Uncertainty & Our Anxiety Culture

I’ve been diagnosed, at various times in my life, with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, and with some people, it’s nothing to wear these labels. Many other women I love have a similar diagnosis, as do some guy friends. Women are twice as likely to have (or rather, to be diagnosed with) an anxiety disorder than men. As Americans, we live in an anxiety culture. Work is demanding, home is demanding, looks are demanding, social life is demanding. As women, we live in an anxiety culture within an anxiety culture. We are simultaneously marginalized and the targets of insanely high expectations.

Photo by NicoleHeffron.com

Photo by NicoleHeffron.com

At age 13 I made a general life rule to stay away from trashy girl magazines, and instead subscribed to Ms. during my school’s annual magazine drive. As a result, I feel lucky to be relatively non-anxious about fat or wrinkles. My general lack of TV-watching also helps me to be less afraid of germs and terrorists than others. I admit Jaws ruined swimming for me, and after Psycho I showered in fear for a decade. I also admit that TV, movies, and other media born of our white supremacist patriarchal culture affects the ways I think about race and gender. I’m not immune. TV, even in small doses, does work its magic on me. I once saw a reality disaster show that involved a teenager getting buried alive in a school bathroom after an earthquake, or maybe it was a tornado. No, it was a tornado. Definitely. The image of him in child’s pose for thirteen hours under thirty feet of rubble is seared into my PTSD-addled brain. I am terrified of being so stuck, of no escape. I’ve been there before. 

PTSD has its own place in media. Though it applies to survivors of all sorts of trauma, on TV and in movies PTSD is largely associated with veterans. And while women veterans, especially those who were sexually assaulted by their male comrades, certainly experience PTSD, this diagnosis is largely associated with male combat veterans. PTSD among combat veterans is nothing to knock. And although the military culture of hyper-masculinity has certainly improved its approach to mental health services since the Vietnam era, veterans with mental health needs are still largely underserved. Nonetheless, they make up just a fraction of PTSD survivors. But they’re the portion viewed as “heroes,” while the rest of us are “victims:” of accidents, disasters, calamities, abuses, violence, and other unfortunate or unjust events.

I’m trying to be my own hero. I’m getting myself the mental health services I need. I’m invested in my own healing. I’m invested in the healing of others. I’m invested in drawing some boundaries and breaking others. Though I’d like to, and though in part it’s true, it feels reductive to dismiss these experiences as a set of symptoms attributable to a particular physiological propensity. We all live in this anxiety culture, and many of us have experienced trauma, so why do only some of us have PTSD? Why do only some of us panic? My most recent bout has me crippled when riding through subway tunnels and in elevators.

I read that 10% of New Yorkers are phobic of the subway—though phobias and panic are different beasts, different teachers. When I start to panic, I look for other panicked faces, but you don’t see many of us on the train. Most of us are walking, cycling, taking taxis, or living on a farm somewhere. When I’m down in the tunnels of NYC, sometimes on a Klonopin, sometimes just staying with my breath, I’m searching for empathy in the faces of the other passengers. More usually I see it in the faces of women, but I also see it in men’s faces. Sometimes the faces look like mine: white, female, vintage-coated, blue-eyed, red-cheeked. More often, they look different from mine. Sometimes it’s the faces of elders. Sometimes teens. I’ll ask questions because it’s talking to strangers that quells my monkey brain and accelerating pulse. Most days I only want to talk to women. Some days it’s easier to talk to men. I assume that socially, men have to be nice to me. This assumption, like Panic Disorder, is inconsistent with reality.

I think about my friend who also panics on the train. This friend is male and he does not look for empathy in strangers’ faces. He does not want anyone around him when he panics. He wants to panic in private. In this way, it’s harder to be male. At least if I cry on the subway, I’m just a woman, and not crazy. Or not completely. I tally this up as an advantage of being female. Then erase the tally. Then put it back. Then erase it again.

What’s the reason that after a decade of happily commuting on the subway to work, panic kicks me in the gut? How easy it is to set it all off, like flushing all the serotonin down with the cat litter. Goodbye serotonin! Last summer, I had an isolated panic attack on the subway. I had spent the entire sunny day inside, having eaten the last dried fig for breakfast. In an unusual bout of media obsession, I was glued to the screen, reading and watching everything I could about the Ferguson protests, or “riots,” clenching my gut and fists. I was trying to learn what was happening and why. I was thinking about Michael Brown’s parents. I was thinking about my own parents, who experienced three out of four of their daughters being raped, but who never fear the police. I was trying to learn what portrait the media was going to paint of the events, and was hoping that my predictions would be wrong. I was trying to learn how to move through this white-supremacist world in a white body, and not coming up with any good answers. I was looking for the faces and voices of other women. I couldn’t stop consuming media, generated by people in the streets, by corporate news channels, and by independent media outlets. The more media I consumed, the further I got from Michael Brown’s reality and the more I confronted the deeply internalized racism around me, whether talking heads or my relatives on Facebook. I left my home in the late afternoon, brain racing, eyes dull, and blood sugar dangerously low from not eating. I was going to meet some friends. I got on the subway, not thinking twice. These friends are war veterans. They are all writing and publishing because they are amazing writers and because publishers love a war story. The narrative of the (white) (male) war hero returning home to face his inner demons sells. I think of my own Post-Traumatic Stress and I think of the war stories I’d been watching all day and how there is no “Post” for people of color in Ferguson. I think about what stop to get off at and it’s six stops away and I think get me off this train now. Just like that: tight chest, tunnel vision, hot skin, fear worse than death. So I got out, and I walked nearly an hour to meet everyone and I drank a beer named after a hand job.

Photo by NicoleHeffron.com

Photo by NicoleHeffron.com

Panic works like a contagion. You get one little bug and it spreads rapid-fire. That night, I had subway nightmares. I give it some time. I get hypnotized. Twice. It feels good. I still panic in the tunnels. I read about how common it is. I feel common, which feels better than feeling uncommon. I think about a student I have who has panic attacks. He is one year younger than Michael Brown was when he was killed. I think about his race and his gender and I think about mine. I think about the comments in my Facebook feed by white friends and relatives and the temptation to delete these people. I think about the obligation to engage with anxiety. The obligation to engage with media and with difficult conversations. Even if it breeds anxiety. I think about being written off as the hippie-poet-punk-weirdo cousin. I think about how much I write off. I think about the connotations of write-offs. I donate money and some version of prayer and then I march under an open sky. I am exhausted and surrounded by people who are exhausted. Dr. Julie Holland says, “We need to stop labeling our sadness and anxiety as uncomfortable symptoms, and to appreciate them as a healthy, adaptive part of our biology.” I think about the open sky that I am under and I try to adapt.

A mantra breaks from my brain: I accept uncertainty. I think of all the things I can’t accept, and consider if I can accept uncertainty, the parent of anxiety. Though I’m fairly certain I won’t get stabbed to death in my shower or eaten by a great white shark, I’m uncertain when the next black boy will be killed, when the next girl will be raped. I’m uncertain when the subway will stop in a tunnel, or for how long. I think of war and think about how it must have felt to be in a moment where you might have died. I think would that feel worse or less bad than a panic attack? and I wonder if that’s a fucked up thought. I’m uncertain. I think about how to speak in this white body and how to listen with these white ears. I hear things that are hard to hear and I tunnel and breathe. I think about how I asked a woman why she never had kids and she said because a daughter could be raped and a son could be drafted. I think about my grandparents never having my father, a Vietnam vet. I think about my parents never having my sisters, never having me. I add prison to her list. And the list grows rapidly to include other things. I think about comparisons: the misnomers of “rape accusers” and “rioters,” and I contrast. I think about my friend. The male. The one with anxiety. And how we both pack survival kits to ride the subway or the elevator: snacks, water, meds, books. I think about a war survival kit, a rape survival kit, a police survival kit. I think about the irrationality of panic. I think about adding a paper bag to my kit. I give my friend a calming tea for his plane ride. I replace a negative thought with a positive one. I ask strangers if the subway stops at Metropolitan, even though I know it does. I think about being buried alive because I saw it on TV, and maybe that is easier to think about than other things. I think about staring at screens. I think about collecting stories about rape, about police shootings. I think about how publishers like stories about war. I think about the definition of war, and question its boundaries. I think about my triggers and about violence and empathy. I tell a stranger her bag is great and where did she get it. I think about not breathing and I think about consent. I think about IEDs. I tell a stranger his wedding ring is beautiful. I think about percentages. I breathe. I ask a stranger if I can talk to her and ask her if the subway usually stops in this tunnel. She asks me if I’m a tourist. I’m uncertain.

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