“Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented—which is what fear and anxiety do to a person—into something whole.” -Louise Bourgeois
Upon meeting me, most people wouldn’t assume I was anxious—and I’m not talking about anxiety-the-feeling, I’m talking about anxiety-the-disorder. I’ve been told again and again that I am “chill,” “laid back,” “uninhibited,” “authentic.” Maybe these things are true—but strangely, it seems they fill the space where my deepest anxiety lives, a space I keep so well-protected so that it may never be perceptible.
Growing up, I didn’t talk about my anxiety—nor did I really have a vocabulary for it in my own head. I knew I was ashamed of it—whatever it was—and thought for sure that everyone else was just living life, hanging out, not overthinking everything. Feeling pleasure. I remember many sleepless nights on my Little Mermaid sheets, which depicted underwater scenes featuring lots of bubbles, coral, Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian. I was afraid of swimming at the time and worried that if I fell asleep I would drown. I didn’t tell my parents, or my sister, and I kept quiet, growing increasingly tired with each night I lay awake, waiting for it to get light again. At the time, I was sort of applauded within the family unit for being resilient, easy-going, notably unflappable.
When I was 9-years-old, I found what I thought was a remarkable solution to the pain of my rumination and anxiety about disorder in my world. I began measuring everything in our apartment with a ruler (I preferred the metric system), and organizing all household objects (from medicine cabinet bottles to magazine stacks to kitchen implements) according to size and color order. When I would do these rituals, I would feel calm—at least momentarily; I had access to a sense of pleasure, a sense of meaning, belonging. My mind had an anchor, and that anchor was something whose position I could control.
My parents thought otherwise. My mom brought me to a behavioral therapist, where I was diagnosed with OCD (I didn’t really think anything of it), and got to play each week with a farm animal themed sandbox. The therapist took pictures of my creations each week. It seemed that I liked to keep the animals in cages. The farm could be a place of structural hygiene, one that would rinse me of my worries. Looking back, I wonder if the idea was for me to get comfortable getting messy in the context of play—where I could see the beauty of exploring my imagination and its imperfect edges.
It didn’t work, and I don’t remember when I stopped going. Now, I am not sure I would encage the farm animals (if I were to engage in this exercise again), but I am confident that I would organize the animals in a way that had an irrational message, decipherable only to me. Much like the patterns of 4 and its multiples that I count in my head on days when I feel particularly anxious. The symptoms of OCD are unsurprisingly exacerbated by anxiety-producing circumstances or triggers.
I don’t mean to express judgment around the fact that I would encode my obsessive-compulsive structures with meaning. In fact, I have come to use my anxiety—my paranoia, my tendency to repeat things in my head, my predilection for organizing the number 4 in various mathematical ways—in my poetry, and my writing more generally. It sounds so cheesy and lame, but I have learned to alchemize my control issues in my creative work—and the process emerged organically. A poetry professor I had once told me my poems made her feel like the speaker was trapped, repeating herself until she figured out how to grasp reality with a proper sense of language and experience. In the context of poetry, my ferocious thirst for control (and my allergy to disorder) is something that makes my voice strong. In my life outside writing, I try to tell myself—and believe myself—that my shitty parts can give me strength, and that there can be a kind of dynamic and ongoing dialogue between my more-evolved and less-evolved selves.
It was only recently that I began telling the world, telling myself really, about the things going on in my brain. Sure, I had been in therapy since age 9 (with a bit of on and off between ages 9 and 12), but I was repressed and ashamed of my deeply-rooted patterns of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive rituals. When I got to college, an environment of newness and “hope,” it was as if I had made a deliberate choice to manipulate the world around me—and myself—into thinking I was honest, open, always willing to say what was on my mind. Now, I think I really am these things, but so much of that began from a successful performance. I stepped into the shoes of someone who wouldn’t be so stifled by my own mechanism of denial that I then became that person.
Giving myself that freedom was a profound gesture of control—actual control, not medicine-cabinet-organizing control, but one that has gotten me into trouble over the past ten or so years—ever since I began “owning” who I was a little more. I think because I struggle with anxiety and overthink literally everything, I try so, so hard to identify with others, to anticipate what they might be feeling, what kinds of jokes might resonate with them, what vocabulary will be legible to them. In a place of being shut down with anxiety and its accompanying denial, this part of me doesn’t have adverse effects. I simply stew in my own ruminations.
Now, as someone who has simply decided to SPEAK MY MIND ALL THE TIME (and I like to keep decisions), this pattern makes me guard myself with the prickly armor of irony. I open myself up in ways that will resonate with people, and then hide the parts of myself that I don’t want to reveal. Being myself can become a matter of convenience and validation—people see me the way that I have always wanted to feel, and I can still get away with shrouding my self-loathing.
I am not writing all of this in an attempt to broadcast a navel-gazing journal entry about why I’m such a fucked up person, or why I’m so evolved because I recognize that I’m a fucked up person, but to talk about the necessarily non-linear journey of personal growth. The movement of my march toward mental health and well-being has not been one of steady cadence, nor has it been a victorious ascent. There are wonderful things about the sense of self I have created, a person whose value system is grounded in honesty. But it also means that I put pressure on myself to be that person, and that pressure creates an echo chamber sometimes that actively invites me to keep a lot inside.
Perhaps I don’t need to share those hidden parts—maybe that wouldn’t even be productive. The bottom line is that authenticity is not something we can really achieve. We can engage with it, critique it, use it as a reference point to understand who we are in reference to our self-perception, others, our experiences and so on. Yet the Platonic form of each of our authentic selves is a myth, and letting go of that is where the real freedom emerges.