As a junior in high school, I qualified for the regional spelling bee. The contest was going to be held at a nearby high school which I had never visited. My parents, who both had work obligations that afternoon, explained to me where the high school was located. Having only recently got my driver’s license, I assured them that I would be fine on my own.
But on the day of the contest, I was nervous. My heart was beating fast as I fired up my ancient station wagon and joined the stream of traffic heading down the parkway. Unsure of my route, my eyes darted around looking for street signs. Finally, I saw a sign that read “High School” and quickly turned down the residential street, relieved to have found my destination.
But when I inquired at the front office about the spelling bee, the secretary seemed confused. She got on the phone and made one call, then another. She shook her head. Hanging up the phone, she gave me the bad news.
I had come to the wrong school.
Heart pounding, I hopped back in my car. I drove to the correct high school in a blur, and ran into the auditorium, only to arrive as the last word was being read aloud.
I stood there, frozen, with tears streaming down my face as I realized I had missed my chance. As the audience cheered and clapped for the spellers, I broke into sobs, and hurried back to my car where I could cry in private.
I felt devastated about missing the spelling bee, although to family and friends, I laughed the whole thing off, turning it into a story about my poor sense of direction. Privately, I ruminated about how upset the whole thing had made me.
Up until then, I had been undecided about what to do after graduating high school: go to art school, to fulfill a lifelong dream of studying design? Or pursue a traditional liberal arts education, where I could indulge my love of reading and writing?
Now, I thought, I had uncovered a truth about myself that I couldn’t ignore. I concluded I was so upset because I cared about words and language so much. In my mind, this meant I needed to follow my deeper passion.
So I gave up on art school and focused on English. I looked for the words that would make this story about myself true.
But the truth I uncovered that day was actually something completely different, although I didn’t realize it at first. This was a narrative shaped, not by my passions, but by the anxiety that has been running like a dark undercurrent throughout my life.
It was not until many years later, when seated on my therapist’s couch, that I saw it for what it was, and truly understood how I had been carried along by this current of anxiety for most of my life.
The therapy session was about something completely unrelated. But in discussing how I had reacted to a certain situation, my therapist made an observation that shook me to my core.
I mentioned something about anxiety being an influence on my reaction, and she smiled, her eyes fixed to mine. “Honey,” she said with a kind smile, “anxiety has been the single most powerful driving force in your life.”
“Honey,” she said with a kind smile, “anxiety has been the single most powerful driving force in your life.”
The conversation shifted after that, and I barely remember what was said next. When our session was over, I responded mechanically to her warm and loving hug, and raced out of her office, my mind buzzing.
The single most powerful driving force in my life? What about my intellect, my curiosity, my passions? My hands were shaking as I fumbled in my bag for my car keys and made the short drive back to work. I wasn’t ready to let this information in. If I tugged on the thread my therapist had just pointed out to me, what would it unravel? So I tucked it away and tried not to think about it.
Anxiety, like other mental disorders, is an imaginative and skillful liar. One of the greatest tricks it plays is its ability to hide in plain sight, to camouflage itself as something benign. For so many years, my anxiety was the snarling wolf waiting in disguise, while all I could do was wonder: “What long teeth you have!”
As a child, my anxiety hid among an array of typical childhood fears, like the alien hiding among Gertie’s stuffed animals in the movie E.T.. Hanging on the wall in my grandmother’s sewing room was a needlepoint sampler of the old prayer, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us,” complete with an image of a green, dragon-like beastie. I was terrified of that sampler; terrified of the idea of “things that go bump in the night,” terrified of E.T., or any sinister creature from any movie or TV show I ever watched. I sat in terror through the movie Gremlins as a child while my family laughed at its campy horror, then I lay awake for hours imagining that the long-limbed creatures from the film were going to crawl up from under my bed and devour me.
In high school, my anxiety was free-floating and sporadic, but it hid so well there too. My friends and I would commiserate about being “so stressed” or “totally freaking out” over endless late-night cups of coffee at Denny’s, as we attempted to juggle pre-calculus homework, play practice and debate tournaments. In college, everyone complained about having “so much work,” yet it seemed like a point of pride for each of us to be the busiest, the most burdened, the most stressed.
What I didn’t say to anyone at college was that when I was “so stressed” about my homework, I locked myself in my room and stayed awake for 24 hours until I had all my assignments done. I didn’t mention that when I had been “freaking out” the day before, I had been sitting under my desk crying uncontrollably for an hour, and I didn’t even really know why. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell about myself.
Anxiety shouts, it screams, it will do anything to get your attention, and it can be hard to ignore.
Our brains love stories so much that they will make them up, stringing together unrelated events to construct a narrative where none exists. For a long time, it seemed my brain loved only the stories that flattered it; the stories that fit my idea of the person I thought I was.
And my brain is very, very good at telling stories. Stories were at once the shield for my anxiety to hide behind and also its most fearsome weapon. Anxiety has told me that something terrible is about to happen so many times that you would think I would have known it was crying wolf. Somewhere inside me, there was always a small voice saying, “This isn’t right.” But it got drowned out so easily. Anxiety shouts, it screams, it will do anything to get your attention, and it can be hard to ignore.
Accepting my therapist’s statement about the impact of anxiety on my life has meant re-writing my entire story. Looking back over my life with this newfound knowledge has been like opening up a beloved book, only to find that the characters are unfamiliar, the storyline changed, like my own private Mandela Effect.
But her statement also gave me permission to keep listening to that small voice inside me — to hear what stories it can tell. And I have learned that it is wise, and kind, and true — all the things my anxiety is not.
Anxiety pretends to be a soothsayer, reading signs and portents in everyday objects. It is why I laugh when people tell me to “trust my gut” or “use your instincts,” because anxiety rules these parts of me, and it is not to be trusted.
I laugh when people tell me to “trust my gut” or “use your instincts,” because anxiety rules these parts of me, and it is not to be trusted.
Anxiety is what tells me that someone has broken into my house and murdered my loved ones. It tells me that the shape on the side of the road is going to be a dead body. It tells me that ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-leggity beasties lurk in the shadows.
It’s so easy for everything to get drowned out by the nonstop gibbering of these fantastical yarns. But I am learning how to tune out the noise, like voices in a busy restaurant, and listen instead to what this new, small voice has to say.
It’s not always that simple or that easy. Sometimes the lies of anxiety are too cunning, sometimes its voice can’t be drowned out. Sometimes the threat of the wolf at the door feels much too real. But I am learning, after all these years, to tell the difference between fact and fiction, and to choose very carefully which stories I hear.