The first time I could capture the feeling of anxiety was after reading The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles. Lex, an art student who struggled with mental health, referred to her anxiety as her astronaut suit. It stood as a separating tool—a suit that split the reality from the self. I imagined the wall of oxygen keeping the body from the world and instantly understood what anxiety felt like and could specify my description to others. Anxiety is wearing my astronaut suit.
‘I’m broken. I feel really, really broken and lost. I just want to find myself again.’
‘I know. You’ve got to work at it.’1
Throughout the first summer of my undergraduate, I spent each Wednesday in a stuffy room at the community club. I was by far the youngest there and just that made me feel small. The others looked at me with kind but confused faces, thinking ‘surely not, you’ve barely lived yet!’ And it was true, I had barely lived. My life was made up of education and movies—there really wasn’t much more to it—but something kept me motivated to stay in that group meeting for ‘low moods and anxiety’.
Each of the attendees briefly told their background story, some as severe as seeing another die and others like mine in the sudden occurrence of panic.
‘i was in a shop and suddenly i couldn’t breathe.’
‘i was at work and the fire alarm went off and i just lost it.’
‘mine was at the park—my wife had to take me home!’
But I would always fall silent, organising the stack of paper in front of me into a perfect straight line. Each week we’d circle the numbers on the page to indicate how much we were struggling at certain times. To start out, I circled 6 for almost every part. That meant I was relatively stressed, depressed, anxious. The only number I kept separate was for the ‘self-harm’ or ‘feeling suicidal’. For those, I would calmly circle a 1, in a i haven’t really thought about it kind of way. I’m sure I had, but there was no need to pull away from Peter since he could barely leave the house each day. We would congratulate him each time he reported his occasional trips to the supermarket. His wife was away one week and he worked himself up so much that he spent the whole week inside and couldn’t even walk his dog. After that, with the support of his wife, he began making trips to the end of the drive to bring the bins in and out. His wife would often drop him off and pick him up afterwards. She was his support.
I sometimes wondered how he was able to sit in this room for three and a half hours each week without any perceptable difficulty. Though, none of us made it obvious that we were meant to be there, but we were still suffering.
Alongside the numbers, we had a list of statements to add a lightness to our current situation. How do you eat an elephant? Small bites at a time. We learnt about the ‘vicious cycle’ and the domino affect it could have on our everyday decisions. For example: Lisa was feeling down, this meant that she didn’t go out to see her friends, this meant that her friends didn’t think she was reliable, and this brought us back to Lisa feeling down. It worked in many different scenarios. Lisa had a bill to pay but didn’t like speaking on the phone, so Lisa decided to leave it for later that day, but lo, she had forgotten so planned to do it the next day and so on. Lisa was always struggling. At the bottom of the introduction to the vicious cycles page, it said, Eat the frog in the morning, that way everything will taste better after.
On the final day, the instructor of the course took us one-by-one outside to speak about our progress. Do we feel like we might be able to get a stronger hold over our anxiety and low moods? Do we think we’ll attempt our end goals and silently circle numbers if we feel we need to? Do we think we’ll take what we’ve learnt from these sheets into our everyday lives? Do we know our vicious cycle?
‘It’ll come to you one day,’ she said, ‘you’ll notice that overtime things will just click, and you’ll be able to just work through it. Just let it sink in.’
Anxiety can be rooted from a list of things. Several things. What they do is just sit on each other until you have a weight that is too unbearable contain. They all hold hands and dance around your insides. I imagine two-dimensional shapes containing dysfunctional memories and fears creating a vintage cartoon scene. This most definitely reflects my rational fear of Disney’s Oswald the Rabbit and the way it creeps under my skin until I need to shower the uncomfortable tang away. And although it makes me want to be physically and violently sick, my sister does love to tease me with it. I say ‘it’ because frankly, I’m too scared to research its gender in case an image comes up. Oswald is my nightmares.
But overtime, it did sink in.
Each day I circle the numbers.
A few years later, my learning advisor suggests that anxiety might have stemmed from my difficulty in learning. He mentions that there’s a high potential that I never quite felt good enough. He tells me that my working-memory isn’t very good after I list few examples of what it feels like in my head. I say that I struggle concentrating, reading, and understanding and he sympathises with me. He even tells me to note down the astronaut suit—‘write that down!’, and so I do.