This is a guest post by Spencer Koffman, who is currently writing The Weaving Web (a book about Big History).
I grew up a highly sensitive boy in a loud, chaotic family. I was flooded with anxiety and depression. I coped by retreating into my room and shutting the door. By the time I was a teenager, I had already quit little league, guitar lessons, and many other social activities. If I ventured outside my bedroom, my danger alarms would shriek, so I took solace in the quietude of my safe space. My imagination roamed free, while my social life was under house arrest.
This was the beginning of the dictatorship in my psyche. Anxiety and depression paired into a formidable coalition, who ruled by making sure nothing even came up for a vote. It seemed like I didn’t have choices, the twin dictators were calling all the shots.
Anxiety and depression were a menacing duo. I experienced depression as a force at the back of my head that pushed my face towards the ground. Like bowing before a superior power, I surrendered and it disarmed me by sapping my life energy. Depression colored life one shade of gray. Like the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, depression sucked all hope out of me. On those rare occasions that I willed myself to step out in spite of depression’s grip, anxiety took over and tyrannized. Anxiety agitated my stomach in a jittery, acidic witches brew. After encountering anxiety a few times, “I’m out of here” became my way of life.
The twin powers of anxiety and depression had won. I didn’t make choices, they decided for me. Their biggest victory was to cut me off from my desires. My desires weren’t being fulfilled. Rather than suffer continual disappointment, after many times of not getting my needs met, I shut off desiring. I no longer was in touch with what I wanted. This was not some enlightened Buddhist state of non-attachment. This was a defensive suppression of my life energy.
I gave up, but even that wasn’t a choice. “Giving up happened” is a more apt description. In the political arena of desire, I never had a chance. Anxiety and depression were too powerful.
Many years have passed. I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share with you. Even if the specifics of what helped me don’t work for you, maybe something about my struggle will touch you or plant a few seeds of hope.
Like any good story about battling an evil villain, I encountered a few allies along the way. My first ally was Fairness. I had a fierce sense that life should be fair. All my life I’d heard “Life isn’t fair”, but deep down, I’d had an inner Martin Luther King, who clearly saw the power imbalance, was offended by injustice, and stood with the oppressed against the oppressor. This was true for oppressed peoples, and it was also true for my internal struggle against the tyranny of anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression were powerful bullies. My Fairness ally wasn’t strong enough to overcome them by itself, so I continued along the path.
The next ally I met was Curiosity. Because the twin dictators confined me to quarters, I had quite a bit of time to reflect. My boundless curiosity wandered into forbidden territory. I imagined a more fulfilling life, fantasized about ways to defeat the enemy and wondered why my enemy existed.
Curiosity introduced me to my third ally, The Big Picture. The Big Picture gave me an expansive view of anxiety and depression’s role in this archetypal drama. Suddenly, I wasn’t on the hero’s journey battling an evil monster—my shadow was trying to help me.
Anxiety and depression weren’t trying to harm me, they were only trying to keep me safe. I had survived quite a few childhood traumatic wounds. I had learned early on that the world is an extremely dangerous place. Anxiety and depression dutifully responded by doing what they could to protect me from harm, even though their over-protectiveness turned me into the bubble boy.
Unfortunately, insights from my allies did little to change my life. Anxiety and depression had become part of the architecture of my psyche. It was not easy to change. Lacking flexibility, anxiety and depression were unresponsive to my realizations, and therefore unwilling to abdicate their throne of power.
So, Curiosity started working overtime. Reflection showed me that my anxiety was a danger alarm set to go off at the slightest provocation. The alarm sounded when there was danger, but it is also went off when there really wasn’t danger. I wished I could readjust the setting to only signal when there’s actually a dangerous situation, but it was hard-wired. I didn’t have access to the thermostat to change the setting.
I had a miscalibrated alarm making major life decisions for me. I wanted some say in my life choices. I wanted my life back! And, still that wasn’t enough to change the status quo.
Enter my last ally—Death. Death is the great teacher and is a close relative of The Big Picture, only in more shocking garb. Death puts life in perspective. Death makes time real. Death is like staying at a hotel that doesn’t post the check out time. You know it’s going to end, you just don’t know exactly when.
Death came to me in the form of dear friends dying. As I write this some are gone and some will soon be gone. And, I too, someday will be gone—and that woke me up. I foolishly believed I had plenty of time, and I don’t. (Even if this is one incarnation of many, this is the only life I have being Spencer). If I am here for something—to love, to express, to help—then now is the time.
It never felt like I had a choice. It seemed as if depression and anxiety were in charge. But, I do have a choice. I can choose anxiety instead of depression.
Depression is the default setting. Depression is a mini-death, it keeps me safe by depriving me of energy and hope. But, I can act in spite of depression. Venturing outside the casket of depression opens the floodgates of anxiety.
Over time, I have found that I am able to tolerate more anxiety than I previously believed possible. Usually, anxiety is a false alarm. It is a screeching siren that makes me instinctually want to retreat back into the numb slumber of depression. But, I choose anxiety over depression. I choose to live my life and tolerate the discomfort of anxiety.
For example, there was a lecture I wanted to attend. I was having anxiety leading up to going. A lot of anxiety. I knew if I went, I could just sit in the back and listen. Nothing was required of me (no socializing). There was no real danger, but I was extremely nervous. Rather than sit home and regret missing it, I applied what I’d learned. I decided to go and tolerate my anxiety. I knew I’d have a lot of anxiety and it would be painful, but I also knew (from experience) that I can be with the anxiety and tolerate it. I did go, and I had a lot of anxiety. It subsided at times, but it didn’t go away. What was important was that I didn’t run away. I claimed a small victory. The lecture was disappointing, but I acted courageously.
This is an ongoing process, but the fact that it is a process has been a major life transition. Before, I was stuck in a rigid structure. Now, there’s movement, something alive can happen.
It isn’t easy, and I’m not free of the anxiety. (By the way, I’m not against medication, it’s just that it hasn’t worked for me). I’ve been more successful in choosing anxiety to make life changes having to do with friendships, socializing and career, than I have in finding love. My life is a work in progress.
What I have shared is so real, it is raw. I think that’s why (sometimes) it works. I wrestle with my shadow. That’s why it might not work for you. It is my life struggle, it’s not a self-help formula to cure everyone. But I am hopeful that it inspires you to take a step on the journey. After all, you never know what ally you might meet when you step on the path.
Spencer Koffman is currently writing The Weaving Web (a book about Big History). He is a retired Marriage Family Therapist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Planetary Philosophy at http://www.planetaryphilosophy.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org