By Mariam Ansar
CN: Anxiety, panic attacks
My room has always been my place of escape. Three summers ago, I inscribed my favourite quotations onto pieces of paper and framed them to preserve the wisdom I’d always told myself I needed. Now, there is one that I think of more than the others – a line from Bukowski: “sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside – remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.”
For all of my qualms with Charles, the sentiment of that sentence has always stayed with me. I remain focused on trying to ‘laugh inside’, to remember all the times I’ve felt that way, every time that feeling appears. It’s a familiar one: the alarm on your phone going off, and you, bleary-eyed and irritable, immediately feeling a stir in your stomach coinciding with the beginning of a new day and the haplessness of dealing with it. Those mornings haven’t left me alone and that feeling is the shadow that consistently appears with them, threatening to block out any happy impulse or presupposed plan of action.
The devising of a to-do list can’t offer sustained encouragement. If anything, it makes the world seem smaller, the segments of the day boxed in with deadlines, and every mundanity that presupposes getting out of the door; sitting up, washing your face, brushing your teeth, having breakfast – a drawn out, difficult affair. But being able to ‘laugh inside’ and to go forth, throw the sheets off, swap the warmth of sleep with the brightness of the day remains an ideal, a difficult goal. It is one that makes my teeth hum and locks me to an hour spent scrolling through social media before I can think of showering, before I can tell myself I have thought I am not going to make it so many times and have done so anyway; or have found ways to keep going whilst cocooned inside my bed, still.
“I don’t know if it counts,” I once said to my best friend. “I don’t know if it counts to feel like this if you do things, if you talk to people, if you write the essays anyway.” We were sat on my bed, the cups of tea I’d made for the both of us sitting disregarded on the carpet floor as I tried to make sense of something that had not left me alone. She was quiet. I was trying not to be. “If no one can tell,” I finished, looking her in the eye, swallowing the lump in my throat. “That anything is wrong.”
When she told me about patterns in behaviour for those with high-functioning anxiety, I was thinking about my to-do lists and all the time I spent obsessively thinking of what to wear, nervously adjusting my posture and behaviour when out in public, sending week-long apologetic messages to those waiting for responses that demanded energy I wasn’t sure I had, feeling alone when surrounded by people, marred by the shrill of my own voice, feigning friendliness, and the other one, the one that always whispered, low and menacing: I’m not good enough. I can never be good enough. I taint every friendship. I can’t offer anything to anyone. I am selfish. I am unlikable, ugly, annoying. A waste of space. A fake. Suddenly, the pet that I had not welcomed into my life, that had attached itself to me, that fed off me as I fed off it, had a name.
I was once working in the library, the prospect of a midday deadline looming; it was a busy time, students milling around and the clatter of keyboards going sounding relentlessly. I paused, squinting at my laptop screen as I realised I needed a book situated on the bottom floor. But when I looked up, the mass of bodies that took up space, the cluster of individuals who could not be menacing one-on-one, but who couldn’t be anything else in that moment, made my stomach drop. Locked in a pose of wanting to stand, and in the fear of wondering why I couldn’t perform the simplest act of going to take a book out, I stayed immobile, frozen in this façade of business and feeling fine-just-fine for a period of time that I can’t quite specify before I forced myself to move and breathe. I took the book out, and immediately ran and locked myself in a bathroom stall, shaken and crying and wringing my hands in desperation.
I only realised a few days later that what I’d experienced was an anxiety attack. I was laughing with my friends, the picture of joy and good feeling, when someone asked me how my week had been. The image presented itself, sharp and vivid. My efforts to never come across as undone rang alarms in my mind as I smiled thinly, remarking that I’d had ‘a productive week’ and that was all. But that anxious process of observation remained, the feeling of a thousand eyes, endlessly watching, forcing more work, more discipline, onto an already tired back, whilst pretending you have no problems at all.
The last time I found I couldn’t get out of bed was this morning. There is no tragedy that stalls more than one you recognise as wholly incomprehensible, but I am learning to not see it as damning. I thought about that Bukowski line, and whether it was naïve of me to try to put all of my thoughts into a sentence that, regardless, understands a difficulty I can’t always confront as best as I would like.
I didn’t ‘laugh inside.’ But I did remember all the times I’d felt that way, and, with my eyes half-closed and the sound of footsteps outside, thought of the parameters around familiarity. I didn’t think of swapping the warmth of my bed with the cold of another day. I told myself to breathe. I told myself I did not ask for a pet and this one did not have to feed off me. I placed all my trust in myself and – with all the quiet determination it takes to be brave – told myself my bed, the day, and my body, could always be on my side, however many hours it took to finally face the day.