How do you quell your fear when everyone around you is equally afraid?
What a fucking weird year it was to have anxiety. I’ve spent years trying to get used to how my mind works, how it interprets slight inconveniences as mortal threat and responds by ramping up my adrenaline, how I have to spend a significant fraction of my waking life talking myself down from the edge of panic. I have a lot of experience (which is not to say skill) discerning between my own catastrophic thinking and an actual crisis. Usually I start by telling myself, “This isn’t as bad as it feels.”
But in 2016 that self-soothing mantra began to feel a little threadbare, and then a little useless, and then simply, obviously untrue.
It’s hard to quantify what makes a year “good” or “bad,” but the opinion that 2016 was a disaster seems nearly ubiquitous. Nationally and internationally, crisis followed crisis, trauma followed bigotry, which followed violence, and all of it happened against a backdrop of the absolute lowest common denominator of political theater. Casual misogyny, mass shootings, celebrity deaths. And although it doesn’t seem possible for everyone to have had a bad year in their personal lives, I hardly know anyone who didn’t. I unceremoniously lost two regular writing gigs, and both of my remaining grandparents died. It was a year characterized by dread and loss and a great deal of crying.
That’s not particularly unusual for me. I am afraid most of the time. Usually, that means there is a pronounced and disorienting schism between the way I see the world and the way it really is. Sometimes it’s possible to run a check on my skewed perceptions, to turn up the volume on the real world until it drowns out the clawing voice of panic deep in my skull. But these days, that screeching, barely-holding-it-together voice is coming from outside. It’s every notification on my phone, every text from a friend, every news headline and Facebook post. How do you quell your fear when everyone around you is equally afraid?
Elissa Bassist wrote for Dame that the entire United States seems clinically depressed since the election, saying “Severe despondency, learned helplessness, an inability to control experiences—a medical condition is now airborne.” But while everyone is depressed, it’s beginning to seem like no one is anxious, not in the medical sense. According to the DSM-V, generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by “excessive anxiety and worry.” Worry is normal; too much worry is an illness. But in this context, how can you make a case for anyone being too worried? What amount of fear could be characterized as gratuitous? What worst-case scenario is so outlandish it couldn’t happen—or isn’t already happening?
From the Zika virus to Aleppo to the spike in hate crimes across the United States to the imminent threat of climate change, the real world is full of threats that could stop even the most optimistic of us in our tracks—to say nothing of those of us for whom simply ordering a pizza is fraught with nearly insurmountable terror. So why is it that the people I find myself turning to in this time of crisis are largely my fellow anxiety and mental illness sufferers?
It seems that when the going gets scary, the scared step up. Those of us who have lived with anxiety for years know better than anyone how fright can sit like a weight on your chest, making it feel impossible to accomplish anything. But we also understand how to keep going anyway. We know to start with the very smallest thing that feels possible, whether that’s getting out of bed, going to work, or sending an email to your congressional representative. We know that trying to tackle the whole problem at once is a surefire way to send ourselves back to bed with a panic attack. We know how to incorporate small moments of self-care into our daily routines, because keeping ourselves as close to sane as possible isn’t self-indulgence; it’s bare-bones necessary. We’re the ones who will remind you to drink plenty of water when you’re sobbing from terror, or you’ll give yourself a headache.
Living in this time feels a lot like living with anxiety. There’s the exhaustion, the desire to hide from everything, the constant lurking sense of oh God, what now? and the near-certainty that every new development will be a bad one. “This isn’t as bad as it feels” is, frankly, no longer true—for many of us it hasn’t been true for a long time. But whether the dread is imaginary or real, the way we have to live with it remains the same. Pretending it doesn’t exist has never been helpful, and it’s less so than ever now. Instead, we have to get up every day and acknowledge: I am very scared, and I’m going to move forward anyway.
I’m not saying I have it all figured out. I’ve never had much of anything figured out, to be honest, and now it’s all more overwhelming than ever. But that’s OK. My mantra for 2017 is going to be a little bit different. When I’m afraid—which I know will be a lot of the time—I’m going to tell myself, This is as bad as it feels, but you can handle it. The world feels crazy right now, but I’m used to crazy. I’ve been living in my own head for all these years. I’m ready to take it on.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).