BY: BENEDICT SMITH
I’ve often mulled over why I’m so keyed up. Is it a genetic misfiring? Clusterfucked logical processing? Ritualized naval-gazing? Internalized childhood bullying that’s crystallized into a repressed psychological wedgie? Do I need to pull myself together? If I could, wouldn’t I have? Working with little more than a half-remembered skim-read of the psychoanalysis wiki page, it’d probably be an oversimplification to attribute the whole kit and caboodle of my neuroticism to one sole cause, but I often wonder.
If, as Plato posited, the unexamined life is not worth living, what could be more worthwhile than a zillion sleepless nights’ worth of excruciating self-examination?
Regardless of its source, anxiety can be poisonous. Small talk becomes ironically gargantuan. Tapping out a simple smartphone message is emotional minefield hopscotch. The present moment is a cigarette paper sandwiched betwixt mountainous pasts and futures. There’s insomnia. Chronic tension headaches. I make last-minute plans to cancel plans. Anxiety is the gospel of second-guessing, and it’s devastating. I’ve tried therapy. Medication. I’ve even considered ending my life. Then there are the panic attacks. The acute feeling of terror and dread is difficult to describe, though I’d imagine it’s a little like being slipped inside Satan’s rectum. My breath races out of control. Heart turns pneumatic. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. There’s vomit on my sweater already, Mom’s spaghetti.
It’s odd then, to admit that I’ve recently fallen in love with my anxiety, given that up until now it’s served as a seemingly endless torrent of negativity and hopelessness comparable only to that of the average YouTube comment thread. Anxiety is a monster. It kills many. Debilitates many more. But as paralyzing as the anxiety kraken is, to be wrapped in its tendrils can be inexplicably comforting. It is a force at turns destructive and generative. It’s not that I’ve begun to fetishize my own self-destruction, but more the acknowledgement of a mushroom cloud’s silver lining. If, as Plato posited, the unexamined life is not worth living, what could be more worthwhile than a zillion sleepless nights’ worth of excruciating self-examination? Neuroticism, though agonizing, can be advantageous.
Photo: Niv Bavarsky for New York Times
My fear of socialization has compelled me to enjoy my own company, deepening my interest in films, music, reading, art, masturbating, overeating and staring melancholically out of the window.
It’s also a creative stimulant. Although I get in a funk fretting over what my readers will think of my work, it’s what drives me to write stuff vaguely resembling something readable. Another benefit to putting on my overthinking cap? I’m always geared up for the worst-case scenario. You might prepare for a rainy day, but have you considered wind speed, temperature, humidity, acidity, and the possibility that this is a terrible analogy? Because I have. Several times over.
When people imagine anxiety sufferers, they typically envision mumbling Eeyorish wallflowers. But I can be extroverted, even obnoxiously so. I worry people mistake my anxiety for misanthropy. It’s not that. I love people, so much so the mere thought of them judging me can be completely crippling. I’m an unpersonable people person. I’ll say the wrong thing in a conversation and have it haunt me for months or years afterwards like some kind of social anxiety poltergeist. Sometimes I avoid people. Intimacy frightens me. I’ve burnt more bridges than a pyromaniac with a fetish for architectural engineering. But at the same time, my anxiety has made me more vulnerable, honest, approachable, and willing to reach out and connect with people.
Anxiety sufferers are typically viewed more positively by others than they imagine. My entire sense of identity is a construction founded on a litany of long-reverberating faulty deductions and assumptions. A self-love deficit can usually be plugged with laughter and saturated fats. Ultimately, if I feel anxious about something, that means I’m emotionally invested in it. I’m grateful I care so intensely about things. It certainly beats the alternatives of numbness, social insensitivity, even blissful ignorance.
Image by:© Dominic Laporte
Studies have also shown a correlation between anxiety and intelligence, and sufferers of anxiety are less likely to have fatal accidents. Further studies have shown that the most effective method for curbing anxiety is practising compassion, whether it’s a small favour or a few kind words. This is another reason I love my anxiety, because the best motivation for me to act beyond my individualistic gratification-seeking is the knowledge that it will benefit me personally.
Anxiety disorders are becoming increasingly prevalent. Some physicians cite anxiety as more common than the common cold. Our age is an acutely nervous one. We long for recognition and validation and approval. Who could tolerate being unknown and ignored on our dusty blue orb? So we’ve created cameras in droves, on drones and phones, mounted onto Google goggles or selfie-sticks, or tripods or iPods or laptops or atop the tips of dildos. To traverse any public space is to navigate a kingdom of lenses. We have an innate desire to document our lives, and we use it as a means of justifying our existence. We need to be observed. We tweet ourselves dry. We become reality telly contestants. We measure our self-esteem according to likes and shares and retweets.
This quantification of self-worth has opened the floodgates to a societal golden shower of inferiority complexes.
Be it wealth, fashion, physical attractiveness, romance or otherwise, we are all desperately clambering for symbols of status. It’s a recipe for worriment. But we are not, by nature, egoistic wolves, ravenously clawing for material goods. Compassion and co-operation are neurologically hardwired to our very core.
Self-consciousness, even anxiety and second-guessing, can be beautiful, if we harness it to reflect on our routinely overlooked capacity for immense kindness. But maybe the universe only peopled some people into existence so it could reflect on itself.