“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m on a much needed and looked forward to vacation with family whom I love dearly, and yet I’m entering the belly of the whale. Perhaps it was triggered by my habit of making sure everyone is okay and having a good time. Perhaps it’s because the act of preparing for and traveling to Baja was exhausting and now I’m just tired.
Whatever the cause, my anxiety starts as an uncertainty, an insecurity tickling the back of my skull. Then it attacks my ego, assigning me responsible for the self-created and the mostly non-existent negative body language that whoever is sitting next to me is giving off. The way you picked up your fork makes me think you’re angry. The look you flashed when I coughed causes me to cower.
From there the insecurity spreads like a plague until it’s part of every thought, every action. At some point, it doesn’t even seem to originate in the brain anymore. It becomes a vibration within. A simmering under my skin that makes me jump at the smallest of noises. A discomfort that makes eggshells appear under my feet.
Once here, it’s like I can’t do anything right. Every action is disappointing. Every thought is wrong thinking. The big picture comes crashing down making it hard to breathe. It settles onto my shoulders and around my throat, like an over-zealous travel pillow. Tears usually follow accompanied with sides of hopelessness and embarrassment.
Anxiety attacks. No really. It attacks. It’s calculated, methodical, and unforgiving. It makes me think that it’s All. My. Fault. It’s exhausting and it can happen anytime, even on vacation.
I’ve been dealing with anxiety since I was a kid, although I didn’t know what it was until I was well into my thirties, at which point I had to make a decision: to be a stressed-out, anxiety-ridden person, which also meant living with the idea that there was something wrong with me; or to accept the fact that I’m a person and all people have struggles.
Anxiety and negative thinking are my struggles, and I choose to handle them in the same way I handle having seasonal allergies or a bad back.
Let me explain. I live in a state of sleepy sneezes when things start blooming. In the months before spring arrives, I begin taking bee pollen daily so I’m less prone to lethargy and allergy attacks. I injured my back last week surfing, so I’m not going to lift heavy things and after a period of rest, I’ll start doing stretches and exercises to strengthen myself so I can get back in the water.
I’m not going to wait to get to the point where I’m laid out and feeling sorry for myself, and I’m not going to jump into an activity that will exacerbate the situation. I am being proactive about my well-being.
When I was about thirty-five, my anxiety got so bad that it led to a depressive state. I was panicked all of the time and I began to realize that the life choices I habitually made were feeding my negative state of mind.
I wasn’t living a healthy life style. I didn’t find my job fulfilling. I was angry that I didn’t have what “you” had. Something was always missing and I was constantly reaching outward to fill the empty space.
The problem was that nothing from outside myself was helping. I realized that drinking alcohol and eating poorly (i.e. binging on sugar), sitting in front of social media, smoking cigarettes. and watching hours of television were all the same type of abuse.
I had been using all of these things to dull myself to, well, myself. I had been living un-happily for the majority of my life and so unhappy had become my default.
I also had to admit that my discontented state was a direct product of living dishonestly. I hadn’t been communicating about the things that I knew would make me unhappy because I was only worried about what would make me look good to others.
So, I acted based on the assumptions of what others thought I should do (without asking them, of course). Then I got pissed off when others didn’t act the way I wanted them to. The result was that I pushed away the people I loved and in turn, felt isolated and angry.
When I started seeing all of these things that were making me unhappy, the natural question to ask myself was “Well, then, what the heck makes me happy?” The shocking answer was that I didn’t know. Something had to change.
Drinking alcohol was the first thing to go. It was a raging red flag that had been waving for a few years. I finally decided to pay attention.
Once I had a few months of sobriety, an odd thing happened: I started painting. It wasn’t a huge stretch for me, as art had always been in my life in some way, but painting had never been my favorite medium.
But there it was, in all of its colors and shapes. Abstract painting. I didn’t really care what the painting looked like. That wasn’t the point. The point was the present state of mind that creating art brought me to. I didn’t think about my to do list, my sadness, or my insecurities. I was just painting.
When I was a kid, I loved to make art. The art studio in my high school was where I was most comfortable. I loved getting my hands dirty in clay. I left spatterings of paint and ink on my clothes because I liked them there. I felt at home when I was doing art.
At thirty-six years old, immersing myself in abstract painting reminded me of what it was like to actually feel like myself again.
I had to come to terms with the fact that since I was thirteen years old, I had been living the life of a person that I thought I should be, not who I really was. I had to let go of all aspects of that person that wasn’t authentic to me and remove all of my masks in order to follow the life I want to live.
I felt relieved to finally be exposed. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I admitted that sometimes I am more of an introvert than extrovert. That if all I’m doing is chasing a paycheck, I’m never going to be okay with a nine-to-five job, even if it comes with an impressive title. That I am not ever going to be like anyone else but me.
I recently had a discussion with a friend regarding how to be the best and most useful person to the world. She was given the advice to follow her authentic passion, as following passion leads to happiness and a happy person is more useful to themselves and everyone around them.
I don’t really remember how old I was when I started making art, but I’m pretty sure that it’s the first thing I found that felt good to my soul, and it was life-saving to be reminded of that. Now, having come full circle, I have four years of my authentic work under my belt. I have quit my day job and I’m pursuing my passion of being a professional artist (which is something that I deemed not possible very early on).
I don’t know what prompted me to pick up a paintbrush four years ago, but I believe it was a gift from my Self to myself. The really cool thing is that I don’t want to be anyone but me anymore. I’m so interested in giving attention to this person that has always been there, but I ignored because I didn’t think she was good enough.
It was difficult to grasp that the only one judging and bullying me was me, but I have to remain compassionate to that misguided part of myself as well. She was only doing the best she could.
Anxiety is still a part of my life. I am not “cured.” But just like I treat allergies or an injured back, I have decided to be proactive in dealing with my anxiety.
When I’m actively practicing the below, I’m better rested and less reactive. I am able to clearly see my options leading to less confusion and better decisions. Most importantly, I can feel when anxiety is welling up and I have the tools to tamper it down before it is out of control.
When I am active in the following, my anxiety is manageable:
1. Choose to live authentically. What moves me? What do I feel I am here to do? What is going to make me happy? Whatever it is, don’t judge it. Do it.
2. Practice acceptance. We all have hard things to deal with. Every last one of us. That’s life.
3. Meditation in the mornings sets my base line for the day and helps me sleep at night.
4. Painting every day keeps my hands busy and creates an outlet for the mental energy that cannot be released otherwise.
5. Exercising outside in nature, particularly surfing in the ocean every chance I get, allows me to see that the world is sooooo much bigger than me and all decisions are not mine for the making (see the above mentioned back injury).
6. Reciting my gratitude list regularly, and telling the people I love that I’m grateful for them, helps me to see the positive side of life instead of focusing on the negative.
7. Eating right and treating my body with respect keeps me feeling whole, healthy, and balanced.
8. Reminding myself that this is a practice. I am not perfect. It’s okay not to be.
It’s not always easy. When I started writing this, I was entering the belly of the whale. Now that I’m many paragraphs in, I already feel more at ease.
By identifying and accepting this particular whale, I don’t have to be swallowed. Just by writing this, I have taken the unknown out of the scenario by calling the anxiety out for what it is. Once I have given it a name, it’s not quite so scary. It just is what it is. Some people have diabetes. I have anxiety.
We cannot choose whether or not we have problems like anxiety. We all have our issues and that’s just part of being human. Rather than be at odds with anxiety all the time, we can choose to learn more about it and actually co-exist. We have a choice about how much say we allow anxiety to have in our lives.
I find that I prefer to swim along-side my whale and learn more about it rather than being engulfed by it. Frankly, more and more, I’m finding that I’m just grateful to be able to go for a swim, and so I dive in. Deeper and deeper. Excited to find what else is beneath.