It’s an anxious time right now. Not only are people dealing with the fear of getting sick, but they’re also dealing with the financial insecurity that comes with getting laid off and the economy shutting down. Self-help articles abound on the NY Times and the Washington Post featuring relaxation tips and tools for managing stress. For someone with chronic anxiety, the current state of the world should be like a shot of adrenaline right to my brain. And yet, for the first time in my life, I am calm.
I am an anxious person. I was put on this earth for one reason and one reason only—to be anxious. My earliest memory is from when I was in preschool, having just told my friend Lauren how to spell the F word. We sat together on the ground in class, my hand cupped around her ear as I whispered the forbidden knowledge.
The next day Lauren came into class with a letter addressed to the teacher from Lauren’s mother. This letter detailed just exactly what I had done. In this letter Lauren’s mother laid out all of the horrible details of the sin that I had committed and, for good measure, she threw in what she thought my punishment should be: instant and merciless execution.
Or so I had convinced myself. In reality, the letter had nothing to do with me, but that didn’t stop me from interrogating Lauren.
“Did you tell your mother?” I asked her, breathing heavily through my mouth.
“Did I tell my mother what?” she replied.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” I said.
We had a field trip to a museum scheduled for later that day, which was fate’s malicious plan to slowly torture me. As we walked through the museum, I shot nervous glances at my teacher. I knew she was simply waiting for me to let down my guard before she pulled me aside to inform me of my punishment and potential incarceration.
As I got older, my anxiety did not go away. It began to shift forms, settling just long enough for me to become aware that it was my anxiety that I was feeling and not something else. Then it would dissipate, drifting through my fingers before it would take on another form to torment me with.
When I was 11, it took the form of nighttime panic attacks. I felt like I was going to die, paralyzed with the thought of me as an 18-year-old lying in bed at night in my college dorm having just found out my parents were dead. These nighttime anxiety attacks always featured two intermingling scenarios: I was in college, and my parents were dead. It became hard not to link the two together from now on.
When I was in my late teens, anxiety took the form of quicksand, pulling me down into the floor and suffocating me every morning. Usually this was because I was hungover, the aftereffects of alcohol triggering my panicked “fight-or-flight” response every single morning. I would always choose flight (if by flight you meant avoiding going to class and letting my anxiety build to a breaking point).
Then my anxiety felt like a blanket. But not a comforting blanket; it was a suffocating blanket, one that made my breath shallower and shallower until I felt my lungs screaming for oxygen.
Next, it was a fist slowly squeezing my heart. It felt like my chest was getting tighter and tighter as I became lightheaded and didn’t know why.
Then it was a cup of water in my lungs, slowly pouring itself out. The water would dribble out of the cup, run along my fingers and then down my wrist. It would continue down the length of my arm and into my sleeve, making its way down my body before hitting the ground. There it would slowly build until it drowned me from the inside out.
After I got sober, my anxiety settled a bit. Now, gratefully, it confined itself to a single moment each day. Every day, the moment that I woke up, I felt as if I was going to die. My anxiety was a spear that pinned me to the bed, waking me up as though an ancient warrior had thrust his javelin right through my chest and left me to choke on my own blood. It was unpleasant, to say the least.
I decided to stop taking anti-anxiety medication 3 years ago. My anxiety had become a lot more manageable thanks to the fact that I was no longer binge drinking nor obese. But although my anxiety became milder, it did not go away altogether. My anxiety became a shadow, tormenting me with pokes, prods, and pinches that I wasn’t sure were really real or if I’d simply made them up.
Then the coronavirus happened. Everyone lost their minds, buying up food and water for a good reason and toilet paper for no reason. Hand washing became the newest craze, and “social distancing” entered the lexicon as the latest buzzword. And I became calm. Something in me switched off.
Maybe the coronavirus put into perspective the fact that everything I normally feel anxious about didn’t matter. I think another part of it is that it took away a lot of the daily social pressures to perform and to be productive, which are the usual sources of my anxiety. I’m not the person to think, “God sent a pandemic to teach me how to chill out.” But I am grateful that, as an anxious person, I am not anxious now.
Now don’t get me wrong: I definitely take the coronavirus seriously. I’m social distancing, I’ve stocked up on my groceries, and I’m washing my hands with the best of them. But I’m not worried. Not in the slightest. Maybe I should be. Maybe I should be freaking out about food shortages and scores of people dying and being stuck indoors for the next few weeks or months or years. But my question to that is: why? What would I accomplish by worrying about any of that? It’s all out of my control. I’m doing my part to slow the spread of this disease, and I’m checking in with my family and loved ones to make sure that we’re all being safe and smart.
I have no power over the rest of it. I can’t stop people in Florida from going to Disney World or Republicans from going to the Golden Corral. And I don’t need to. Coronavirus taught me that 99% of the things I spend my time worrying about don’t matter, and for the things that do matter, worrying isn’t going to help. All I can do is focus on doing my best, taking care of myself, and being of service.
Coronavirus got rid of my anxiety. Maybe it’ll be back; maybe next time it will feel like a slug nibbling on my left toe. But I’ll be able to look back at the time when it felt like the whole world was falling apart and I’ll remember that sense of calm I felt. And I know that I can feel this way anytime I want.