Fuels: Materials that store potential energy in forms that can be practicably released and used as heat energy.
At a recent literary event, I stood in a circle of writers who were talking about insomnia, a common issue for artistically driven people. I mentioned that I don’t struggle very much with insomnia, surprisingly, because I’ve struggled with anxiety since childhood, and insomnia and anxiety are often related. I felt myself searching for words to explain my anxiety, as has always been my tendency. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism or measure of justification, as if I have to prove that, although anxiety filters in and out of my life, I can manage it and have risen above it. The truth is, there have been phases of time where I’ve been struck so heavily by anxiety that I was swallowed by it.
Standing in the circle of writer friends, I offered: “It isn’t because of something traumatic. I had a pretty great childhood. I’ve just always had anxiety. It’s like I was born with it.”
It’s true that after years of trying to figure out the why of my anxiety, I’ve accepted it as this: anxiety came with me into the world. I am simply wired this way.
“Do you know any writers who don’t have anxiety?” one woman asked.
The group of us shook our heads. I smiled, feeling a strong sense of belonging.
“True,” I said. “Anxiety is an energy.”
This was one of many instances where I’ve stood with a group of writers and felt a deep sense of connection. After years of feeling isolated with my anxious brain, in the past few years I’ve found people who share this condition, or energy, as I like to call it. Most people have anxiety when a circumstance warrants it (a sick family member, financial distress, a burdensome move), but what about the kind of anxiety that is free floating, that seems not to have a specific, definable reason?
Anxiety is a soundtrack some of us wake up to in the morning, and though it is fairly consistent background music, it varies in pitch and volume.
It isn’t strange that many writers exhibit anxiety. After all, how many non-anxious individuals become obsessed with complexities of character and nuances of plot to the point of writing hundreds of pages and then discarding huge chunks of them because they simply aren’t working? I am often caught in a maelstrom of thoughts and ideas that I must transfer to paper as a way to make sense of them. Or I become fixated on articulating a question or one of the many perplexing facets of society and the page is a blank and silent slate on which to do it.
Writing is something tangible to allay anxiety. But writing can also be an anxiety provoker. I often get so attached to words and descriptions that I can’t put a sentence to rest. I’ll obsess over the clarity of my words until they are manipulated to the point of extreme dissection. But whether it’s a producer of anxiety or an outlet, writing is necessary.
I’ve always been compelled to write. It feels like the needs to create and express have been attached to me since I was very small. As a kid, I couldn’t get my hands on enough books.
I read on car trips, passing the time with my face pressed in words.
“Britt, you’re missing the beautiful mountains out the window,” my mom would say.
“Britt, aren’t you getting dizzy back there?” my dad would say.
“Are you still reading?” my brother would ask.
My fourth grade teacher told my parents that she often caught me with a book tucked inside my desk cubby during Math. She needed me to pay attention in Math. But I wasn’t drawn to numbers and symbols. I was drawn to words and language. I knew that there wasn’t one right answer to most problems. I was drawn to possibilities. I wanted stories.
Reading transported me to storytelling, where I sat for hours at a time, creating narratives aloud. I only needed a book in hand, to feel the shape and texture of the pages and binding. I wouldn’t actually read the text, I simply liked the feel of thick, slightly worn paperbacks from my parents’ shelf. I’d get caught in the flow of storytelling and would stay in my room for hours doing this. My mom bought me a tape recorder. There were characters I came to love and certain stories I returned to over time. This practice continued into high school. I’ve always carried a lot of energy inside me and a desire to exercise my imagination, but I also realize that, since childhood, stories have been a place for me to sink into as a way to soak up my anxious energy.
I used to see my anxiety as a weakness, as something that was wrong with me. But I’ve learned that it’s not a flaw in character, nor a weakness to combat. Although anxiety can be tiresome, it is also a gift that fuels my creative work; one that takes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. Author Joan Didion says you have to pick the places you don’t walk away from. Sometimes it is not a choice. Anxiety requires me to stay and examine, prod and knead all possibility from the yolk. Often this examination brings me to the page. Anxiety jumpstarts new projects in order to place my restless energy somewhere.
When I think of living without the challenge of anxiety, it is appealing, but if this force were to be completely wiped out, I would be missing something that is valuable and necessary for my life as a creative person. I know anxiety well enough to know it will continue to knock on my door from time to time, arriving for a dinner it’s not invited to. But instead of constantly closing the door on this persistent guest, I’ve decided to invite him in on occasion. I no longer perceive anxiety as a solely tortuous or entirely negative entity. Instead, I honor the upsides of anxiety and how it fuels my creative energy.