Anxiety: Destroyer of the Subconscious.
“Worry destroys the ability to write… [It] attacks your subconscious and destroys your reserves.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, Paris Review, Spring 1958
Worry and its synonym anxiety are something I know a lot about. I come from a family of worriers and bad-sleeping, anxiety prone people. I’ve seen my father’s body shake and rage ripple through his muscles as he struggles with yet another panic attack. I’ve watched my daughter lose her sense of self and try to escape my home at 12-years-old because of a single spider.
I have lain awake for entire nights consumed with worry and anxiety over how to help my daughter, a work issue, some impending conflict and, of course, love and money. Even the littlest concern or hitch in the day can send a ripple of worry down the spine and, as Hemingway said, attack the subconscious.
I have taken meds, primarily SSRIs, but they don’t work. In fact, those horrid little pills that are given away by doctors and psychiatrists are the medicine equivalent of Pandora’s Box. Once you’ve started, they are very, very hard to walk away from because the withdrawal symptoms are so difficult.
I am in therapy and have worked on methods to find calm even as my mind and body refuse to allow it. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
The challenge is that I’m a writer. I earn the bulk of my income ghostwriting memoirs, mostly for people who’ve survived a significant trauma and found their way to happiness. My work requires a lot of concentration and the ability to place myself within individual scenes from their lives and render them in emotionally taut and compelling ways. If I say so myself, I do a good job, but some mornings I have to wrestle with it.
Again, as Hemingway said, worry destroys your reserves.
I press on and do a number of things:
2. Read good poetry
3. Go for a walk
4. Write and rewrite until I get it right
5. Listen to music (Iron & Win, The Four Seasons Recomposed by Max Richter, and Patty Griffin seem to be working well)
6. Sit in the sun for a few moments
7. Eat something healthy
8. Read elephant journal or Rebelle Society for the calm in other’s words.
These all help and I also work at removing the triggers from my life. I avoid unnecessary conflict, work at treating people well and work at being a good and loving parent.
Unfortunately, I can’t remove all of the triggers. I can’t change the will of others and how they react to their lives and how their choices affect me. Life can also just throw a stream of sh*t at you. I’ve had cancer twice, been divorced, and now do all I can for my teen daughter who’s struggling with hard emotions. I have to confront certain situations and people periodically. I have to make hard choices as a parent and face up to mistakes I make, no matter how well intentioned my thinking was and is.
All of this can make doing my best writing and hitting a deadline challenging. I’m lucky to have clients who appreciate the end product so much that loose expectations around deadlines are forgivable.
It was while trying to re-find the proper emotional space to write a scene that I sought out advice from other writers. I found the Paris Review’s web archive of interviews here and stumbled upon Hemingway and his quote above.
Reading his interview I became envious of the life he led. Not because I would make the same choices as he did with regard to drinking and how he treated people, but the thought of waking up each morning in a beautiful, small villa near Havana and write with morning breezes sweeping in off a warm ocean and to do so with financial security sounds like a good way to live.
I also became envious of the freedom from worry that he seemed to have, until I read the quote above. That quote shows someone well acquainted with anxiety and aware of his faults. The drinking and attitude and relative seclusion he sought make a lot more sense in that context. As does his suicide.
Obviously, he struggled to deal with his own worries and that struggle came out in a variety of ways during his life.
So, as a writer and a person with worries, how do I deal with my own anxiety? It’s a management problem. Learning to manage the feelings as they flame up and tamp them down again without repressing them or allowing them to eat at the subconscious is the trick. It takes work, but there are tools.
Thank God for music, love, poetry… Oh yes, and cats.
Author: James Buchanan
Editor: Catherine Monkman