I’ve been having a hard time these past few weeks. This is why I have fallen off my pledge to write a blog post every week. I am sorry for this, and sorry to anyone who has been in some way impacted by my manic behavior. I am unsure of the source of this malaise inside of me, this feeling of momentary dread. My IBS has flared up, and everything I eat accompanies discomfort and nausea. I don’t have much motivation to do anything, find my reading uncompelling, have been going to the gym sporadically. I have been very sensitive and prone to jealousy, have felt at times too isolated in a once-beloved solitude, yet suffocated by the presence of others. Everything seems to bring me a kind of disquiet, I cannot pay attention in class, my research has become a chore, and I’m slipping into the kind of “sensory” dressing that haunted me when I was younger. And none of this is new, but the inability to locate the source of the discomfort, the thing-which-is-not-right, is bothering me. I will likely not know what it is until the moment, however long it will be, has passed. And so I stumble around, still, in this momentary darkness, unsure of how momentary, as always, it will be.
This blog talks a lot about anxiety without necessarily making it any less opaque. Of course, I’m no expert. I cannot give you some clinical definition boiled down into potable language for you to walk away with and share with others. I do not know myself and my condition well enough, nor do I have the language skills requisite, to tell you what anxiety is. I can, however, outline some of its features in my life, and hope that through this ébauche, you have some taste of what it’s like to live in dread:
Timesickness – Time is my greatest enemy. It thickens when I want it to accelerate, it speeds up right when I want it to stop entirely. It seems always that I am fighting with clocks and watches, unable to make sense of the fact that I only have 22 years behind me, and an uncountable and unknowable number of years in front of me. They say our generation will be the first to never die (I’m not sure I believe this to be true) but this logical information does nothing to assuage the contempt and the dread I have for time as a concept. I push myself forward in ways which do not make logical sense for someone of my age. I am not special, no, but I am also not necessarily “lagging behind” in life, given all of these accolades whose significance I struggle to understand. Being a graduate student at Yale at the age of 22 after having graduated from Swarthmore College in four years, after having started French my freshman year and now reaching a point of reading fluency, etc., seem like feats that my ancestors and family members may never have imagined possible for themselves, yet within the framework of my own lived condition, within my own body, these things always seem so unimpressive. When I was 16, I imagined I would be a published author at this point, in talks to publish my second book, the one which would “catapult me into recognition.” Such presumptuous, lofty dreams could only figure in the mind of a presumptuous, lofty child, but still I find that I am not necessarily disappointed with where I am, but nervous, ever nervous, about what I haven’t done, and what I could have done. I vacillate between writing manuscripts as “practice” for my first, great, publishable novel, and wanting to publish at this very fucking moment, and there is no middle ground between these two states of being. I have weeks of working at my own pace on a text, and then a random, manic day where I sit down and feel the need to fix the entire text immediately and prepare my query letters. I always freeze at the end, unsure of my quality of writing, of whether or not my ideas, my characters – thinly veiled personae – are actually likable, about the inevitability of rejection, which I will read, always, as a critique of me, as narrator / writer / protagonist. And then there is a silence before the process begins again.
At 22 years old, I have only lived a quarter of my life, but still the panic to be productive, in some way, is disheartening. I find that I am just shifting about, barely able to make sense of the speed at which my peers are moving, even if it seems from the outside that I am the one leagues ahead of others. And everything is relative, I know, but part of my malaise is the rootedness of timesickness as a symptom of my condition, as the scaffolding of my everyday life. I cannot be outside of time, I cannot ignore time, like it seems others can do. Every second, every heartbeat clicks away, and very little has changed. I haven’t published an article in a respected research journal, I haven’t published a short story in a renowned literary review, I haven’t finished my manuscript I’ve been working on for three years, I haven’t yet exhumed the sealed memories of my relationship, I haven’t yet entered a new relationship in order to expedite this process, I haven’t yet found genuine satisfaction with myself as a person, let alone a scholar, etc. At times I am forced to inhabit memory, to go over things I’ve said and done with shame and regret, to unsay and resay things, and at times I am just sort of seized by the void in front of me, by the nothingness and the threat of more nothingness to come. It is very disheartening to be entirely disoriented by time, this thing which only exists, really, because we believe in it.
Overthinking – When my advisor told me that all academics get anxious, I suppose she was saying some bit of the truth. Being in this kind of space, where theoretical thinking and clarity of both reading and speaking practices is paramount, I find that my propensity for overthinking has been stroked and groomed into a positive quality. Others sell it as “inquisitiveness” or “criticality” but I see it as it is – a burden. I remember my father chiding me for not being able to “just enjoy” a film casually playing while we gather around the dinner table, me analyzing its construction, its plot, the subtle ideologies therein in ways I can’t control. To me, the film is a kind of puzzle and I can only see it as a set of disjointed parts attempting to fit together, but ultimately failing to be a united whole. To my father, the film is just a film; it is content, it is entertainment, it is distraction. And I suppose going into literary criticism was a smart idea for me as someone who cannot stop overthinking, but it weighs so much on me. I would love to just enjoy a movie, or just read a book, and not try to make sense of its internal politics nor its Marxist-esque critiques of power, or how Foucault would respond to it, had he read it and cared enough to think about it critically. I imagine Foucault could have just “enjoyed” things. Yet, it feels always as if authors and directors and actors are trying to say something to me beneath and behind the text. The word “discourse” emerges so much in my work, but it is not necessarily just some sexy usage of popular academic jargon, but my way of encapsulating the kind of whispering beneath the surface of texts, a kind of inaudible noise I can only interpret through anxiety, as a kind of inexplicable disquiet. It is not a gift, the feeling of unending disturbance which I have when watching music videos or listening to the same old capitalist rhetoric of love in popular music, and it makes me feel bad to feel this way, especially when my comments, the ways I naturally see things, are read either as pretentious and unnecessary philosophizing or as a kind of unwanted and oft-ignored commentary.
And it’s not just media like films and novels which invoke this response. I have the same relationship with interpersonal language. “Silence is a text” but not only in the archive; the silence between two individuals, the things unsaid, the gestures, the ennui, all of this is detectable, because my overthinking is coupled with a propensity for observation. I see so much and think about so much in response, and it’s not some hermeneutical gift, even if with time I can hone and bend it to some use. Yet, I wish I could turn the dimmer switch of my mind down sometimes, to muffle the constant thinking and interpreting and reworking and reanalyzing which vacillates between the foreground and background of my mind. But I can’t. I’ve learned to live with it, and hope that others will learn to live with me, knowing I cannot change who I’ve been interpellated to be.
Paranoia – I have been fascinated lately by the idea of the shape of language as itself a discursive part of meaning-making which is, however, not linguistic. The shape of language is the sociocultural aspect of language which gives it another quality beyond the framework of a hegemonic and standardized linguistic understanding of language. The shape of language is not just the tone of a statement, the exclamatory rising of the voice which we render in speech in ALL CAPS or with a !. The shape of language, as I know it, in this uncooked, experimental phase, is far more fluid and intangible. It’s “the vibes” of a statement, the “message” of meaningful silence, even if the “message” ‘s content is itself irretrievable. I have grown to understand this phenomenon primarily through living with an anxiety disorder and having to make sense of instances of non-language which signify to me, of meaningful silences, of disembodied statements. It is maddening to have to describe a feeling which has no origin, for language cannot express what it is in its very nature non-linguistic and non-logical. I cannot say “the way you did that bothered me” for the response, “Why?,” has no answer.
I am often paranoid of everything for this very reason. I have a hard time interacting with language, primarily because it is never enough. Words are never enough to convey true meaning, for human beings are never entirely honest with one another. And I shouldn’t bother myself with concealed material, but I can’t help but get fixed on the unspoken and unsignified. More than once my paranoia has revealed something I could not otherwise explain, which has led me to see anxiety as just another hermeneutical mode beneath the surface of a logical faculty, a kind of crystalized faculty which runs beneath everything else, but other times, my paranoia has willed my fears into being. It is at times almost a superstitious kind of sentiment, for only through such language, the parlance of ghosts and spirits and demons, can I make any sense of that which is detectable yet intangible, that which can be felt but not described, perceived but never understood. I understand the finitude of logic in ways which entrap me within myself, primarily because I cannot describe a phenomenon which exists outside of language with language. Even these sentences are just outlines of a shape which has no interior, the extant ring of an absent planet.
Often when I cross a street, after having looked both ways and verified that my passage is clear, I reach the middle of the street and feel, irrationally, as if I am about to get hit by an invisible car. At times, I can visualize the event happening. Of course, this isn’t possible, but I cannot not think it. The thought comes into my mind nearly every time I cross the street, and I don’t flinch as it passes through my mind, even though its presence, and the immediate, infinitesimally small amount of fear it induces in me, is always there.
Malaise – Every few months, I slip into a bout of heightened anxiety I’ve taken to calling “the malaise.” I am in one now, and the end is not within sight, it seems. It moves with me as I skate across calendar days, seems to follow me, or precede me, as I move through space and time. Nothing can cure it; good news, friendship, the often-ruined chance at love; it is simply something I have to wait out, like a charley horse, but of the spirit.
The malaise is the reorientation of ordinary life around the fear of further anxiety, of the dreaded mounting of the anxiety attack which seems always on the horizon but never seems to approach the zenith. It is nearly always accompanied, for me, with intestinal issues and a perpetual feeling of tiredness. I sleep but do not feel rested, I overeat, get guilty, under-eat, feel guilty, and overeat again. I either work out at the gym furiously for an hour, or go for thirty minutes and feel suddenly unable to stay there any longer. I feel as if my comments in class are not helpful or confusing, and the lack of response from my classmates who just sort of stare in confusion only makes me feel worse. I feel a need for reassurance and almost solicit compliments, but find that, upon receiving them, that I am utterly unmoved. My therapy sessions seem too short, or so much is going on that I do not get to talk about the malaises, and I quite honestly don’t trust any of my friends enough to have such an inside perspective to my mind, out of fear that, upon being invited inside, they’ll realize exactly how I am, how the interior of that space is nothing like they imagined, or perhaps too similar to what they had imagined but hoped was not true. And it would be devastating to open myself up entirely to someone like that only for them to realize that we cannot get along, that we are incompatible as friends. A romantic partner? Unimaginable.
The malaise is another obstacle to language, not because the feelings are indescribable, but because they present information which is immutable. There is nothing that can be done, and so it is a burden to know this information for the other person, to know that I am unwell in this very moment, and that I will, in the future, be unwell. With a friend with a flu, you can bring some medicine, cook some soup, or help print readings, but with a friend whose sickness is entirely mental, a kind of flu of the soul, what is there that can be done, other than prayer? Sitting with me and watching TV may ease the symptoms, but the virus lives on.
I feel as if any thing I say about anxiety hinges on melodrama, and in many ways, having an anxiety disorder is like living inside of a really bad psychological novel. Someone says something, and time stops, and I fixate on it for hours while a flock of birds, in the middle of alighting in a tree, remain frozen in the air directly in front of my window. I have to laugh at how ridiculous my mind is, primarily because laughter is all I have left. I cannot take myself too seriously, for I am not the only person suffering in the world in these moments, nor is my suffering in anyways more significant than yours. Yet, it is not something to be dismissed, either. In these moments, I can only think, with the cramping of my stomach, about how I will get through this very hour, and then the next one, and the one after that. I am not hiding my malaise so much as I am refusing to acknowledge it in language to someone else. Even know, I am not writing to you so much as I am writing to myself, and you are, really, just being allowed to eavesdrop on a private conversation between two manifestations of the same person, two unhappy roommates in one very small, overfurnished apartment.
I do hope this post hasn’t frightened you, although I suppose if you are frightened now, there’s nothing I can do about it. My intent was not to frighten you, even if such information, to an uninitiated reader, may seem utterly paralyzing. Yet, fear is not the point. What I seek is understanding and compassion, even if the means by which these things are deployed contrast with what I want. I do not want these to stop so much as I yearn for the tools to live in my body. I would not change myself, even if I have in the past felt compelled to mold myself in order to make room for the people in my life whose personalities outshine and outshout my own. I simply want to be able to, one day, maybe, find solace in the hand I have been given, to stop looking elsewhere with envy for others and shame for the self, at what everyone else has been dealt, to look at my shitty hand of cards and be content with losing at life, so long as I know that, in the afterlife, the markers of winners and losers, the content and shape of the language of the perpetually discredited and the unconditionally beloved, cease to signify.
Image: “The Creation,” Aaron Douglas