by Jessica Rae
My old friend, Anxiety.
Before reading this post, it is worth noting that whilst I am covering the topic of anxiety, I touch on several other issues including religion. My intention is not to cause offence but rather to give context to why I think I am the way that I am. In doing so, I hope to reach some kind of catharsis and at the same time shine light on the collective experiences of others. Though our stories might be very different and our symptoms at odds with each other, in reading this it might bring solace to somebody else and reassure them that they are not abnormal but as quirky and messed up as the rest of us.
I suffer with chronic anxiety. I have done since childhood. I’m not medicated, and I’m inclined for it to stay that way. However, it all came to a head recently so much so that I’m currently signed off work. I’m not sure about next steps but like many of the topics I’ve written about, putting these passing emotions into words helps me to create fully formed thoughts. Otherwise, they remain fragments, prowling around the dark recesses of my brain. When stimulated, they aggressively imprint past trauma on present pain, indulging and feeding the narrative. Currently, I am struggling with finding a way to manage these ‘thoughts’ but eventually I’d like to befriend ‘them’. After all, if I am to live with anxiety for the rest of my life then we are going to need to find a way to co-exist.
I don’t think I like the term ‘anxiety’. Unfortunately, I associate it with weakness and hysteria, those people who opt out of difficult situations because their ‘nerves’ can’t take it. The irony is that I also have huge empathy for people suffering with it. Most of my favourite humans, including my beautiful husband and best friend are crippled by waves of ‘it’ from time to time. My husband is extremely hardworking, competent and doesn’t shy away from hardship. I’d say he leans into it. Yet, he’s medicated for stress and anxiety. For him, his medication is like a tonic, taking the edge off and allowing him to reach higher levels of performance. Does it make a difference that he’s a man? Maybe. Frankly, I rarely meet women that haven’t suffered from anxiety in one form or another. I’ve met many successful women, extremely talented women, yes. Yet most of these women are riddled by pervasive feelings of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and unworthiness. Their schedule means they rush everywhere, completing a snowballing tick-list which never quite gets done. Throughout the day, their bodies are surging with adrenaline and cortisol so that when their head hits the pillow each night, it’s often spinning. Let’s be clear, I am not saying this is a purely female experience. With 75% of suicides occurring amongst the male population, anxiety is a condition that doesn’t discriminate between sexes. However, the brain of an anxious female shares certain tropes, well-trodden and established pathways that lead to shared thought bias. I’d also go so far as to say that anxiety is seen as a negative female trait. One that leaves her stigmatised as weak and vulnerable.
However, before exploring what it’s like to be anxious and female, I firstly need to acknowledge my own unique circumstance. I had a new therapy session today. The woman was thoughtful and professional. Since it was our initial session and she was trained in psychotherapy, I again was obliged to explain my backstory. I won’t recount the intricate details but in short, it’s a therapist’s dream. I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, left it when I was in my late teens and my parents disowned me almost entirely as a result. Sadly, this relationship has never been repaired and is irreconcilable unless I repent and become reinstated into their church. I have a contentious relationship with my identity. At times, I share my trauma quite freely, watching people’s faces contort into various sad expressions, hearing them marvel at my bravery, at my ‘normalness’ despite adversity. More often recently, I try to escape it. I’ve struggled hard to stop my past defining my present and yet all too often it finds a way of luring its ugly head. This is where the anxiety enters stage right! If I’m honest, I’m not sure whether I was born with this debilitating condition and my experiences in late puberty exacerbated it or if exposure to trauma caused the onset of it. The older I get, the more inclined I am to think the former. I do remember anxious episodes as a child. For example, I was overly focused on schoolwork and would regularly fixate on assessments. I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy the topics I was studying; I just knew I ‘must’ be perfect at them: Maths, English, Art, Sports. The subject matter was irrelevant, just the marks and the gratification that came from knowing I was excelling. I’d arrive home, grab a light refreshment and then sit at my desk, hunched over textbooks for hours until my mum called me downstairs for dinner. I studied fanatically, using entire weekends and weekday evenings drilling my notes. During this period, I forwent social engagements and refrained from other extra-curricular activities just to cram in a few hours more. It’s hard to stress the level of energy expended in revising. I’d furiously fill notebooks, relentlessly rewriting formulas until they stuck. I’d paper the walls with flashcards covered in acronyms, bullet points and buzz words. When I went to bed, my brain found it difficult to shut down. Often in half lucid dreams, I remember visualising revision notes and textbooks all over again. It wasn’t until my GCSEs and subsequent A-Levels that this reached a crescendo. I became an insomniac. My anxiety finally got the better of me. During exam season, I was robbed of nightly rest, tossing and turning until morning.
In past therapy sessions, I’ve been told that obsessing over school grades was an attempt at control. As a young Jehovah’s Witness, I wasn’t given huge amounts of freedom. My weekly routine was fastidiously micromanaged by my family and the wider organisation. With this backdrop, my diligent and frankly obsessive focus on grades was an attempt to carve out my own identity and with it exhibit some form of agency. Whilst this was true for teenage me, as I’ve grown older, my anxiety has sporadically shifted focus. It no longer chooses one topic. Instead, it flits between subject matters, working my brain like a pin-ball machine and leaving me exhausted. I’m no expert but from my own research I’m aware of the biological mechanics of anxiety. As outlined by Dr Julie Smith in her book ‘Why Has Nobody Told Me This’, my amygdala works like a smoke detector. It scans for dangers and when activated, triggers reactions including increased heart rate and the release of adrenaline. At one point in human existence, this was a defensive mechanism that kept the Neanderthal safe. However, since I grew up in a 20th century ultra-Christian household, an over sensitive amygdala had several drawbacks. Whilst there were no longer any looming threats from crouching tigers, I was taught from infancy there were a plethora of imminent ‘spiritual’ dangers, least on the list being Armageddon. It might sound farfetched, but Jehovah’s Witnesses genuinely believe that we are living in something called ‘the last days.’ To survive god’s impending destruction, an individual must prove themselves worthy. Meanwhile, the devil is seeking to tempt you away from the light and deny you of that ‘golden ticket.’ Amongst a surplus of other rules, Jehovah’s Witnesses must remain chaste. Like any religious zealots they take it very seriously. Moreover, as with most Abrahamic religions, femininity is vilified and insidiously linked to immorality. Bloody Eve with her allegorical ‘rotten’ apples just had to spoil if for the rest of womankind. It goes without saying that sex before marriage is seen as a sin and one that can lead to you being disfellowshipped from the congregation. I have personal experience of this, and I can assure you, unlike the act, it isn’t taken lying down. In their publications they outline how to avoid the licentious sins of the flesh as well as what constitutes appropriate conduct for men and women. These pernicious beliefs manifest themselves in all areas of their followers’ lives. Their edicts range from what women should wear, what role they play in the household to appropriate careers for them within society. As far as clothing, I was not permitted to wear skirts that didn’t hit the knee, wear anything too tight or that revealed too much skin. The congregation was self-policing, with ‘sisters’ privately admonishing younger women to avoid tempting ‘brothers’ through their inappropriate attire. Perhaps, more damaging still were their thoughts on sex and relationships. Casual dating was not tolerated and exploring your own sexuality through masturbation was self-indulgent and sinful. Furthermore, men were always the head of the household and women were told to respect their station within the family unit. Despite my academic prowess, I was strongly discouraged from attending university, and whilst not a ‘sackable offence,’ I was assured it would open me up to unnecessary dangers and ‘secular’ thinking. You can understand why a child with a predisposition for anxiety may not thrive within this toxic environment. Upon leaving, seemingly unscathed, I’d absorbed these poisonous ‘truths’, slowly fracturing my sense of self in the process. Nineties society did not proliferate the healthiest views toward women, but my religious ecosystem ranked the misogyny and self-loathing up tenfold and then threw lighter fluid on the flames. It is taking decades of forensic introspection to heal that internal damage.
Now that I’ve delved a little into my upbringing it’s important to circle back to my old friend, anxiety. Another technique within therapy is to give a personality to the loud inner critic. Some self-help books even tell you to name it. So, let me introduce the two of you properly. Reader, this is Amy, my over enthusiastic amygdala. Amy has many faces: judge, sympathetic friend, evangelical preacher, saviour, persecutor, and protector. On a biological level, I know this uncomfortable feeling is simply a neurological response to physical symptoms but at the moment that doesn’t make it any better. What is more, Amy can be very persuasive. Just like the elders that used to stand on the platform and preach a message of impending doom, Amy habitually tries to convince me that I need to stay vigilant. She is also a bit of a fickle pickle. As I mentioned, she likes to flit between topics. One day she might be preoccupied by my romantic relationship and on another my career. During particularly challenging periods, she might batter me with intrusive thoughts in multiple arenas before hunkering down for a couple of days, a week or month maybe. Just when I think I’ve reached a hiatus, she reappears and so the cycle continues. Amy’s a real bitch and an unpredictable one at that.
Her most annoying trait is when she chooses to make an appearance during periods of joy. The summer of 2022 contains some of my happiest memories to date. At this point I’d been with my wonderful partner for 2 years. From our first encounter, he’s had this uncanny ability to calm the tumultuous storm in my head and because of that, I always knew he was the one. I’d recently left teaching and was luxuriating in my newfound freedom, capitalising on time with him. Anyway, all this joy caused my anxiety to awaken, churn over memories and zone in on the idea of abandonment. The problem with unexplored trauma is that it is housed as a potent series of emotions that if left unchecked, feeds a present narrative. Since teenage me was never truly settled, safety can feel unnerving and even threatening. Rather than being able to bask in the happiness of such a functional relationship, I see-sawed between contentment and the dread that the relationship would inevitably come to an end. I don’t know if there is a psychoanalytical term for this feeling, but I’ve coined it: ‘foreboding joy.’ Come August, we were holidaying in Florida with his family. Thoughtful as ever, he’d chosen to propose on the beach at sunset. Quite simply, it was perfect. A little side note here to evidence the power of the anxious brain: I knew he was going to propose months before it happened. His 90 something year old granny had let it slip in an offhand comment whilst I’d been speaking to her on the phone. Yet, my mental filter had chosen to rank the ‘fictitious’ dangers as higher priority than this fact. By the time we boarded the plane to America, I’d all but convinced myself that I’d made Granny’s comment up. On the beach, as he knelt on one knee, I repeatedly asked him: ‘Is this a joke?’ I assure you; this was not brilliant acting. I genuinely found it impossible to process a reality where this was happening.
I could go on and talk about countless other experiences in the last few years where Amy has made an unexpected appearance when I really wish she’d stayed at home. On reflection, I’m quite proud that I’m signed off. In doing so, I’ve finally acknowledged her existence and am doing the work to reassure her we’re ok. I’m no longer that confused little girl, pouring over her textbooks in a desperate attempt to avoid the bigger questions. I know she’s going to take some serious convincing and she might continue to turn up, uninvited in the future but I’m determined to treat her with self-compassion. For now, I’d say that’s a good start.