“You know, being aware of your crap and actually overcoming your crap are two very different things.”
-Dr. Cristina Yang as played by Sandra Oh on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”
I don’t write about my anxiety. I never have. I have posted Facebook statuses about it, I have shared articles and memes about it, and I have been open about coping with it. But I have never written about it. It was only until one day, on the phone with sister-friend Vanessa, sobbing about it that she said softly, “Mama, maybe that’s what you should be writing about.”
I started a piece recently that is now on its fifth or so draft that has me reeling, spinning like a top. Writing about the roots of my anxiety have caused anxiety. How fucked is that? I didn’t really think as I wrote the first draft of it. I just told and didn’t show a damn thing. I had to tell it before I showed it. I tried my best not to focus on anyone that I was writing about, tried my best not to worry about what may happen after the piece was written. I tried not to think about who would be angry or hurt, who’d drill me with guilt and ridicule. I didn’t want to wrap my head around what people would say.
As it’s been workshopped and edited, I began to struggle with the idea of writing it. I remember being told that one part of it, a part that to this day when I read it I get shaky, didn’t express my terror enough. Admittedly, I was aghast that someone could not feel what I felt as I wrote/read it. I mean, this was the scariest moment of my life! But, I had to step away from my emotions again and think like a writer. This wasn’t about me. And perhaps, that’s hard to understand. But, writing makes you see that emotion sparks it, but craft is what molds it. Can you dig that?
No matter what I have to do as a writer, this is my emotional truth. This is what I need to do. Write from the wound, right from the wound, as the Jedi Masters have so often told me.
That same sister-friend tells me all the time how guilt-ridden I am. How I apologize too often and worry about things that need not be worried about. I cringe when she says it, mostly because I know she is kind of right. I don’t know where this guilt came from. The constant and nagging feeling that I am failing the people around me, that I am a burden on the people around me, that I am not the granddaughter-daughter-sister-cousin-niece-friend-lover-writer-woman I should be.
Damn that word “should.” That word alone can send me into a trembling, stomach-flipping mess.
A few tips on how to react if I have an anxiety attack in front of you:
I am not over-reacting. I am not pretending I am a star in a novela. I am not acting crazy. I am not a loca. I am not wilding out. This is a real and physical thing and it is excruciating and hard. The dismissal is insulting and deeply hurtful. Stop that shit. Please.
I can not relax or chill or be easy. That implies I can control what is happening, which I cannot. Do not say those things to me. I will only get worse. I will only believe that I am getting you upset, mad, sad, or worried and I will spiral into a deeper attack. Stop that shit. Please.
I am ashamed and embarrassed when they happen. I have had them on girls night out, during workouts, on dates, in the middle of class, in the middle of teaching. People have asked me why I get attacks, what triggers them. I don’t know most times. Sometimes, it just fucking happens. It is nothing you did. It is nothing that I am doing. It is nothing that is happening.
Please try to understand. If I could control what was happening, I wouldn’t have them. Offer me kindness. Your presence is far more than enough of a comfort than you think. Most times, if I feel it coming, I try to excuse myself. Sometimes, I won’t be able to do that. Offer me a glass of water. Tell me everything will be okay, that I am alright, that we are alright, that my mother is alright. JUST TELL ME EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT.
Every day during the week-long workshops at VONA, participants are asked to write on a huge sheet of paper that has a daily question. One day, I believe was “What is your biggest fear?”
I wrote when no one was watching.
“That my anxiety will kill me.”
VONA changed my life. I knew from the moment I was able to write those words that I am never going to be the same woman again. Not just in my writing life, though that has changed as well in ways that I am still working through. But VONA gave me a community that nurtured me, spiritual kin from all corners and all places.
Case in point. As I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I found out I was accepted into VONA. I was over the moon about it. Anxiety stretched me thin in the days before I finished my last set of final papers and exams. I decided to be open about it on Facebook. This was probably one of the first times I ever shared that I was coping with anxiety. Sharline, a VONA veteran, responded to my Facebook status with a simple “You are not alone.” On different coasts, Sharline and I had never met. We had never broken bread together or shared secrets. She sent me a link to her own work. That exchange shaped how I approached talking about my anxiety.
I went to VONA with the belief that now that my degree was finished, I was chilling. I landed in the Bay after a very drunken thirtieth birthday thinking that I was finally saved from the incessant attacks. I was wrong in a big way. I balanced giving myself with isolating myself. I was asked a number of times if I was okay, asked why I was always alone. While others participated in a poetry salon one night, I was sitting alone in my room staring at the screen of my laptop urging myself to write something, when I felt the floor light up with heat under my soles. I was surprised by it. I tried to stop it. I paced. I did jumping jacks. I did breathing exercises. I imagined soft oceans and palm trees. I hummed “Three Little Birds.” Nothing was helping.
I walked out and towards the poetry salon, hoping that hearing people reading their work could help me come back down. I avoided everyone’s eyes as I tried to situate myself in the lounge. I was shaking, pale. Sister-friend Vanessa catches eyes with me, motions for me to join her where she is sitting. I ignore her at first. She’s persistent enough that I walk over to her and sit on the floor. I immediately begin to cry silent tears. She doesn’t say anything, just pats my hand and offers me Kleenex. On the way out, I see brother-friend Miguel who gives my hand a squeeze at the sight of my puffy eyes. I was relieved that no one said anything, no one made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. They offered me kindness and patience.
Every single time I post something about my anxiety, it is these sisters and brothers that reach out and read it. That tell me to go ahead and feel them feelings. To own my truth. I am grateful. And now I’m writing.
It changed my life, I tell ya’.
I was accepted into VONA for a second time and am about to embark on a brand new journey there. I feel like a completely different person. I won’t lie and say that I have overcome anxiety. In fact, I had a really bad night the other night. I will say that I will walk into VONA proud of the steps I have taken. Proud that I haven’t let it kill me. Trip me up, maybe. Kill me? Naaaaaah.
I am going to finish that piece and when I am ready, I will share it with the world. I can only ask that if someone reads it, and they don’t have the words, that what they read is: You are not alone.
Time to overcome the crap.