Philosophical anxiety experiments and learning through listening
December 19, 2018
“It must be hell in your head,” he said as I ducked that same head under his arm and snuggled deeper into the space between his body and the bed.
I couldn’t believe I was still in bed
on a Saturday
at 10:30 a.m.
without manic anxiety about sharing weekend updates for work, getting to a workout class, or doing one of the many other things I inevitably convince myself has to happen every Saturday to warrant my existence legitimate.
I had just told him this in not so many words.
I contemplated this idea for a moment. Was it hell inside my head?
I thought about 15-year-old me, and then 18-year-old me, and then 22-year-old me. Was it hell inside her head? Looking back from the perspective I have now, it’s hard to get back into those head-spaces—and not just because I’m looking back from the perspective of an older brain that did not get enough sleep last night. It’s hard to get back into those mindsets for the same reason it’s hard to move home after living in the city of your dreams, or why you didn’t think you needed to upgrade that 1998 Toyota Camry until you drove a rental car on vacation: perspective isn’t easily reversed.
Here is where things get a little philosophical. If one lives in hell, or a place that others would consider hell, but it’s the only place they’ve ever know… do they know they’re living in hell? Or is it just home?
Hell or not up there, Neil has always had a way of helping me get out of my head... or more so by pulling me out with stark, much-needed observations such as “it must be hell in your head” or “it’s one thing to think something like that but why would you actually say that out loud?” or “maybe you don’t have work to do, and that’s a good thing.
Learning to acknowledge and manage my anxiety has come with some of the same feelings you’ve heard me share about healing from disordered eatingwhich is that there are, if we're being honest, days where it feels like it might have been easier not to deal with it at all. Once you get a taste of life outside the oppressive heat of hell, however, you realize just how hot you were. Experiencing new perspectives of feeling and navigating life with lower levels of anxiety, with less guilt, fear, panic and tension, can feel just as challenging as it does luxurious because now that I know such luxury exists, I can’t just sit and get by with my economy-class anxiety.
Because that’s what l’d been doing before I acknowledged my anxiety. I’d gotten by for quite some time and done fairly well for myself inside that head I called “home” without ever realizing it wasn’t the norm. I’d gotten by just fine but I wasn’t actually dealing with anything. I had found short-term coping or numbing mechanisms like perfectionism, disordered eating and over-exercise, busy work, and partying to build a life inside that "hell-head." But just as putting new tires on that 1998 Toyota Camry wont make it a Hybrid, those things couldn’t change the reality of my anxiety.
Is it hell inside my head now? I wondered, kicking the blanket off one half of my body to stay cool.
That answer feels almost as complicated as the first one. These days, or on good days, I should say, I’ve gained a decent amount of perspective on what it’s like to live outside of that space of fear and tension. I’ve experienced enough of the benefits of a lower-anxiety existence that when I start to revert back to that place of panic, I have the sense to pull myself out.
But that’s just the thing: I have to pull myself out and be aware enough of what’s going on inside my head to know that I’m falling back in or reverting to old habits.
When we talk about caring for ourselves—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically—the conversation often focuses on outward action. We encourage folks to share their experiences with mental health, we encourage folks to sign up for the class or take a run, we suggest support groups and meetings—which are all important, possibly life-changing, things.
What is equally important and far less discussed is the inward action that needs to happen in conjunction with those things; the listening and note taking that has to happen in order to put any of those new perspectives to work.
I just agreed to my first paid speaking engagement on eating disorder awareness and self-care and it feels surreal...and mildly terrifying but if I run out of things to say, I’ve always got that Goodbye Earl dance routine in my back pocket! I’m not exactly sure how I went from the over-anxious, two-or-three-workouts-a-day, please-don’t-show-me-pictures-of-or-leave-me-alone-in-a-room-with-myself person to someone who says yes to standing up in front of potentially 200 people and talking about holistic wellness and showing up for yourself but I do know it took doing just that: showing up…and listening.
Getting to this space, to laying in bed guilt-free with my best friend at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and to planning for a public speaking engagement for NEDA Week, was a direct result of me showing up despite the fear and the stigma and talking about my experiences. More than that, however, it was a result of learning to listen just as much as I shared.
Even when I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and hum over the truth in order to stay comfortable, I had to be willing to listen.
Even when I wanted to keep sharing and talking, because that part had actually gotten easier than the listening and learning.
I had to be willing to sit down and be quiet.
So the next time something is pushing or pulling you out of your comfort zone, go for it. Just don’t forget to pay attention to it while you’re going for it.