When something’s wrong with me, I woolgather and intellectualize, so I’d like to share with other anxiety sufferers (1 in 6 of us, according to several statistics) the resources and wisdom I’ve accumulated in the weeks since I got knocked sideways.
But first … real quicksies, a heartfelt and snot-teary shoutout to the people who pinged, commented, texted, called, let me come over and be part of their household for a night or three, took me for a walk, shared their own struggles, their therapist’s contact info, and didn’t reject or alienate me. When you need anything, I’ll be your rock. I’m a really good rock for anyone who isn’t me.
Here’s what I’ve learned, in a nutshell:
- My id (subconscious, inner child, whathaveyou) wants things that are messy and inconvenient like to make art, get mad, laugh a lot, and be adored. Yours does, too. It’s pretty universal, and is about 3-4 years old.
- My superego is a nervous Nellie that thinks we need to be good, be quiet, accept what we are given, and not make a fool of ourselves. Yours does, too. This is also universal, and is about 14 years old.
- Your ego acts as a parent to both children. If you’re an actual parent, you’re probably pretty good at this. I can think of several of you I’d love to be my ego. Text me if you think it’s you!
- Anxiety, in the Freudian/Jungian sense, is a defense condition that arises when the id/subconscious is being repressed by that ol’ superego, and the ego has lost control of them both. There are numerous other explanations—from the philosophical to the chemical—for anxiety. But this one seems to apply to me, given how and when it presents itself in my life. If you suffer from anxiety, you probably don’t have exactly my anxiety, just as I don’t have yours. In Atlantic Editor Scott Stossel’s excellent book My Age of Anxiety, he says, “The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture.“ Alison Bechdel in her brilliant graphic memoir Are You My Mother? describes the superego/id/anxiety situation the way my own therapist did. (He called the fact that I read this just days after he evaluated me with the same “that sort of synchronous thing that means you’re on the right path.” Nice. It’s been a good long while since I’ve felt the warm embrace of the Universe.)
- New York has a way of inflaming one’s nervous superego. Unless you’re young or came here young; Growth Hormone has a lot to do with that. Production of the stuff skyrockets around 15 and makes you want to do drugs, travel, leave home, go clubbing … y’know, leave the nest. It’s responsible for that plucky feeling of fearlessness and egotism. It begins to dissipate around 30, which is when one begins to get grumpy about leaving the house, looks to settle down, and starts using the word “shenanigans” a lot more.
- I moved to New York City at 36, well after my GH levels had plummeted. I was feeling pretty solid when I made the choice, and then we had a really traumatic time getting into this apartment, I failed to immediately self-actualize upon arrival (yes, I expected it), and my dog-mother-child died. Thus, the super-protective superego kicked into high gear, and the id had nowhere to go. So she threw a massive fit. Also, years of other things.
- I thrive on feeling good at what I do, necessary, irreplaceable. At the moment, I’m in a job where I’m (non)essentially a ghost. I don’t matter. I don’t talk to anyone and they don’t talk to me. But the id needs to be mirrored, my therapist says. Like a baby needs mirroring. “Okay,” I tell him, “I’m finding another job, posthaste. Somewhere with other artistic temperaments. Then I’m signing up for improv classes.” He thinks this is a brilliant plan.
- Crap. I haven’t done improv in a century.
- Writing used to be how I let the id do her thing, but I’m pretty far gone. I signed up for a couple of writing classes to give me feedback, validation, and motivation. Because being alone with my superego is scary right now. She’s scaring me.
- This is the most important thing, according to my therapist: if you are pathologizing your superego as a “bully” or “critic,” see what happens when you consider that she/he means well. She/he really does. She/he is just trying to protect the group. And she/he is only 14.
- When I was 14, I tossed my room so that my mom would notice and realize that I was angry and sad and hurting. But I didn’t have it in me to actually throw the chair and smash my beloved knickknacks, so I carefully turned things over and mussed them up. When she finally noticed, she sighed, “What’s going on with you?” But I didn’t have the words and she didn’t try to get them from me.
- When I was 14, I painted a convincing black eye on and went to school, telling everyone that mom’s boyfriend, with whom we lived, hit me. He was a speed freak and we screamed at each other a bunch, but he never hit me. Child Protective Services showed up at my house and when they finally left, I was wishing he really had hit me. They doubled down on their efforts to ignore me after that, until they broke up and we moved, a year later. (I left an apology in his mailbox a few years ago, along with my contact info and news that mom had since died, but I never heard back.)
- If my superego is 14, my ego has a lot of work to do making her feel safe and I have no model for where to start. Wish me luck. Send parenting articles.
Also, hug people. (Temple Grandin, blah blah blah.) Pay attention to your dreams. The ones at night. Interpret them from the perspective that everyone in your dream is you. And listen for the message. Things that make you cry are a big clue.
I have a card from my mom, from when I left for college. It’s Dorothy being blessed by the Good Witch, and inside it says, “You had the power all along.” Where our mothers are concerned, there’s no such thing as too little too late.