Today, I decided to keep a running list of the anxieties that pop into my head at different times of day. Here’s what my list ended up looking like:
- Will I ever get paid for a job that I want to do?
- I think the air conditioning is making me unhealthy.
- I haven’t spent a day in the sun in far too long.
- My bug bites look like tumors.
- These headphones have created an indentation on my head.
- I’m hungry.
- I shouldn’t have eaten that.
- I’m still hungry.
- I’m tired.
- I’m too tired to run tonight.
- Would I be less tired if I ran more often?
- What can I cook for dinner?
- I need to write a check for rent.
- Actually two checks, since I haven’t paid for last month yet.
- What if I run out of energy to love my work?
- What if I don’t have an endless supply of creativity? What if there’s nothing there when I try to access it?
I usually have a solid grasp on what’s getting under my skin – like most people, I’m somewhat neurotic, and my neuroses are not strangers to me. Occasionally, a bigger, creeping fear that Holly Golightly calls “the mean reds” will wake me up at 5 a.m., drenched in cold sweat as cruel thoughts hiss through my mind. “You’ll never get a job.” “You have no clips.” “Why aren’t you writing for a newspaper this summer?” “No one liked your last post.”
Holly: You know the days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
But I’ve never seen a list like this, in black and white, staring back at me from my computer screen. The words are so little! And I can make them even smaller if I change the font size. I can destabilize them with melty italics, fatten them up and immobilize them with a click on the “bold” function. Or I can hit “Delete.”
Plus, they’re all incredibly, pathetically minuscule things to fret about. Some are even ridiculous, frankly. I have two years of college ahead of me before the real world will attempt to gobble me up. I will never run consistently for more than a few months because I don’t like exercise, and that’s just who I am. I’ll probably always be tired, because who isn’t? So far it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything.
I’m not going to force myself to make a list of things I’m grateful for to balance this out, and I’m not going to set any lofty goals about replacing all of my negative thoughts with purely positive ones. I’m in touch with the many, many good things going on in my life right now. I’m also aware that bottling up negative energy won’t do me much good either.
So maybe this is a possible solution – instead of letting my stupid anxieties bounce back and forth in my mind, multiplying endlessly like light bouncing between two facing mirrors, the secret to a calmer state is finding a release that shatters one of those mirrors. The part of my mind that generates anxiety will always be there, but the other part – the part that makes them bounce back, the part that traps them – seems a little more negotiable. Now that they’re frozen here, written on this screen in innocuous little letters, I see that I can jail them somewhere outside of my mind.
Anxieties are basically the cockroaches of the mind – always just out of reach, terrifying, and impossible to kill. They come from some reality, so it makes sense that they are persistent; they have developed strategies for survival against our best efforts. They are ancient and enduring. But if they can’t be killed, I should at least try to gain perspective – just like literal cockroaches, they’re small, I’m in control, and for this afternoon, they’ve been evicted.