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.