Dealing with my anxiety
Hello! Here I am again. I know I have talked a lot about how challenging the first 6 months of this year have been, especially April and May. June was marginally better and now we are in July. In this letter, I want to talk about one major change I took on in March to deal with my anxiety. But before that:
DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health practitioner and what I am describing is things I have done. I don’t recommend you try any of this.
Anyway, I was feeling very anxious, my stomach was constantly grumbling and I would wake up in middle of the night and feel mentally exhausted. My head was constantly churning out chatter every night and I really wanted that to stop. But that’s how I have felt for a long time.
This time I really wanted to trust myself a little more and also have more mind space and decided to go off WhatsApp. I turned off the internet on my phone, eventually I stopped reaching for my phone every time I was uncomfortable, needed a distraction or advice because without internet my phone was just a piece of plastic.
I stopped sharing memes, and conversations around what-they-said-then-what-I-said, what-I-ate, why-are-people-like-this, basically I stopped complaining, seeking advice and sharing links for constant engagement. I told my closest friends that I was not going to be available on WhatsApp or Signal and they shouldn’t send me memes on Instagram too, the only way to contact me was to meet, call or email.
Because these are close friends I didn’t think they’d abandon me. Some of my friends also live abroad so we figured a way to still keep in touch. It isn’t like I completely cut off WhatsApp but I stopped relaying my life and living my life there.
I was slowly realising that for pretty much anything big or small I do in my life, I run it by my friends and then I decide on what to do. So my trust in self was/is dismal. I always want/ed someone else to reassure me and say that I will be okay or what I was doing was right. Some kinda expert advice. When things didn’t work out, it hurt but I didn’t have to take full responsibility, it was after all a collective decision. And we’d discuss why it didn’t. We pretty much intellectualised everything and somehow everything seemed a little distant and less daunting when we did.
With that gone, it this felt strange to wake up in the morning to no messages or photos. Suddenly there was a lot of real estate on my brain and slowly my thoughts started showing up. I realised I was constantly numbing everything I felt with constant conversation, sharing and intellectualisation. While checking the spelling of intellectualisation, Wikipedia showed me this:
In psychology, intellectualization is a defense mechanism by which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress – where thinking is used to avoid feeling.
Intellectualisation made me feel so much more superior. I could always go on a fault finding spree, discuss it with a friend and immediately feel better about myself. I was always the poor victim that the world wasn’t treating right and I had the right to hate the world in return.
But now with that superpower gone, I could see that when I am online and my life isn’t going anywhere or I don’t have love or money and don’t know when it will find me, I was jealous and envious and angry. Now I could no more tell my friends about one of the bad things these people who were doing well had done or how their politics is not perfect. No more, “You know once they made this post…..”. I had to first deal with this ‘bad thing’ I was doing, of feeling envious and sometimes I was feeling envious about people I consider friends who I know for sure consider me their friend. When I started to be okay with being the ‘bad person’, I could see that under it was the insecurity that I felt because I don’t have financial stability. And somehow it feels better if others don’t have it too or if they are not rubbing their financial security in my face when I am feeling so low. It also showed me that I don’t trust myself to be financially secure or do things ‘right’ and that’s why I must be nicer to people so they support me because clearly I can’t support myself. Slowly this sitting with myself meant burrowing several holes and finding out deeply uncomfortable things about myself.
It wasn’t pretty at all.
I found out how I isolate myself, how I must sit on judgement on others, so they never come close to me and then attack them for never making enough effort. And then some deeply disturbing instances of predatory behaviour I had experiences as a teen resurfaced. I had stuffed it in because I had no vocabulary to understand it. It was coming at me from everywhere. Obviously no one likes this stuff. I spent many days crying, grieving and not being able to move.
There is nothing more taxing than to deal with oneself. On so many days I felt it would feel so much more better to be on autopilot and just keep reacting when things don’t go my way. But there was no going back.
But the good thing of getting off WhatsApp was I could concentrate more because I was not constantly looking for connection and even if I was those folks knew I wasn’t supposed to be disturbed. I no more looked at stuff on the internet and said, “Oh, x person will like it, let me send it to them and spend 5 minutes talking to them.” I worked on my graphic novel and children’s book , read, made art, went out and yes, I cried a lot.
I also made two lists, one of daily practices and another of weekly practices. Daily practices involves, singing (I love learning songs and have been doing this for more than a year now), dancing, bed yoga, sending compassion and meditation. Weekly practices involves getting out of my house at least 3 times a week, cooking (5 times a week), walking, hiking and meeting folks. Yes, I needed to put that on a list so I do it.
Among the things listed, I found meditation quite challenging. I have always imagined meditation to be a practice when no thought enters your mind and all you do is concentrate on your breathing. This time I told myself as an anxious person this is close to impassible, I am always thinking of something. I can barely be present. So I decided to lie down, shut my eyes, take long breaths and allow my thoughts some space and not be angry that I am not getting this right. It has been 2 months, I still think of something I promised someone on Instagram, or what to eat for breakfast or money or the person I like but now that I am not angry with these things entering my head, they also leave. I can’t say I have ever been able to practice meditation without thinking about something but I feel more and more at peace. I found some of the mediation practices in this Thich Nhat Hanh book very helpful.
Also with all my painful realisation, another thing was clear, there is this one person who I am building up, go get that project, go get those great clothes, be friends with so and so, make sure your friends care for you, make sure your family cares for you, find love in the world, make money but deep down there is someone in me that is constantly saying that it is scared and saying they are all going to find out that you are worthless and they will leave. So all this building up, achieving doesn’t really placate this voice inside which is constantly saying, “Be aware, they are going to leave,” “You are such an imbecile,’ “It is pointless,” “Don’t trust,” “You don’t listen to me,” ‘We will be sad again.”
Much as it sounds weird, I started to listen to voice and telling it that I was there for it and ask what it wanted to tell me and found out a lot. I feel slightly less reactive. I make fewer stories about people, feel less at war with the world. I also don’t want to be the person who must show others what they are doing wrong and what a relief that is. I want to share five instances from the recent past which for me are major milestones.
Recently, I had to share professional space with a person who was very toxic to me years ago. I was worried about sharing space with them and had to constantly tell myself that I’d be there for myself even if I did very badly and acknowledged that this fear came from earlier mistreatment. Despite this reassurance my stomach was a mess the day. I kept taking long deep breaths. When we were together and I saw that they had made a blooper. I took a photo of that and then wondered if I should tell them. I did and they rectified it. It immediately made me feel like an equal and they felt more human. When they spoke, I could hear them and appreciate some of the interesting things they were saying because I didn’t feel I needed to find faults in them. It felt so much more easier to share space. After we finished I realized I was harbouring this fear that they could destroy me because of how powerless I had felt in the past. Acknowledging and letting go of that fear felt so freeing.
Last month in Bangalore, the very kind N offered me her beautiful apartment while she was away. As soon as I stepped out on the first day, my head was spiralling, “Did you turn off the gas?” “What about the geyser?” “What about the door, did you shut it?” “Do you have the keys or have you lost it?”
Deep down I feel I can’t be trusted and if someone trusts me they will soon find out they made a wrong judgement and I will eventually burn down their house with my carelessness. The same story of worthlessness. The first time I had to assure myself I had done all of that and given Bangalore traffic, I couldn’t go back to save the house even if I hadn’t. The next day though, every time I turned off the gas, I told myself, “good girl, you turned off the gas,” same with the geyser and while locking the door I assured myself that it was locked. This time when the story of me burning down the house and how I shouldn’t be trusted came up again, I had evidence that I had done everything needed to do so that I don’t harm property and felt better.
Someone I want to keep in my life, let it slip out that they would want good wishes as they are going through a bad patch. I obviously offered help, not just because I wanted space in their life but I also really like them. They didn’t want any of my help and for once I didn’t feel like they had rejected me. I didn’t have to resent them for saying no to this “good person.”
In the end of May, I woke very anxious and just couldn’t calm down. This wasn’t a panic attack. Usually someone reassuring me helps. It was 4 am, I knew one of my friends in Europe would be up. I texted but they didn’t respond. I felt such helplessness, scanning my head about what I could do. I felt my heart would jump out. And then I told myself, take deep breaths. I did. eventually I calmed down and went back to sleep. This felt so good because I could do this on my own.
Last evening we had our first poetry group reading. It was something I announced on Instagram. We were all to read bits of poetry that we had gotten. Once that was done there were pregnant pauses. Then someone asked if they could share something else. More people shared. When more pauses ensued, I said, “We should do something more interactive so we are not so stiff.” I didn’t realise I was feeling worried if everyone was having a good time and if it was a waste of time for others and was offering suggestions . Then Vaishnavi who has been part of many many drawing sessions and we used to journal together stepped in to say, “Indu, we aren’t stiff. We are enjoying ourselves. Don’t get so anxious.” That’s when I realized that I was actually anxious and how much weight one carries on one’s shoulders. Later, when I thanked V, she said, “But you know they are all adult and they know they have agency to leave. No one left, even came back after call. See, they enjoyed it.” I didn’t know that I needed that reassurance till she gave it to me.
Okay, before I stop, I want to tell you about another thing I do, I acknowledge my wins (tiny and big ones) and constantly reassure myself that I will be there and that has made a huge difference.
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