“Writing is a form of therapy: sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Graham Greene
October, and again we have the pleasure of frightening ourselves with witches, goblins, ghouls, and ghosts; with skeletal hands reaching from the grave, or zombies clunking heavily toward us with sightless eyes to drink our blood.
Why do we like to frighten ourselves? Most animals find life quite scary enough without adding in imagination. We court fear. We pay to watch horror films (there is always a girl who descends the basement steps in the dark where you KNOW the murderer lies waiting!). When I was just a little girl, I remember reading Dracula late one night in my father’s study, and being so frightened that I couldn’t leave the lighted room to go to bed! Such is the thrill of being afraid—when it’s safe.
Then there’s unsafe fear. Once when I was a young girl I met a man who confessed that he saw a therapist for his anxiety—and my innocent response, “What’s anxiety?”
I don’t think I ever heard the word as a girl, but as I grew older, a wave would wash over me sometimes, boiling me like an ocean breaker. I’d be sitting at a swimming pool watching my little children play, and suddenly I’d be overwhelmed by the sense that I ought to be somewhere else, except I didn’t know where—at market, or cleaning the house or doing the bank accounts—anyplace except having a good time at the pool with friends. Running helped. Actually running, running, foot-pounding running.
Some professionals postulate that anxiety is really fear of death. For me it’s about missing deadlines, or it comes from my own judgmental expectation that I’ll misjudge, make a mistake, get less than A on God’s implacable report card.
I will FAIL!
It’s a fear familiar to artists, poets, trial lawyers, politicians, and probably to painters and plumbers working on a house. It’s the kind of fear that caused Gloria Steinem to write, “Writing is the only thing that when I’m doing it . . . I don’t feel I should be doing something else instead.”
Or that made Tennessee Williams write, “I work seven days a week, Sundays included. . . I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write. I’d probably go mad.”
Fear and anxiety are not the same. Fear is close to excitement.
But anxiety is a low-grade, existential worrying, and that’s what I want to talk about, and maybe how to battle it! Mind you, I’m not talking about extreme and chronic anxiety, like that of one friend, who can’t leave the house because of her agoraphobic fear, or that another who wakes up at night heart pounding with terror and can’t go back to sleep. They need medications. I’m talking about the mad nervousness everyone feels sometimes—men more than women, I am told, although men often express their anxiety as anger and aggression, for fear is weakness forbidden to Western men.
Let me tell three stories.
Story # 1. Once I was working at my typewriter (which shows how long ago this was) when I was stricken with anxiety. I sat paralyzed, unable to think. I held my head in my hands, heart pounding. An article was due. I huddled against the sandstorm swirling inside me. No words. No concentration. Every bone in my body shuddered in the inner winds. By then it was no longer a matter of wanting to finish the article. I wanted total freedom from fear. I wanted to be happy. I prayed that wordless, heartfelt plea: “Oh God!” Have I said that prayers are always answered? Suddenly it came to me with a flash of insight that the alternative to my fear was not happiness. The alternative was to be dead! So long as I am alive, I get to experience all the emotions, the dark as well as the light, negative and positive. Fear is simply part of being alive.
Shocked, I sat up straight. “All right!” I said, in a manner of speaking. I choose life.”
Instantly the anxiety was gone. I turned to the typewriter and finished the article. Piece of cake. But what had happened? I’d said a prayer and had it answered— not as I’d expected with removal of anxiety but with an absolute acceptance of the pain—which in turn defeated it.
I’m reminded of the words of the poet Goethe:
The gods, the eternal ones, give all things to their darlings,/ All joys, all sorrows, to their darlings, everything.
I’m older now, and I notice with curiosity that anxiety descends more frequently. Is the protective chemical mix swishing inside the sack of my skin weakening with age?
Story # 2. The next story happened to my dear friend Dorothy Clarke, who was well into her nineties at the time. She lived like a hermit on a mountain. In the morning she dressed carefully in corset and stockings, dressed her hair, put on makeup, tottered to the kitchen for the one small yogurt that served as breakfast, then spent the rest of the day in her arm chair, reading or watching TV. Sometimes no one at all would come to visit. She knew the depths of loneliness. One day she was swept by anxiety.
Dorothy grabbed a pencil and began to write, almost by dictation. Afterwards she phoned me, marveling at what had poured from her pen, and she gave me the page, covered with her beautiful cursive…Don’t fret. You have nothing to worry about! Just relax and let things come alone in their proper time. Let Quiet, Peace, and Harmony rule, and avoid stressing situations. Let them be born, live, and straighten out pleasantly, not with fretting or urgency but by simply accepting the fact—it will work out if you let yourself be led instead of trying to force matters. All is well and will remain well. Please Heed!
I tacked her paper to the bulletin board over my desk, and many times it brought a smile.
Story # 3. Years Passed. One day I was lying on the couch in my little house in New Mexico, overwhelmed by fear, and as usual praying, praying for surcease, when to my annoyance I spotted a piece of paper flapping on the floor. I’d just swept and vacuumed the whole house. There should have been nothing there! It really irritated me. I rose from the couch and snatched up the offending paper — only to find it was Dorothy’s: Don’t fret. You have nothing to worry about!. . . Let quiet, peace and harmony rule. . . It will work out if you let yourself be led. . . .
But how did it get to New Mexico? I’d left it tacked to my bulletin board back in Washington D.C.
I was stunned. I still am. What are we to make of this?
We can’t always count on angelic interventions as dramatic as this. Not when the human condition is to worry, be afraid. So how do we fight back? How do we conquer anxiety without alcohol or drugs or meds?
First, pray. I say this because it is my experience that prayers are always answered, and this is true whether you believe in a Higher Power or not. Pray to your own soul. But pray. to be released.
After prayer, the best thing to do is to distract yourself. Go running (if your knees allow it), or clean a closet, or cook a special meal. Do something physical! Talking to a friend is also ok, but only if you tell her how you hurt, and if you both decide to laugh.
Third, go do something nice for someone else. Smile at a begger. Ask him how he got into this sad situation. You don’t have to give him (or her) money. Just give the gift of seeing her: he is not invisible. Take a cookie to the old lady next door, or rake the leaves for her. And then don’t tell anyone what you have done: a service to another asking no reward. I promise you will feel better.
Fourth, think small. Anxiety likes the ineffable. It hangs out in Future Fear, or even Past Regret. Therefore, to combat it, look deeply at the Thing itself. What does it feel like inside you? Where is it? What color? How big?
Go smaller yet. Go right inside your body. Where is your elbow? Your knee, your foot in space. Feel the footstep you’ve just taken, the curious shift of heel, ball, toe. Or consider for a moment your own thumb. Watch how it moves, full circle. What an amazing part of you! (Only humans have thumbs – and angels, I suppose, although why they’d need one I don’t know.) Go smaller yet—one fingernail. Imagine what it would be like to have no fingernail, (or have it pulled out in a torture chamber; there’s room for anxiety!). And meanwhile, listen: What do you hear? What do you smell? Right now.
What I’m saying is very simple and very hard to do. Be present. Be right in the Moment, Right Here. As Ram Dass wrote: “Be Here Now.”
Anxiety and worry are like ghosts and ghouls. They cannot live in the light. Become Aware.
© Sophy Burnham, 2019.