our house will slide off a cliff or whatevs. My favorite is free-floating anxiety, where I just have this vague sense of dread that moves from object to object. It’s like whack-a-mole. I rationalize one fear away, and another pops up.

    One thing I wanted to say about meditation, as it’s really helped me. I practice the new Westernized form of meditation (insight meditation) that’s been written about by American psychologists and neurologists in a couple dozen self help books over the last decade. It’s all based on traditional Buddhist meditation, but scientists here have finally discovered it actually works wonders, and WHY it works wonders. That WHY part was essential for my over-analytical brain. Once I got the science of it, I could trust, and it began to work for me too.

    It’s much less a “head clearing” than a “head watching.” By sitting and consciously breathing, you can sort of trick your mind into watching itself and noticing what it’s doing. With a regular practice of this, I’ve learned how to see those panic rides coming. I can think, “Oh here I go getting on the carousel of doom,” and just that ability to name the foe gives me back some power. I can laugh at it, even as part of my brain is going on the ride. Does it work every time? Nah. But it works A LOT of the time. The volume is turned down, so it becomes more of an annoying thing I know will pass rather than that OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS ACTUALLY LITERALLY ENDING NOW.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  28. Chuck, thank you. For many decades I have put all this crap in a mason jar. The mason jar is stored in plain sight on a top, open shelf. I need to keep it where I can see it so I can be sure it doesn’t get out.

  29. Thank you for this post. Read it as my heart was pounding over coming life changes that make me feel like I am SUCH a loser and WTF am I doing? Going to share this with my daughters, both of whom struggle with anxiety, depression (great genes I handed down, eh) and bi-polar disorder (wait – that little bit of life joy only belongs to one of them. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

  30. Wow, yes to everything you just said. Yes, yes, yes! When anxiety tries to get the better of me, I turn away from the news and social media, go for long walks, work in my garden, play with my dogs, do something for a friend–anything to force my focus outward instead of inward. Noticing and reconnecting with Nature is huge in helping me get back to center balance. Coloring in one of those new adult coloring books also works sometimes.

    I also recently started mindful meditating and paying attention to breathing, which is helping more than I expected. Well, breathing is always helpful, duh! But I’m one of those people who holds their breath when they are stressed, which I didn’t realize until recently. Paying more attention to my stress levels or mounting feelings of being overwhelmed is also helping me recognize when it’s time to pull back and focus on doing just one thing at a time. Thank you for sharing, Chuck.

  31. Thanks for writing about this, Chuck. I talk about my anxiety because I feel like speaking its name out loud dispels its power (Rumplestiltskin, Rumplestiltskin, Rumplestiltskin)… and I feel like it give space for others to relate and ask for what help they need to cope… in essence I create my own support group around me wherever I go. Instead of Anxietics Anonymous, we share and comfort and lift up… Having heard you mention your anxiety before, I’ve already made you an honorary member…

    Anyhow, I want to acknowledge you for speaking about your demons and your process. It’s brave and worthy. And one of the reasons you’re on my “heroes” list.

  32. Fab post. Kudos. I am with you about the news. It is a one way trip to the Slough of despond. I try to make sure I know what’s going on in the world but no way can I look it in the face for protracted periods of time. That way madness lies. And I write to deal with it too, not exactly to exorcise but to escape. Sometimes the writing goes darker, sometimes it becomes completely silly.

    What you say about it being logical in your head, too. Yes. I absolutely get that. Thank you for posting.

    Cheers

    MTM

  33. I too, suffer from anxiety. Have ever since I was a kid. I never had that ‘nothing bad can happen to me’ attitude like most kids do. I was always certain doom was right around the next corner, even though it never was. Anxiety has inhibited me in many ways, but I’m lucky I can corral all the panic rabbits and put them back in their pen without needing medication or therapy. I don’t usually talk about it, because people I know simply don’t understand. I have heard ‘Just get over it’ so much in my life, even from my own mom. So thank you, Chuck, for writing about this.

  34. Thank you for writing this, Chuck. You’ve helped me today, and I know you’ve helped a lot of other people.

  35. Beautiful words. Thank you. If you’re ever curious about trying a new technique, EMDR (emdria.org) is a great option. It’s been well-studied in the PTSD realm but also works in panic/anxiety. Love from an MD in MN.

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