I have been living with an anxiety disorder for four years. That’s to say, I’ve known about my anxiety disorder, was able to name the monkey on my back and recognize it as my own, for four years. My undergraduate studies will forever be colored by a apparently perpetual state of anxiety whose description seemed only to confuse people. My parents were disturbed when I told them about it, thinking that something had happened to me, that I was sick. My mother in particular would continue to use the cooing phrase “don’t stress yourself out” for the next two years in hopes that the repetition of that phrase would have magical, incantatory properties. My father simply withdrew a bit, as men are prone to do, unsure of how to help, unsure of how to mitigate the insatiable fire of rage which we call masculinity in the face of what seemed to him to be another parental failure. And this was all a narrative which was thrust upon me, for I never understood my anxiety to be a disease or my parents to have failed me because of it. Sure, it was painful, and the attacks unbearable, and the possessions unsightly, but when the episodes of deep introspection and guilt and self-pity subsided, when my mind cleared after would seem an eternity, I never wanted them to stop, so much as to bend them to my will, to use them. I never wanted my anxiety disorder to go away, to be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy,’ likely because I was of the opinion that it would never cease. From the moment I knew that something was not normal, that I was not like everyone else, that my bouts of “overthinking” were chronic and inescapable, I knew I was strapped into a car I was now forced to drive, regardless of whatever other motorists believed of it or my fitness as a driver. This has been my coping mechanisms for the past five years, living in this body, and it has gotten me this far.
Because I never claimed the narrative of a sickness, I never claimed the title of a disability. I was open about my anxiety disorder during my undergrad years, and would share my story with other students, hoping that they would find some solace in our collective management of a social abnormality. At Swarthmore, it seemed more people had anxiety or depression or a combination of the two than others, a fact which I only began to seriously question towards the end of my time there. Anxiety is, as I understand, a feeling of directionless dread, worry and introspection which is felt both psychologically as uncontrolled, unreasoned thought and physically as tension, aggression, sadness, fear, etc. It is as much a psychological issue as it is a physical one; my body shivers during an anxiety attack, I have a hard time speaking, for my voice suddenly gets hoarse and my esophageal muscles freeze. I have an unspeakable fight-or-flight response, and feel the need to hide away from people until the episode is over, or until I feel I have sufficiently seized back control of my body. But who stole the reins in the first place? It is difficult to tell, if impossible. Anxiety may be triggered by certain events, but it is ultimately context which makes us anxious. The uncertainty of things, the potentiality for an inner, unspeakable depth, the tension between signifier and signifier, between image and imaged – anxiety, if I am to use the definitions of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud, is an affective response to the lapse which trauma creates; anxiety is cyclical, for once a traumatism occurs, anxiety perpetuates the process while at the same time dissembling and repressing the source. Anxiety responds to what is unknowable, unspeakable and undecipherable; it is the fraying end of language and logic. We are not anxious because a boy does not respond to our text, but we are anxious because we are uncertain of the significance and circumstances of such a lack of response. We are not anxious because of a parent’s sickness, but anxious because we do not know what such a sickness will mean for us, for the ones we love, are incapable of knowing what lies in wait, behind a corner we are rapidly approaching…
Despite having done all of this thinking and a decent amount of reading on what it means to live with an anxiety disorder, I have been hesitant, until last semester, about claiming anxiety as a disability. I have, for one, never denied anyone else’s claim towards the appropriation of that title of disabled so much as I have found the idea of considering my anxiety something which hinders me troublesome. And in truth, it took me experiencing ableism first hand to realize that the idea of disability-as-hinderance is itself a flawed and ableist way of looking at the world. Much of my thinking about ability is punctuated by my friend, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, who has epilepsy. My friend was the first epileptic person I had ever met (or the first person whose epilepsy I was made to know) and I was, quite honestly, nervous about being around him at first. I was unsure of what to do, even after he had instructed me, if he were to have a seizure, and the raw terror of seeing his collapsed body was, the first time around, a bit too much for me to handle as a freshman. With time, my fondness for my friend overpowered my own selfish desire for self-preservation and exoneration, and I responded as best as I could to him when he needed me. Yet, I cannot lie to myself and say that I did not see him, at first, as a glowing representation of epilepsy, as the perpetual possibility of a seizure.
The idea that someone’s nonnormative behavior is a burden to those who do not experience it, is for some reason scary, but not because of a fear for the person’s wellbeing, but a fear for the self, a fear for losing the false security of one’s own infallibility, is ableism, plain and simple. It is a desire or urge to avoid individuals who experience alternative relationships with their body, often at the expense of their physical or psychological wellbeing. I did not discuss these things with my friend, primarily because I knew, inside, without even having the language to name these feelings, that what I was experiencing was a subtle albeit invidious kind of prejudice. As a child prone to overthinking and introspection, two traits which are, for some, symptomatic of general anxiety disorders, I interrogated these feelings, attempting to understand their source in order to weaken the power they had over me, and the rift they threatened to make between my friend and me. And I was surprised to find, in all my alleged introspection, that I could not find a source, a line of rhetoric, an indivisible sentiment, at the heart of this angst.
Fast forward to last semester. I am, for the most part, enjoying my first semester of graduate school. Besides a few hiccups of ‘bad vibes’ in the beginning of the year, spawned more by the lack of human contact from acclimating to grad school than a genuine feeling of anxiety, my first semester of graduate school was emotionally stable and relatively anxiety-free. Relatively, however, does not mean free; I was never of the opinion that my disorder had vanished, that I had been cured. Going to the therapy for several years, being on medication for a short time, had all given me the tools to better live with anxiety, but I, always the pessimist, was never convinced that I would one day “wake up and be free” of anxiety, words I once used, foolishly and embarrassingly, to assuage a friend with depression.
My combination of courses had got me thinking a lot about literary semiotics. In particular, I find the idea of reading practices fascinating, particularly within the domain of literary studies, where the practice of reading (its structure) is often taken as a given. All of my readings on affect theory and ordinary language philosophy and Marxist cultural studies for a variety of courses had put me in a headspace to begin to ask questions about the fallibility of a purely reasoned approach towards language and meaning-making. Human beings, as I have seen in my own family, are more irrational than rational, are more likely to give into unspeakable urges (affects) than to govern themselves according the unspoken moral codes. For this reason, I began to look at my own way of reading, at the anxiety which was manifest in me as I read the works of great thinkers like Karl Marx, Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer and Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari and interrogate the reason for that anxiety in order to better understand my place, my stakes, in this kind of scholarship. The result was the draft of a paper for one of my courses, positing an outline for understanding anxiety as a reading practice, as itself a kind of unreasoned hermeneutics.
It was different from other papers I had written. Typically I wrote papers centered around a central primary text, using secondary sources to corroborate my central claim; typical, safe criticism. But this was theory, and I was both giddy to venture into the territory of the theoretical as much as I was nervous about my unpreparedness for such a task. Yet, I felt that my ideas, while in need of a bit of work, were still progressive enough to warrant decent and encouraging comments from my professor. I was wrong.
When I met with her in person, I could tell she hadn’t liked the paper. She opened with a question which really was a statement: “You don’t think academics get anxious, too?” In the moment, I sort of froze. She kept talking, which meant I was forced to keep listening, but my mind fixated on this sentence for a while, unsure of how I was reading it, unsure of whether what I was getting from it, that she, after just having finished reading my paper about how we should embrace alternative ways of looking at the world, had slipped irremissibly into ableist thinking. I put the train of thought to the side, and tuned back into her comments on my paper. She advised that I, for one, remove all notions of myself from the essay, for that made her ‘uncomfortable’ to read about how I was ‘struggling’ with anxiety in ways which – and she didn’t say this aloud, but it was nevertheless understood – do not lend themselves to academic discourse. Considering I had told her of the vastly personal nature of the essay before submitting it, I found these comments disheartening. I was unsure of, in the moment, how to speak about anxiety from any other perspective than my own, and in hindsight, it really has a lot to do with academics’ bitter disdain for pathos and ethos in academic writing. In the introduction of my paper, I outlined my decision to not offer a totalizing theory of anxiety, primarily because I cannot speak on other people’s experiences with their body, and my anxiety is partial not only to me as bare individual, but is fundamentally essential to my makeup as a social human being. My anxiety is inseparable from my blackness, from my masculinity, from my middle-class upbringing, even to the clothes I put on every morning. And because I hadn’t spent years researching anxiety and composing a totalizing understanding of what is itself a unique and individualized experience, I found her comments, attempting to guide me towards a more scholarly kind of writing, ableist in ways she could not immediately detect.
Ableism, like any kind of prejudice, is not solely reducible to the spectacular moments of violence, like bullying the kid with a speech impediment or mocking a news reporter with arthrogryposis. These are significant, of course, because they are the most punitive, and the most memorable. But all kinds of marginalization happen most viscerally and most meaningfully at the level of the micro and the affective. It is the feeling of unfounded disgust at a Black woman with a hot-pink bang, or the feeling of self-pity at the sight of a person seizing on the ground, or the quiet eulogy for the golden days of masculinity at the sight of a young man with painted fingernails which we do consider to be rather incidental, which evade the critical consciousness through which we are trained to understand and identify violence by its shape and not its content, that make up the vast majority of the body of collective and systemic prejudice. The system does not trickle down from the government to the people, but is born fundamentally at the levels of the individual and the interpersonal. Combating ableism, like combating prejudice, is thus an act of fighting the self, the urge to label and to shun, to do away with the troubling presence of others in order to protect the self from what is still unknown. Prejudice is, in a way, a kind of anxiety; we are not made anxious by the things we do not understand, but by what such a sudden diversity of knowledge and experiences represents and means for our own sense of self.
I was annoyed with my professor, but ultimately moved on. I handed in my paper, having listened to her comments and putting them to good use. In its final version, I believe my paper was a fine academic article, although it was markedly different, and quite honestly, not as emotionally compelling to read or to write. This, I am learning, is the way that academics prefer to engage scholarship; from an untraversable distance from which very little is finite and clear, subject to the very opaqueness which gives high theory its distinctive allure. And while my paper amounted to a fine literary criticism paper, at the end, I found that I understood even less about my own condition as an anxious person.
Going into my second semester of graduate school, I am reimagining what I envision for my future as an academic. Given that many Americans, and apparently many professors, experience chronic anxiety, the idea of someone with an anxiety disorder at the front of the classroom should not seem so shocking, although now I am not so sure. Again, the nervousness of getting notes on your article back from a reviewer is different from the everyday dread I live with, brought into being by just about anything. Getting anxious every now and again, or perhaps often is different from anxiety being, quite honestly, a structure to your everyday life. I do not believe my disability will get in the way of my academic career, but will fundamentally inform my writing, scholarship and teaching in ways to which my colleagues may not have access. Instead of adopting and embodying the narrative of sickness and aberrancy, I see my anxiety disorder as yet another aspect of my life I must learn to use and understand, regardless of how the world inevitably sees me, be it as Anxiety Incarnate, or simply another anxious academic.
This essay may be slightly different in tone because it was originally written for a broader audience perhaps uninclined to my style of prose. If people prefer I write more in this style, I will try to make those accommodations.
Photo: Romare Bearden, “Mother and Child”