Intermittent squeaks emit from across the room where my dog is wrestling with her “Invincible” snake.
I turn to watch her bite and nose it just out of her own reach. She rests her head on the floor, her neck craned toward the snake as if contemplating how she’ll get at it again, and then she abruptly snatches a different toy.
My dog, Scully, is eternally present, unfailingly loyal to me, and a metaphor for my new perspective on anxiety.
When first considering the title for this piece, “How I Overcame my Anxiety” was tempting, but as much as I would have liked, I was not able to pack it a lunch, call it a cab, and send my anxiety on its way for good. It still lives, and it still visits me from time to time, only now I have never been this comfortable in my own skin, anxiety and all.
On the worst days, it was awake before I was. Any time of the day was game, but mornings were guaranteed. Lying in my bed, eyes closed but starting to perceive the day ahead, my stomach would turn to acid. While anxiety may be triggered by thoughts, I have always felt it in my gut—the churning that urges a seat on the toilet and a shrinking from the mere notion of food. (I know that some people will actually eat more during times of anxiousness, but for me, food was Capitol Enemy #2, second to #1, Anxiety—a spindly, malnourished shadow that tainted the most promising moments and would also likely reject the aforementioned packed lunch.)
It made sense when I felt it right before my parents dropped me off at college, 14 hours away from home. It made sense when I felt it on the first day of class before meeting 60 new college students of mine. But last year, there was no solace and seemingly no sense to anxiety presiding over every single day.
Even if you’ve never seen the movie The Sixth Sense, you may have heard of its famous line, “I see dead people,” whispered by Cole, a haunted, little boy, to Malcolm, his mentor and confidante (caution: spoiler alert!), albeit a ghost himself. When they first met, Cole had been tormented by ghosts and ran from them, petrified. That was how I dealt with my anxiety.
I fled, by distracting myself constantly, with music, movies, errands and oftentimes keeping myself in perpetual company with others—anything so that I would not be alone. I made plans out of fear, rather than desire, booking my time solid. The empty moments were full—of dread. And when the anxiety still inevitably found me, I would flee again by picking up the phone and talking it out. And talking always helped…in the moment.
As I would share, with a compassionate ear and soothing voice on the other end, I felt relief. But the relief was short-lived. There were times when, in the moments leading up to the end of the conversation, I would feel fearful tears and a choking in my throat well up. The shadow was impatiently waiting for me to hang up.
With Malcolm’s help, Cole eventually gathers the courage to stay when the ghosts arrive. What’s more, he doesn’t just start tolerating them. He starts listening to them. And after he accomplished whatever task each ghost desired of him, they let him be.
I took the first steps to get control of my anxiety with yoga, Reiki energy healing, trauma release exercises (TRE), acupuncture, and good old-fashioned counseling. And every one of those things were essential, helping me to learn to breathe through the mutiny that would ensue in my mind and body, helping me to understand the place where my anxiety came from, helping me to hear the message of compassion and self-love.
But the real cure for me was about loyalty. Even while all of those healing methods, both holistic and traditional, nurtured me, I was still looking outward, avoiding the one source who had to do the healing: me.
Enter the Scully metaphor. Dogs are well known to be man’s best friend. No matter how unattractive you
may look, how appallingly you may behave, or how long may have been gone, your dog wants your company. In my direst of anxiety-ridden moments, when I dreamed of what it would be like when anxiety would stop stealing my joy, when I could live comfortably in the present, live in my strength, it never occurred to me to think of my anxiety as a sweet, little dog that just wanted my attention and my love. Frankly, even Scully’s fierce, amber eyes and the commitment of owning a dog unnerved me at first.
It started with the courage to be still and look at it, this dark thing that scared the shit out of me. And to accept it, this thing, as part of me…a part that, while it seemed to be horribly wrong and out of place, had something to say. What was the message? What was the need?
What I discovered in the answers to those questions was that the greatest treachery is to desert yourself, and that all of the fragments, however undesirable, are part of the whole Self. When I fled my anxiety, I was fleeing myself. I was sending myself the message: “This part of you is too dark, too scary, too ugly, and so I’m getting the hell out of here.” By picking up the phone and deferring to someone else’s words, someone else’s comfort, I was telling myself: “What you have to say and what you are feeling is not as valid or valuable as this other person’s thoughts.” And thus, I, my Self, was rebelling. And, rightfully so.
Indeed, Scully’s got demons of her own, too, shredding my beloved World Market throw pillow while I was gone one night, and barking when I abruptly leave the house with someone else. Why? Because she wants to be with me.
“Go inside to the self that’s scared right now. Promise her you’ll always be there. Fix her a nice lunch. Go take a shower. You can’t control…but you can promise to be there yourself. That goes a long way.” ~ Anodea Judith, Eastern Body, Western Mind
I trust the day to take up its own space now. I wait to see how I feel and then decide what I want to do. I’ve stopped concerning myself with what I’ll do when I’ve run out of things to do. And when my anxiety ramps up—and it still sometimes does—with racing thoughts and a sick feeling in my stomach, I leave the phone alone. I do not abandon myself. I stay. I breathe. I listen.
And then, maybe I take Scully for a walk…after making myself a snack.
Author: Niki Costantino
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Georgie Pauwels/Flickr