Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.
Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.
Episode V: An essay by Victoria Hetherington
In this installment, Victoria Hetherington talks about anxiety and panic.
I have a huge capacity for forgiveness and a terrible memory, and there’s absolutely a causal connection between the two, but there’s something else, something worse to it. I’m perpetually drawn to people warped by impossible expectation for their futures, gone putrid beneath the weight. I’ve dated the kind of men who truly, truly hate women, and I can’t resist women who sense I’ll take their anger, and then bathe in my apologies. I’m yanked like a moth towards white-hot people who converse with me about things they hate, and communicate sub-textually: I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss.
I know, I know, I know, I respond. I slink home and resent them, then fret that they can sense my resentment, wafting back towards them, perhaps detectable in my texts or souring the air we share when we enter the same room again.
Awful people litter my past like sleeping mines. I wonder about them sometimes, the great mass of my anger sanded over time into curiosity, its gravity intact and irresistible: they were so close, and now they’re gone! Perhaps they’re awful, but we shared our time, our time, and now I carry these memories alone. Isn’t the passage of life worth the exchange for people you will truly learn, which takes years? Oh god, are they mad at me?
Maybe at this point I sound like a clueless dolt – and I could be – but I’ve aggressively sought these people and experiences, and I know that. Perhaps the most egregious sin of novice fiction is the sin of ‘things just happening to a wretched protagonist’ (and now some asshole shatters her ribs with a baseball bat! And now there’s a tornado! And now her dog is dead! etc) and given my privileged position, this extends to real life too: generally, I have agency. Anxiety, to me, is a living presence coiled right around my abdomen, piercing my skin and gripping my stomach, docile as a pet sometimes – just nipping me occasionally – but emerging regularly when it needs to eat. And then it feeds on these people and their memories. The something evil and insect-like inside of me, it seeks and needs these people just as desperately as they need me, or have needed me, whenever it was that I made myself indispensable to them.
It’s just me, of course, the insect. Always only me.
Sometimes, when I’m weak and silly with relief after a panic attack finally passes, I’ve said something to stricken witness(es) like: “God I wish someone filmed that! You know? It’d be funny!” And it might be funny in the blackly funny way life can be: I might be in line at Staples, or at a small dinner party, or sitting at home watching Nick Minaj videos on YouTube, and all of a sudden I drop whatever I’m holding, because my fingers don’t work anymore. I thrash around like a werewolf who can’t transform, my eyes go pop-out wide, I run to wherever there’s a corner and press myself into it. I knead my chest and stomach – maybe to rid myself of the giant anxiety insect – and beg everybody, living and dead, to make it be over, oh god, let it end. That’s how it looks, and I’m not going to describe how they feel: I’ve explained one too many times to a glazed if caring person, and besides, even I have trouble remembering how totalizing they are. It’s like remembering, really remembering the ache of bitter February cold on a sweet summer night; like women erode and shifts their memories of childbirth pain over time.
According to myth.
I care, enormously, about social humiliation: I have a big and fragile ego, which – returning to black humor – makes me the best kind of comedic trope. But it’s important for me to describe the humiliation and fear to you. So I talk about its absurdity, sharing the time I speed-walked for ten kilometres because I felt I was outrunning a heart attack, anthropomorphic and real, hunting me down. The telling helps. The time I sat up pin-straight for hours because I was certain that, if I slumped, my spine would pop right out of my back – laughing as I tell it, so that other people know it's OK to laugh too. Sometimes I’ll tell about the summer I wrote my first novel, lived in a basement and grew tenderly attached to its shifting clan of silverfish, and only ever left if I’d had at least three glasses of wine to ease the white-hot anxiety of human contact. This is real, this happened.
And the telling helps, because the insect eats the kernels of private shame I scatter through the familiar and sickening rooms of pre-anxiety: who’s mad at me? Why is she being moody? Was I rude just then? Memories are stories. My sense of self is a long and complex narrative. Through telling I face my humiliation, and for a moment I conceptualize my anxiety as others might: something normal, something human. The insect begins to drowse, its pincers nearly still. Through telling I drag myself into the light of other people, and the buzz of that terrifying light is muted, rendered safe, so I can bask for a time, perhaps drowsing myself, even as the insect stirs against me in its sleep, still hungry.