When I first got sober, I often found myself playing a fun little game called, “Is this normal?” The game had lots of rules and rounds and I never tired of it. Also, it was played in teams—me vs anxiety.
The game went like this: I would find myself eyeing a particularly large bill and my opponent would start warming up. Anxiety would poke at the envelope as if it was speckled with anthrax. “Can I move to another state?” my anxiety asked, all plaintive and nutty, “Then I wouldn’t have to open it.” I would slap my hand down on the buzzer and shout: “No! Not normal, open the bill, pay it! That’s the correct answer.” Then I would take a deep breath and pay the damn thing. Round one: me one—anxiety zero.
Getting sober is like getting emotionally sandblasted. It strips away at you, and what is left can be difficult to work with. In my case, I had a whole boatload of anxiety which was was a lot of fun. But, behind all this mess was a lesson. In recovery, there's always a damn lesson. I learned that, unbeknownst to me, I had been bombarded with daily doses of anxiety nearly all of my life. And, part two of the lesson (there's always a part two) was that it was time to start facing anxiety sober.
When I was drinking, I never played “Is this normal?” I didn’t have time. When I had even a twinge of malaise, I immediately scheduled in a tall glass of gin. As a result, anxiety grabbed a bag of chips and plunked itself down on my couch, hanging out and constantly talking, talking, talking to me. I turned its volume down to a dull murmur, but it was always with me, spilling crumbs on the floor, complaining and generally making a mess of things.
Anxiety simmers. It talks softly, until it finally snaps and starts shouting. I find my anxiety starts chirping at me, like a smoke detector whose battery is low, when I am in social situations. When I go to parties my anxious little friend is always with me, squeaking away in my ear about how I am the weirdest one in the room. It makes for awkward conversations and lots of early exits. Anxiety also bubbles over whenever something seems to loom ahead of me. Bills, dental appointments, tax season. I cannot help but take a look at a deadline and pair it with a large mushroom cloud, off in the distance, spreading certain chaos. It’s called a deadline, after all.
When I was a freshman in college, I remember taking my biology 101 book down to my study room to cram for my first big test. I lined up my highlighters on the desk. I loaded up my Walkman with The Cure. I popped open my diet Snapple and put my hair in a scrunchie and settled down. Then, I proceeded to fall apart. I had, at that point in the semester, straight As. With good grades came a pretty solid conviction that I was highly intelligent in every way. Later, I would forget to change the oil in my car for over a year, so that theory was not so solid. But I got As on tests. That’s what I did.
But biology? It was like trying to read underwater. There was a lot of squinting and short durations of holding my breath, but I simply could not get it. Biology was not going to be possible for me. I slowly sank under all the vocabulary about amino acids and peptides. Then I started thrashing about with the conviction that I would get this, if I simply studied harder. Aside from pounding my head onto the book, studying harder only resulted in me getting a C on the test. I remember sobbing, the words blurring on the page in front of me. I could not fix biology.
Now, I look back on that long night and realize that was anxiety. Anxiety grips down and immobilizes. It also constantly shreds the evidence that nothing is ever as bad as we think. Back then, I didn't know anxiety was actually a thing. My only recourse was a list of cliches: buckle down, bear down, it's only darkest before the dawn. None of them helped. Thinking back about my scrunchied little self, I want to tell her to breathe deep. I want to teach her the Serenity Prayer. Perhaps if she had learned a few tools to deal with these shrill feelings back then, I might not have ended up an alcoholic. That’s another big lesson: the hard stuff that makes us stronger. Yes, another cliche.
My husband is an engineer and he doesn’t do anxiety. It’s not logical. He sees a problem, tilts his brainy head to the side to compute, then solves it. He often tilts his head at me and I counter back by calling him my pet name, “Spock.” He can work through his feelings like they are on a flow chart. When I asked him how he deals with parties and the people that are, annoyingly, always at those parties, he said, “They are to be dealt with? Why? It’s a party, not a gauntlet.” With a bit of prodding, and an added scenario that all the party-goers speak Klingon and he can’t, he adds, “Well, I guess I’d have to weigh the cost.” I ask him to elaborate. To ‘weigh the cost’ simply means to work it out to its final detail. If you are going to freak out about something, you might as well stop first and think, ‘What’s that gonna cost me?’ Usually it’s just a major pain in the ass, getting worked up over something. Is it worth it?”
He has a point. In some ways, dealing with anxiety is the same as thinking through that first drink. It might be kind of fun, or cathartic, or just habitual, to freak out, but the cost is high. Truly, though, sometimes anxiety cannot be dealt with simply by “thinking through it.” I have had enough battles with sudden bouts of panic to know logic doesn’t always work. In the past, this would have sent me running for a stiff drink. In fact, anxiety set up its own drinking game in my brain. Worried about a dentist appointment? Take a drink! In-laws are visiting and the house is a mess? Take two!
Now, I take some deep breaths. I pray. I grab my dog and head out for a walk. But, anxiety still hangs out with me from time to time. The greatest lesson, however, that recovery taught me was to be able to go up to my anxiety, extend my hand and say, “Hi. My name is Dana. I’m an alcoholic. And I know very well who you are. Now, get off my couch. You’re making a mess.”