I picked a hole in my forehead last night: leaned into the mirror and pinched my skin between index fingernails until something came out, sebum at first, then the red blossom of blood. First one pore, then two, then three spilled its contents, leaving a triangle pattern just above my left eyebrow that I knew would scab. And I almost moved onto another spot before catching my own eyes in the mirror and saying firmly, “stop.”
It’s the only thing that works. And mostly, I listen.
I backed away from the mirror. Swabbed the blood away with a cotton ball. But my heart was still pounding, my head still felt like a balloon about to burst.
My therapist explained my anxiety like this:
“Your brain is hardwired to perceive everything as a threat because it’s safer – because then, when something happens, it’s braced for it. But that causes overall anxiety because you’re always waiting for something bad to happen. That’s when things like your catastrophic thinking happen – your mind has to create terrible thoughts just in case something goes wrong.”
She’s walked me through this before, but last session I asked to record because I kept forgetting. At the end of the tape, you can hear me ask, “But why?”
It cuts off before she answers, but apparently my doomsday predictions happen thanks to a combination of two things: genetic predisposition and lived experience. The first part makes sense – my mother couldn’t sleep at night unless my sister and I were safely under her roof. The second is more difficult to explain because nothing truly bad has ever happened to me. All five of my grandparents are still alive. My parents are divorced, but doting. My sister is lively and successful. I’m lively and successful. We grew up in suburbia, for fuck’s sake. Anxiety belongs to others – mine is foolish, groundless, absurd. And yet.
I remember being very young, six or seven at most, and convincing myself that my mother would die in a plane crash. (I almost couldn’t type that sentence because, well, what if it’s still true – an aside I have to make because, if I don’t, I’m certain it will be.) She was on a trip somewhere. And I don’t know how a six-year-old child even knew about plane crashes, but there she was in my mind’s eye spiraling downward. I remember curling up in hysterics, half convinced the vision was real, terrified I’d never see her again.
Last weekend, driving back from the middle of nowhere Massachusetts, I became convinced that the person behind the wheel would steer us into a lake. She’d been driving without incident for years, but we passed a body of water on the left, and I could see the wheel slipping through her fingers, plunging us into it with only a few seconds to react. I’d recently watched an online video about how to survive in a sinking car – had come across it on the Facebook page of some innocuous Washington Post-like source – so I knew what I’d do: scream at her to roll down her window just before we hit the water, while jamming my finger onto my own control. We’d swim out as the car hit the lake, losing all our belongings but still – remarkably – alive.
Failing that, I’d grab one of our Swell water bottles and ram it with all my strength into the top corner of my passenger-side window. She’d do the same on the driver’s side, the windows would shatter, and, well, same story. I spun this narrative out in my head for minutes, tweaking it in places until it was a parallel reality. When I finally snapped out of it and told the driver where my mind had gone, we both laughed.
In a recent essay, Katie Heany interviewed Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. “When [my anxiety] is really at its height, I call it an isolation chamber,” Petersen told her. “The worry and the visions of catastrophe and the unending monologue of doom can really block out the experience of being with another person.”
At times this rings true, but more often my anxiety is focused on the other person – on what they’re saying or doing that might subtly betray that they don’t really want to be here, don’t really want to be spending time with me. It’s an isolation chamber of a different sort, because voicing these thoughts would mean asking for constant reassurance that they’re not true. And who wants to have to reassure a crying child that her mother is not plunging toward the ocean along with thousands of pounds of fiery jet debris? Who wants to take seriously the possibility of driving into an icy lake, and to seriously convince the passenger it won’t happen? Who wants to tell a lover or a friend that they do like hanging out with her and Jesus fucking Christ will you please stop asking?
Heany’s anxiety, she says, manifests in the weird, frantic way she clutches her hands together. Mine comes out in the soothing, ritual reassurance of ridding my face of imagined dirt, and the tiny scabs on my forehead and cheeks that I dutifully hide with concealer.