On Being a Fish On Dry Land and the Thread of Anxiety Deep In the Bones

Some days are hard. February is hard. March is hard.

Today, co-worker Oskar is keeping watch for me.

Today, co-worker Oskar is keeping watch for me.

I was standing in a tiny grocery store the other day, white-knuckling some chapstick in my coat pocket while I stared into a dairy case and coached myself to breathe, because I needed to pretend to the staff that I was shopping for cheese instead of panicking about them offering me assistance. I knew my mouth wouldn't operate properly if they did. It would open and close without breathing any air like a gawping fish when it is pulled out of water.

Last night, Eden said on Twitter:

HOW CAN I EASILY GO TO FOREIGN COUNTRIES AND VISIT SLUMS BUT I HAVE A PANIC ATTACK AT THE FUCKING BANK. Stupid world.

And I replied:

I've done scary public speaking and lost an organ to cancer, but I could barely buy bananas yesterday.

Anxiety and depression don't always make sense. You make it through some of the hardest crap of your life — cancer, quitting smoking, and working at sobriety, among other things — only to find yourself facing down bunches of bananas and working out how to behave like a regular person, because the woman five feet away palming heads of lettuce might nod at you or, worse, say hello.

Bananas!

Bananas!

Later, when your partner arrives home after work and asks how your day was, you share some funny anecdote and completely forget the part about the bananas, because the part with the bananas is so normal. Telling him about that would be like remembering to tell him you drank water or sat in a chair. It's only when it's happening that it exists for you.

Of course, it will happen again tomorrow. I will walk to the bank, and the walk will actually be quite lovely, but then halfway through the transaction with the teller, I will have to ask him to repeat himself, because it will all start sounding like Dutch again, and my vision will go dark at the edges, like I'm looking down a tube into another reality. Once I'm done collapsing in on myself, though, I will find that I have coins for the laundry again and treat myself to Starbucks as a present for surviving life.

When I was 19 or 20 years old, I saw my first psychiatrist. We only saw each other for a few months before he moved his practice to Toronto, and he was the only one that was ever any good to me. I loved him.

He told me that we often can't see what permeates our lives, like violence or our own breath.

One day, he asked me if I ever felt any anxiety. "Anxiety? I don't even know what that word means. I've read about it, but I don't get it, so, no, I don't think so." He told me that we often can't see what permeates our lives, like violence or our own breath. "Your whole life is touched by anxiety," he said. "You don't see it, because you breathe it." It's blindness like this that kept me drinking for 20 years. 

After that, I started to see anxiety in my dreams and my averseness to certain kinds of clothing, the routes I chose to walk and how I always ordered the same dishes at the same restaurants, how I never felt like I was inside my body, how liquor made me okay with saying hello. 

I'm not sure what it is that started this thrum of anxiety under my heartbeat. I think I might have been born with it. I pushed my mother away at birth, insisting on distance. It was all too much even then. When I was four and five years old, I checked the backs of my hands to see that I still had dimples in my fat knuckles, because those meant I was too little to die yet. Anxiety is an electric wire rung through my bones and set to a low but constant hum.

This is my paternal grandmother's hand with some tea a few years ago.

This is my paternal grandmother's hand with some tea a few years ago.

I've read that we can inherit fears from our grandparents, another piece of the genetic lottery, and I wonder if I named her, made this anxiety I live with a body, I wonder if I could talk her down, feed her warm milk, be tender with her. It makes me wonder what my grandmothers felt as children and young women before they bore my parents, the fears they kept in their own bones from their own grandmothers more than 70 years ago and 70 years before them.

The possibility of this inheritance, though, makes me wonder if we also inherit the love of those who came before us, carry it in secret as we do our own organs, and I wonder if the balm for healing isn't already here in the meat of us waiting to be called.